The guilty pleasure of celebrity, we can’t help it; peeking a glimpse of the glossy magazines stacked in the checkout aisles of the supermarket. More potent a timecode for our lives than mere dates and decades can be. I remember when Take That were young. When they reformed, I was amazed at how they’d aged until I realised so had I.
The three exhibitions currently on at Open Eye Gallery all feature celebrity prominently. Simpkin’s Richard and Famous depicts its creator over two decades, posed in snapshots with a variety of celebrity figures. He has over 2000 in his collection which began with an infatuation with INXS at the age of 15, and he curates the exhibition differently for each venue. The Australian show will be missing the Pixie Lott image from the Liverpool show because “she simply isn’t known there” while he will include a larger number of Australians.
The curious thing about his show is how easily the celebrities melt away like Tussaud’s rejects when the collection is presented as a whole; the images are of Richard Simpkin, and they are just touristic scenery in many ways, much as the snapshot I have of myself with a waxwork Oprah Winfrey is an image of me at a museum on my first visit to London above and before being anything else. But the celebrities in Richard’s shots are very real, in spite of the unreality on the printed page. He’s tracked them down, wrong-footed bodyguards, and left girlfriends waiting in cars to get these mementos that chart his growth from excited schoolboy into shrewder man. He’s never world-weary, but you do get the feeling that he’s learned to pose, and knows the shot is all about him, the more so the later the frame.
Simone Lueck worked in Los Angeles, photographing women in their 50s to 70s, recruited from a candid Cragislist advert that asks for women to send their photo align with a description of their fantasies of fame, to be enacted later in front of Lueck’s empathetic lens. Yes, the whole thing sounds like some dodgy enterprise, yet the images are anything but. Large-scale colour prints, collaborative portraits, and a sense that in a very Checkhovesque way, Los Angeles really is a place where dreams never die. Some of the women did have dreams of stardom, even made it as far as small parts as extras. You can almost see it in their eyes, that the performance isn’t over yet. A touching look at ageing through an ostentatious framework.
We venture upstairs and find a show curated by Martin Parr, pulled from his collection of publication workprints. Images intended for manipulation before the days of Photoshop, their chinagraph hieroglyphics and carefully painted masking of circumstance give us a glimpse into an art no longer practiced, and force us to consider how images can be used. Yoko Ono gets crossed out of one, to focus on Lennon, while James Dean gets the halo of legend. Mohammad Ali receives geometric chinagraph framing, suggesting the power of the machine, an almost-metaphor for the man himself, and in others, heads bob in surreal fashion, dislocated from the surroundings that have been painted away from them. The confinement of the space only adds to the sense of unease the decapitations engender.
Taken together, the three exhibitions work as a whole to give us a sense of how celebrity functions for us; that it becomes a temporal marker for our lives, that all of us have dreams that never die (and that the notion of celebrity gives just one framework for), and that we often feel a sense of ownership over celebrities, that they are ours to repositions and recontextualize at will. There’s a strong sense here of celebrity as a game, and one that we engage in willingly. Who hasn’t felt the rush of spotting a celebrity in the queue ahead of you? Or wondered what it would feel like to stand on stage for the third encore of a sold out show? And who hasn’t made sweeping generalisations of people we’ve never met, made assumptions founded on little more than the flimsy pages of glossy magazines? And all of this, the show seems to be saying, is profoundly and remarkably human.
Lighthearted, quietly profound, and riveting. All are apt ways to describe this show. If you are in Liverpool, it’s well worth a visit to the waterfront and Open Eye Gallery, to spend some time with it. It will certainly stay with you longer than a copy of Heat Magazine will.
Sara T’Rula is a photographer working primarily in the UK. She mixes developing her own projects with undertaking commissioned work. In addition to this, she writes on photography and the arts for a variety of publications. Online she can be found at saratrula.com and on Twitter at @saratrula.