Celebrity Photographers

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The recent publication of a nude photograph of the late Elizabeth Taylor highlighted its utter rarity. In passing it is mentioned that the photograph was done by Taylor’s friend and fellow actor, Roddy McDowall, who had been her co-star in National Velvet. The photograph was done when Taylor was 24, just prior to her third marriage to Michael Todd.
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Celebrity portraiture has been an integral part of photographic history. We could cite the carte de visite, in which images of royalty, government leaders, actors and dancers circulated  as collectible tokens as a kind of early social media, and, with the industrialization of movies and print publications in the early 20th century, there has been a constant market for such work. What interests us here is when the celebrity becomes the photographer, and a book of some sort is made.
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Roddy McDowall, for instance, published two books of portraits, Double Exposure: A Gallery of the Celebrated with Commentary by the Equally Celebrated (1966), and Double Exposure: Take Two (1989). Both books were generated by McDowall’s insider status among Hollywood actors which facilitated his access to these famous stars, who he celebrated as divas of the visual, employing the same techniques as the great celebrity portraitists of Hollywood. Another Hollywood insider with a great shutterbug instinct was the silent comedian Harold Lloyd, who was also interested in stereoscopic photography. Lloyd was a member of the Photographic Society of America and he was the Inaugural President of the Hollywood Stereoscopic Society.It is estimated that he produced approximately 200,000 stereoscopic transparencies. Posthumous publication of a small fraction of Lloyd’s work has been in 2 volumes, 3-D Hollywood (1992), and Harold Lloyd’s Hollywood Nudes in 3-D (2004), which include images of young starlets such as Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield.
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Celebrities photographing celebrities can be seen in the McDowall books, and also in Kenny Rogers’ America (1986), which replicates the conventions of celebrity portraiture in a recognizably professional manner. We can also have access to the nomadic travels of the modern celebrity in volumes such as Gina Lollobrigida’s Italia Mia (1973), which is of 35mm black-&-white images, sequestered, as it were, behind a flamboyant color photograph of Lollobrigida herself on the dust jacket, camera in hand, before that Roman landmark, the Colosseum. I have a vivid memory of Lollobrigida showing her photographs on the Merv Griffin show – a rare instance of the art of photography being noted on network TV. One may also note that the book includes a forward by Alberto Moravia. A quieter example of a similar impulse can be seen in Jenny Agutter’s Snaps – Observations of Los Angeles and London (1983). One could conjecture that there is some synchronicity between the actor and the photographer: Both are on the move, from job to job, place to place.
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Dennis Hopper’s photographs were first published in Out of the Sixties (1986) from Twelvetrees Press, and have been exhibited and published numerous times since then. In what was considered a lapse in his working life as an actor, Hopper was also a participant in the bohemian culture of southern California, and from it a unique document of life among California artists such as Bruce Conner and Ed Ruscha, among others, can be extracted.
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Besides his work as a leading man in the movies, Richard Gere is a Buddhist and a photographer. Gere’s book Pilgrim (1997) is a group of platinum/palladium prints of his spiritual travels in the Himalayas.
While we can still identify the photographer as a celebrity with most of these books in that their celebrity confers a specific kind of authorship, there are some instances wherein such distinctions blur, and the author seems fully photographic. Recent publications such as Joel Grey’s Pictures I Had to Take (2003) and Jeff Bridges’ Pictures (2003) traffic less in the celebrity of the author and indicate a serious and deep involvement with photography.
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Special note must be made of Diane Keaton, who has published her own photographs, Reservations (1980). Keaton has also edited a series of books, in collaboration with ICP faculty member Marvin Heiferman, of Hollywood stills – Still LIfe (1985), vernacular industrial images – Mr. Salesman (1993), yellow press sensationalism – Local News: Tabloid PIctures from the Los Angeles Herald Express (1999), and most recently, the archive of a professional photographer from Dallas, TX – Bill Wood’s Business (2008), which was also an exhibit at ICP. Along with other books such as Clown Paintings, and less publicized work in the realm of preservation of the modernist architecture in Los Angeles, Keaton is a unique polymath of visual culture.
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Ultimately, the idea of the “celebrity photographer” is a loose and not very descriptive category. What we can see with these few titles mentioned that there is no defining feature other than quite varied passions for the camera and the photograph. There are entirely different levels of engagement here, and it is more a caprice of the author of this blog to put everyone together, than any individual aspect of these books. At the risk of being maudlin, may I ask for a round of applause?
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– Bernard Yenelouis (on loan to the ICP Library from Cornell University)

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