A new exhibition of vintage photographs of iconic figures from the twentieth century, on now at Mayfair's On Gallery, London, asks why we remain so collectively, unquestioning fascinated by the lives and personas of movie stars?
Whilst the images include the 1993 Space Shuttle Endeavour and Winston Churchill, the collection’s focus on celebrity stills demonstrates that contemporary culture hasn’t lost its obsession with rock ‘n’ rollers and Hollywood superstars.
“Pictures of celebrities, or people of note, appeal to our aspirational selves,” ONGallery’s Publishing Director Lance Leman tells BJP. “They are little pictures into what we identify with, or who perhaps we would like to be.”
Sourced from both private individuals and international archives and collections, many of the stills are instantly recognisable. They’ve not only become iconic moments in cinema history, but have become synonymous with the stars themselves.
Prominent amongst the exhibition are pictures of Dustin Hoffman as Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy, Michael Caine as Harry Palmer and Ursula Andress as Honey Ryder.
Chosen for their visual subjects, the artists that took the photos or simply because of the stories behind the images, the exhibition ranges from on-set photographs to publicity stills to traditional portraits.
The collection includes several rare vintage photographs by Terry O’Neill, whose work continues to be prominent in national art galleries.
Throughout a long career, O’Neill became well known for photographing several icons in the movie, music and fashion world. The exhibition features O’Neill’s well-known portraits of Mick Jagger, Peter Sellers and one less seen image of Brigitte Bardot and Claudia Cardinale on the set of The Legend of Frenchie King.
Leman says the exhibit includes the work of lesser known but equally commendable photographers, like the Italian celebrity photographer Pierluigi Praturlon.
“He was a very important photographer during the Dolce Vita period, the golden age of Italian cinema,” Leman says. “He spoke five languages and was the movie moguls’ photographer of choice for their films.”
The exhibition encapsulates the the often strange collective obsession we have with actors and musicians (whilst often undoubtably talented) over world leaders or renowned scientists.
The people exhibited with such care here are without political power or direct cultural influence, and yet are consistently regarded as worthy of our veneration. Leman believes our interest in these celebrities is because they “play out themes and roles that are both part of our everyday, and part of our fantasies.”
Looking at these photographs, what’s apparent is that our interest isn’t merely in the films featured or even the characters the actors are playing – but what these stars represent.
We can watch Michael Caine in his films, interview and quote him. But the still image best captures everything that person represents as a barometer of changing trends in gender, fashion, culture attitudes.
Caine’s bespectacled Harry Palmer isn’t merely a snapshot of an espionage thriller but a shift in masculine understanding. The embodiment of the modern man, a bellwether for a transitional era.
Ursula Andress rising out of the Caribbean Sea in a white bikini doesn’t simply capture a beautiful woman or a dramatic scene from the film, but signifies a key moment in fashion, sexuality and cultural mores, a zeitgeist image at a time of changing views of female sexuality.
But what the photo also highlights is that like many other actresses whose careers remained short-lived, Andress remains stuck in time – the still image allowing her to remain eternal and unchanging, a fantasy view of womanhood.
Leman highlights the sacrifice the subjects often make for their stardom. “They are often caught in a particular moment, frozen forever, their face or emotional self wide open to us, the thousand yard stare, the unforced smile, or a grief revealed in the eyes of a star, who has led a life lived for others, at the cost of their own,” he says.
The appeal in these vintage photographs lies not so much in what they reveal about the individuals themselves, but what it says about the values they stand for.
These iconic images don’t merely offer an insight into their subject’s lives, but into an entire social history.
Find out more here.