"Fame After Photography," July 8-Oct. 5, 1999, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019.
Bet you never thought you'd run into Linda Tripp at the Museum of Modern Art, let alone installed in an exhibition. But there she is, tattling on Bill and Monica via video, looking just like her Saturday Night Live doppelganger, John Goodman. Imagine how differently we'd perceive Tripp if the press hadn't plastered her Medusa-like mug in our hungry minds -- more of us might believe her intentions were good. The bottom line is that we live in a visual culture, and reality is perceived through the lens of a camera, at least according to "Fame After Photography," on view at MoMA July 8-Oct. 5, 1999.
Packed with a slew of tabloids, magazine covers, advertisements and publicity photos, the 600-object exhibition traces the evolution of celebrity photography since the invention of the medium in 1839. Light summer entertainment at its best, the show is a sort of pop version of millennial surveys like "An American Century," with images of all the media magnets of our time: Bill and Monica, O.J. and Nicole Simpson, Donald Trump, Ronald Reagan, Jackie O. and more (as if you haven't seen enough already.) Oh -- it has archival material too, like the cover of Pamela and Tommy Lee's Hardcore and Uncensored video porn romp.
Princess Diana, whose paparazzi-blamed death initially inspired MoMA photography curator Peter Galassi and guest curators Marvin Heiferman and Carole Kismaric to organize the exhibition, is suspiciously absent, save a photo of her blocking a camera with her hand and a posthumous Star cover.
As if to make the exhibition more museum worthy, a bunch of interesting 19th-century daguerreotypes, cartes-de-visites and newspaper clippings give us the historical back story on celebrity images. One print shows the Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning looking surprisingly sultry, and another shows Friedrich Nietzsche looking rather annoyed by the whole episode.
Most entertaining are old advertisements showing celebrities gleefully endorsing products. A Rheingold beer campaign with Bob Hope, Kirk Douglas, Groucho Marx and others sporting bottles of the brew in their supposed homes, screams "we're famous but we're just like you!" heralding a new type of celebrity -- one whose next-door-neighbor stardom began to peddle the fantasy that fame was attainable and consumable. And there's Marilyn Monroe hocking a Dual Head Massager, lounging in an arm chair with one shoe off, and Joan Crawford in an apron in the kitchen. Yeah right!
People magazine took the celebrity-you-can-relate-to phenomenon a step further, juxtaposing inside stories of stars' secret "real" lives with trageriffic news clips of Siamese twins and abused wives. It's hard to imagine waiting in grocery store lines without it, but the first issue of People debuted in 1974 with Mia Farrow on the cover, all gussied up as Daisy in The Great Gatsby. Cindy Sherman's 1978 masquerade as a drunken starlet, (Untitled Film Still #7), Karen Kilimnik posing as Isabelle Adjani and Yasumasa Morimura as Marilyn Monroe are all hanging a few yards away from Mia, lending a critical voice to the project.
But the art world itself is just as taken with stardom as anyone else. Look how excited everyone was when they heard that Cindy Sherman was dating Steve Martin (an actual star), and about Karen Finley posing in Playboy. For all of the show's thoughtful wall text, it still cashes in on that inexplicable glamour of fame. I can't say I don't indulge in a little celebrity fantasy myself -- no matter how primped, powdered, pinned and propped the pretty girls and boys are, I'm still seduced by a stylized three-page spread.
MEREDITH MENDELSOHN is associate editor of Artnet Magazine.