Carl Van Vechten (American, 1880-1964), Anna May Wong, April 20, 1932, Gelatin silver print. Image size: 13-7/8 x 11". Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc., 2005.27.4455. Image courtesy of The Van Vechten Trust.
Gertrude Käsebier (American, 1852-1934), Portrait (Miss N), ca. 1902. Gravure print. Overall size: 7-3/4 x 5-3/4". Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc., 2005.27.3225.
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
4525 Oak Street
Block Building Galleries
In the Public Eye: Photography and Fame
March 8-June 15, 2008
Throughout the 20th century, relationships between photographers, subjects and the public became more complex. The public desired an inside glimpse of the celebrity, one that would reveal inner personality. Photographers such as Arnold Newman realized this desire by photographing his well-known subjects in controlled settings, making use of visual elements that emphasized their professional accomplishments.
In the Public Eye: Photography and Fame spans the 19th-21st centuries, featuring figures from politics, art, science, and entertainment, photographed by respected photographers in the medium’s history.
In the Public Eye includes a range of celebrity subjects from the 1860s to the present, including Sarah Bernhardt, Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, Duke Ellington, and Martin Luther King. Photographers include Edward Steichen, Irving Penn, Andy Warhol, and Annie Leibovitz.
“Fame and photography came together on an unprecedented scale beginning in the mid-nineteenth century,” notes Jane Aspinwall, Assistant Curator of Photography. “Photography brought together and defined the best and greatest, widening the field of those most admired in society to include actors and actresses, writers, poets, artists, politicians, and sports figures.”
Technology advancements like carte-de-visite enabled initial mass proliferation of celebrity images in the second half of the 19th century. The invention of the motion picture, the rise of the popular press, and magazine photography propelled the cult of celebrity into the next century. Smaller, hand-held cameras like the Leica, introduced in the 1920s, enabled photographers to capture candid, spontaneous moments that revealed a voyeuristic aspect to celebrity photographs.
Some photographers became celebrities in their own right, through their portraits of famous personalities. To have a portrait taken by a notable photographer such as Irving Penn or Richard Avedon — who changed the look of fashion and celebrity portraiture in the 1950s and 1960s — could make a career. Annie Liebovitz, who got her start at Rolling Stone magazine and later worked at Vogue and Vanity Fair, continues to make witty and powerful images of prominent figures in American popular culture.
In the Public Eye reflects the current fascination with fame that has captivated society for more than a century. Andy Warhol, who said that “in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes,” speaks to a current age of “do-it-yourself” celebrity. The allure of reality television, You Tube, and Facebook.com have solidified the notion, begun over a century ago, that becoming famous simply to be famous — as opposed to achieving fame through achievement — holds tremendous appeal in our current cultural climate.
Clarence Sinclair Bull (American, 1895-1979), Hedy Lamarr, 1938. Gelatin silver print. Image: 12 3/8 x 9 ½ inches. Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc., 2005.27.3902.