Man, the 80s and 90s were a heady time for fashion and celebrity. All you had to do was either be a model or someone who took pictures of models (or rock stars, movie stars, athletes…) and you became so famous that people started equating your work taking pretty pictures of pretty people being pretty with fine art. At least in Los Angeles in 2012.
Earlier this month, Huffington Post, while writing about her being honored by MOCA, referred to Annie Leibovitz, rather foolishly, as arguably the greatest photographer ever (which it has since changed…thanks to the guffaws of roughly every commenter, ever) and I dismissed it as general Deitchian bullshit in service to the cult of celebrity. After all, he’s already staged a Dennis Hopper exhibition and has taken up permanent residence in James Franco’s ass.
But then banners started popping up all over LA about the new Herb Ritts: L.A. Style exhibition at The Getty Center (I’ll have more to say about the actual exhibition this weekend) and I started questioning how and why a photographer’s fame became synonymous with his or her art.
This isn’t to say that Leibovitz, or Ritts (or even Hopper in his MOCA exhibition) are bad photographers. Quite the contrary at least Leibovitz and Ritts. (I’ll leave you to discuss Hopper’s value as an artist.) As commercial photographers they’re top notch and created aesthetics unique to them that defined their eras and likely influenced/inspired younger photographers. But does that in and of itself make it “fine” art? And is that a bad thing, if their work was primarily commercial?
Personally, I think it does them a disservice. Venue dictates expectations and when I go to a photography exhibit at MOCA or The Getty Center, I’m not expecting to see portraits of Miley Cyrus or Richard Gere. Their impact is lessened when the copy accompanying the images waxes profound about the slimy octopus on Djimon Hounsou’s head or uses words like architectonic to describe a photo of a model in the desert when geometric would have made more sense. These same photos in a gallery are better received because they’re not elevated above their contemporaries.
And no matter how nice the images are to look at, by displaying them in museums instead of smaller gallery settings, expectations are raised but not met because the biggest draw is their names and fame and fame of the subjects rather than the work itself. Which clearly was a pretty big draw for the Ritts exhibition so maybe I’m just talking out of my ass.
Anyway, I come here not to bury the celebrity photographer, just to question where his or her rightful place is? Do people like Leibovitz and Ritts really belong in fine art museums simply by virtue of having been ubiquitous at one time? How does a photographer elevate his or her work from documenting what’s seen into fine art? And is being commercial really that bad?