Photography and Art

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Celebrity Photographs

Is it wrong to use your position as wife or girlfriend of a celebrity to sell candid books and photographs? Is it OK to capitalize on fame in one field (e.g. music) by taking photos of your rich and famous friends? Do you get to call yourself a serious photographic artist if you use your position to gain access to famous subjects?

Several recent developments have got me to thinking about these issues. First, we have an exhibit going on in Toronto and New York of the photographs of Pattie Boyd. Now sixty-something, Pattie was a famous fashion model in the swinging sixties who got a bit part in a Beatles movie and met George Harrison. She married George, divorced him and then married Eric Clapton. After a tumultuous marriage with Eric, she divorced him as well. Her life and times has now been captured in a tell-all potboiler called Wonderful Tonight, Eric Clapton, George Harrison and me.

While all this was going on, Pattie was taking photographs. From what I can see from her work, she started out taking snapshots and got more and more serious about it and is now making her living as a professional photographer. Her exhibit in Toronto is called Through the Eye of a Muse and runs through to the end of the year in the Great Hall gallery on Queen Street. The title refers to her role as muse to Harrison and Clapton, inspiring great songs like Layla, Wonderfull Tonight and Something. You can see some of her photos here at the Beatlemania Shop.

Have a look at the galleries and see if you think she's a rip-off artist selling private family snaps for $2,000 plus or whether you think there is a talented artist at work here. My opinion is mixed. There are some photos that scream "snapshot" and really don't add much to my understanding of the subjects. But, just when you begin to write Pattie off as an exploitation artist, you run across a picture of Eric Clapton on stage that captures the feeling of a musician on stage to a tee. It conveys the loneliness of a man on-stage with his music.

To me, this is consistent with someone who may have started with home snapshots, but evolved over time, as her skills grew, to a very good portrait artist indeed.

Coincidentally with Boyd's exhibition, there were a couple of other announcements in the same vein. May Pang has just published a book of snapshots of John Lennon called Instamatic Karma. Pang had an 18 month affair with John Lennon while he was separated from Yoko Ono. Here we have someone who has no pretensions to artistry who has accumulated a set of snapshots that cover an interesting time in the life of a public figure. I have no issue with this at all - as far as I'm aware, she isn't selling limited edition prints of Lennon for over $2,000 a pop and the book is there for its entertainment value.

At the same time, we have rockstar/photographer Bryan Adams opening up an exhibition at Britain's National Portrait Gallery called Modern Muses. This falls into another category indeed. Adams is a serious fashion and portrait photographer and an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery is quite a feather in his cap. His photos are beautifully crafted and the subject matter consists of some of the most interesting women in the world.

Coming back to Boyd, we see someone caught in the middle between May Pang and Bryan Adams. On one hand, you have Pattie Boyd, the single woman who needs to make a living, exploiting her older photos for financial gain and passing them off as fine art. On the other hand, you have Pattie Boyd the working photographer who has learned her craft and has created some very nice work. She continues to produce interesting photographs, like a recent picture of Jeff Beck with his hot rod cars. I found it fascinating that the asking prices for her recent photos (e.g. a picture of some monks) were half that of her snaps of famous people. That implies a 100% premium mark-up for celebrity.

Is Pattie Boyd a serious artist or an exploiter of old relationships? The only answer is "yes". She is both. I'm not sure I'd shell out a couple of grand for an old Beatle snapshot, but certainly her recent work is well-crafted and worth the price tag.

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