in Frieze | 06 JUN 01
Featured in
Issue 60

Re-Make / Re-Model

Jessica Craig-Martin

in Frieze | 06 JUN 01

The 'art' of many photographers often comes as a by-product of some other practice: from community-oriented photo studios (James Vanderzee, Mike Disfarmer), album covers or magazine journalism of various kinds - the crime beat, the battle fronts, the ateliers and runways of fashion and the predatory vortex of celebrity.

Fashion and its purview have given us such art-world-certified practitioners as Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, William Klein, Diane Arbus and Robert Mapplethorpe. But there are others at work in the industry who also have something to show us. I was always delighted with Scott Heiser's semi-abstract runway coverage which appeared in Interview during the 1980s. Sometimes details emerged, but the clothes were always alive with motion.

Sometimes courted but more often shunned, fashion paparazzi (the unsung photographers of this cannibal culture) are generally considered a necessary evil - although there are always exceptions. Patrick McMullen has the run of the shows because of his charm, his professionalism and an omnipresence that makes him a celebrity photographer in both senses. Roxanne Lowitt is another star shooter, known for a refined manner and a keen aesthetic judgement. The avuncular Bill Cunningham of the New York Times is beloved because he just seems so loveable and cute standing out there at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street documenting changing plumage like the most devoted of ornithologists. And then there's the dark side, represented by Larry Fink and Jessica Craig-Martin. Fink captures hyper-surreal black and white vignettes at celebrity circus events. He's a cross between Ron Galella stalking the Jet Set and late Velázquez documenting the grotesques of the court of Phillip IV of Spain. Fink's speciality is editing his contact sheets and selecting the most out of out-takes, the one that no editor in his right mind would ever circle with a chinagraph pencil.

Craig-Martin is another master (or perhaps we can still say mistress in this context) of the dark side of society page society. Ostensibly she provides a service to the courtiers of the corporate age. She is out there shooting the parties of global glitz, the endless openings, benefits, tributes and fundraisers, as a paparazza on assignment. That's her cover; her covert and principal practice is more aesthetic, more scientific, more complex. She is a kind of art sniper, getting in close for a kill shot that will reveal ... the horror: flab under sheer silk, augmented breasts out of control, liver spots on bikini lines, sequins against gooseflesh, cosmetics on a search and destroy mission, turkey necks and drop earrings.

Celebrities don't need to be overly concerned about her work. In most of her exhibited photographs you couldn't identify the figures unless you were an international jewel thief or a society dermatologist. That's because Craig-Martin's framing and cropping abandons the famous face in favour of the telling details. The decapitating crop is very humanitarian, in the sense that Dr Guillotine intended, because it separates the subject's identity from the body of evidence. It's not about the name, it's about the technique behind it: it's about the gemmology, about the clothes, about how the paint, applied by a celebrity embalmer (heralded make-up artist) looks on flesh that's seen far better days and infinitely kinder light.

Craig-Martin's pictures are less portraits than still lifes in the traditional manner. They resemble those old oil paintings which depict, for public ogling, the trappings of luxury: the platter overflowing with dead rabbits, shot fat geese, blank-eyed corpulent fish, evicted molluscs, eccentrically anthropomorphic gourds and overripe fruits. The body of evidence usually appears expertly embalmed although never quite sufficiently mortified. The camera is as cruel as the fashion and styling stunts it depicts are vain and ambitious. We see the socialite's world as a House of Wax - a world so inhuman it attains the status of art.

These are trompe l'oeil people, designed to be depicted by an older, less efficient lens. They are giant scrims of personality, made of paint, tints, glittering fabrics and shiny faceted stones. They are never intended to be seen in micro-detail, only through the soft focus of cataracts, corrective lenses and maximum amplification. These photo opportunists have constructed their looks like slides, made in bold strokes for blowing up on to a screen much larger than real life. All bundled in vermilion and banded with fuchsia, glittering with bold slashes, they appear more like exotic poisonous insects, rare tropical fish on heat, or parasitic, carnivorous flowers, than human beings. Which is why we find these pictures as beautiful as we do those of the wonderfully in-focus, exquisitely stalked, insanely colourful insects, fishes and flowers these
creatures resemble.

Plumage isn't everything. In the photograph Clemente Retrospective Opening, Guggenheim Museum, NY, 1999 (1999), a tuxedoed Fran Leibowitz, whose last book for adults, Social Studies, appeared 20 years ago, sits at a banqueting table, alone and lost in thought or something carefully resembling it. In other pictures gloved hands gesture, bejewelled fingers point and cosmetic dentistry upstages cultured pearls. A hand made important by a Cartier Tank watch caresses a sheer stockinged knee. An out of focus Anthony Haden-Guest approaches a woman and proffers a maraschino cherry as if it were the Eucharist.

Gossip star of the New York Post, Richard Johnson, is caught ecstatic in mid-boogie. In a shot of two girls in white leather (Naugahyde? fibreglass?) Planet Hollywood, Cannes, 1997 (1997) we observe women who could more appropriately be described as sculpted or upholstered than dressed. In New Museum Benefit Gala, NY (2000) we see perhaps the greatest perspective study of shoes ever made, featuring the gilded strappy sandals of two women situated in adjacent toilet cubicles. Amidst the revelry every photo is a revelation. We see snake, crocodile and lizard handbags sitting on the floor next to the Blahniks of reptilian old bags. We see three degrees of leopard skin in the same frame.

Suddenly the patterns of a Hermes necktie reveal an almost Aztec cruelty. We observe secret fraternal and sororal deathgrips. We contemplate the fact that diamond is the hardest of substances. We feel the mink's pain. We hear the screams of a million unborn sturgeon. Craig-Martin's art is of showing people the way they don't know they look - crystallizing that image in a mirror that is ordinarily magically invisible to its double. Which is just how Snow White got in trouble.