Monday, September 7, 2009

That's Paul, folks

May I recommend that fans of the late, great Paul Newman throw their eye over the wonderful photographs at this site?

There is an exhibition running in London currently of the photographs taken by Leo Fuchs, who had unprecedented access to Newman behind the scenes of his movie Exodus in 1960. I wrote an essay about the peculiar intimacy of the portraits in this and another current exhibition of Brigitte Bardot pictures (also in London - dang!)for the Irish Independent's Review section last Saturday. Take a look:

THEY DON’T TAKE THEM LIKE THEY USED TO: Photographic exhibitions of two movie icons show that for a brief moment in the history of celebrity the camera could be candid, but also kind.

IN the shrinking bubble of glamour surrounding Hollywood stars the red carpet is a last refuge of idolatry. They come dressed in full armour: megawatt smile firmly fixed on their flawlessly made-up face, body moulded by designer labels.

Only there, and in carefully orchestrated studio photoshoots, do they retain control over their image. The rest of the time they seem to be fighting a losing battle against the paparazzi, for whom no angle is too unflattering, no activity too plebian to be snapped.

Pleasingly, photographic exhibitions of movie icons Paul Newman and Brigitte Bardot, which are currently running in London, show there was once a golden middle-ground of celebrity photo reportage.

The previously unpublished shots of Newman, who died last year, were taken during the filming of Exodus in 1960 and are imbued with a relaxed intimacy. The photographer Leo Fuchs was given free rein (CORR) on set, and Newman extended that welcome to allow him to snap away as he rested between takes in Israel with his wife
Joanne Woodward and also at their home in Paris.

The title of the Bardot exhibition, Brigitte Bardot and the Original Paparazzi, would suggest that the mood of those photographs should be less convivial. In fact, shot around the late 1950s and early 1960s, they share some common ground with the Newman pictures. Bardot seems comfortably aware of the camera, coyly tilting her eyes away to suggest her innocence of being photographed but angling her body towards the lens nonetheless.

The composure of both stars in the apparently candid shots subtly endorses their iconic status. They are doing ordinary things – walking the dog, smoking a cigarette - but they look extraordinary doing them.

Newman in particular is better served by the photos Fuchs took of him reclining elegantly at his poolside than he would have been by a stiff studio portrait. He exudes absolute cool executing a perfect handstand on the diving board. While any other man might look foolish playing table tennis in tiny bathing trunks, his wry grin and honed torso invite admiration.

“We tend to be nostalgic about our past and these photos were taken at a particular time when the myth of the celebrity – and that of the paparazzi – were both growing,” says Alexandre Fuchs, son of Leo. “People wanted to have a relationship with these celebrities, but at that time there weren’t many photos that drew people into their lives.”

The pictures also convey a huge sense of trust between star and photographer. They capture tender moments between Newman and wife; Newman making a playful grab for her at the picnic table, she leaning into him as they stretch out in deckchairs like a pair of contented cats.

Alexandre Fuchs, who found his father’s remarkable pictures of Newman hidden away in storage around ten years ago, was not surprised that Leo had been earned the type of personal access to a Hollywood star that is almost unheard of today. “My father had a gregarious personality and he made friends easily,” he says. “That was his particular skill. He almost always had a close relationship with the people he photographed.”

Being allowed to cultivate that relationship was an advantage of that very specific time. Responding to the public desire to relate on a more personal level to their idols, Hollywood agents were willing to let talented photographers spend long periods with their celebrity clients (all pictures subject to approval before publication of course). The pictures were a relief from the old Hollywood studio shots in which stars were carefully lit and heavily made up to highlight the superiority of their beauty and character.

Fuchs was not alone. William Claxton, who died last year, became well known for his intimate shots of enormous stars like Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand. He bonded with Steve McQueen over a shared love of cars and motorbikes and their close friendship yielded extensive portraits for Life magazine despite McQueen’s notorious distrust of the media.

And there is no more eloquent record of Marilyn Monroe’s final melancholic months than the moving shots taken of her by Magnum agency photographers who had been given exclusive access to the set of her final film, The Misfits (1961).

At the same time, music photojournalism was on the rise with Rolling Stone magazine in particular affording its photographers the space and resources to spend weeks on the road with the hottest bands in order to gain their trust. Many of the portraits Robert Freeman composed of The Beatles in his stint as their official photographer from 1963 to 1966 formed the covers of their albums. More insightful are the hundreds of personal photos he took of the Fab Four at their sessions at Abbey Road recording studios, in their hotels and dressing rooms.

The early years of The Rolling Stones were captured by Gered Mankowitz who took thoughtful offstage shots of Jagger and pals playing cards over bottles of Coca Cola, or sitting pensively in a limo bringing them to New York city for their 1965 US tour.

It’s this element of truth – of catching celebrities in their less self-conscious moments – that is missing from the carefully packaged publicity shots of today.

There are still magazines practising the art of the photoessay – Vanity Fair, Life, Paris Match and so on – but they are battling increasingly rigid demands from stars’ agents who in turn are struggling to protect what’s left of their clients’ image after they have been snapped outside the gym without make-up for the third time in a week.

What is interesting about the Newman and Bardot pictures is how they capture a very brief moment just before celebrity lost its mystique. The shot of Newman walking his dogs down a deserted Parisian street is treated like an artistic composition, Newman’s lone figure a reflection on the isolation of stardom. You can imagine a paparazzo today waiting to zoom in on a snap of the dogs leaving a steaming mess on the pavement.

Bardot’s shots are even more poignant, chronicling as they do the fine line between courting paparazzi and being victimised by them. While these shots are flattering, showing Bardot surrounded by admirers or focusing on her immense physical attributes, they open the floodgates to a time when Bardot herself will be hounded by snappers as she leaves hospital after a suicide attempt.

Ironically, some of the most beautiful ‘candid’ shots of Bardot, hair in a dark bob, on the set of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 masterpiece Le Mepris were taken by Tazio Secchiaroli. He was the photographer who had inspired the infamous Paparazzo character in Frederico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita three years earlier, a Vespa-riding celebrity hunter who prowled the streets of Rome looking for stars whose snaps he could sell to newspapers and gossip sheets.

Bardot addressed her own fate in Vie Privee (1962) when she played Jill, an actress besieged by media and fan intrusion. Ten years later, before the age of 40, Bardot would retreat from films altogether and the paparazzi would continue their inexorable rise as the dominant chroniclers of celebrity.

Despite the inital outcry after the death of Diana in a high-speed car chase with photographers and injunctions taken out by the likes of Amy Winehouse and Sienna Miller against paparazzi encamped on their doorstep, aggressive ‘snatched’ shots continue to fill newsstand shelves of celebrity magazines. Feast your eyes on Cool Hand Paul – you’ll never see the like again.

No comments:

Post a Comment