The upscale neighborhood surrounding the Palm Springs Convention Center has come to be known as the “Palm Springs Movie Colony.” While the area has been an attraction for talent from movie, television and recording studios, part of the attraction was usually relaxation in the seclusion of this quiet desert oasis. This year, Hollywood icons are very much the center of attention and a center of discussion at the Palm Springs Fine Art Fair. The topic is popular, but many aspects puzzle collectors rather than fascinate them.
The fair’s expert panel this weekend on the subject was literally “Standing Room Only” with over a hundred collectors and gallery owners packing into the lecture hall. Titled “The Art of Shooting Stars,” the program presented celebrity photographers Michael Childers, Taili Song Roth and Christopher Felver. Felver recounted how his repertoire of postcard format headshots and recording artist album covers matured into a fine art portfolio of portraits of many distinguished actors and artists. He also explained how the medium has changed dramatically. When Felver began doing this in the 1960’s, he had direct access to the subjects and got to know them and their actual personalities. Today, that is a rarity, as a supporting cast of agents and publicists surround almost every subject worth photographing. The result is often photos that look a lot like commercial photography because they are in fact commercial photographs.
The art world is still exploring the question of whether vintage celebrity photographs and studio stills have their place in the art world. LACMA’s current exhibition of images and icons from the works of director Stanley Kubrick has begun to find acceptance for this idea. The gallery representing Christopher Felver, Zane Bennett Contemporary Art of Santa Fe, is offering limited editions of several iconic portraits of subjects ranging form comic Robin Williams to artist Frank Stella. Single prints from limited editions of 25 retail for $1,750.
Regular visitors to the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are inclined to wince at the prices and the selection. The archives of the Margaret Herrick Library include over one-hundred thousand stills of movie sets, publicity photos and Academy of Motion Picture Arts events, as well as the entire American Society of Cinematographers Collection. Visitors can browse the entire collection and archives for free and order a high quality print for personal use for $35. They are not allowed to reproduce the prints, but neither are purchasers of limited edition prints for $1,750. And if their goal is to bring an important part of Hollywood history into their home, library or college, no other source has anything close to the selection of the Margaret Herrick Library.
Ultimately, there may be a niche for fine art celebrity photographs in the greater art world. But the exceptional hundreds of fine art celebrity photographs that stand out from the millions of news bureau and commercial images look much more like the carefully posed and expertly illuminated photographs from the Richard Avedon exhibition at the San Diego Museum of Art in 2009. The best way to see the difference is to spend a day at the Margaret Herrick Library and compare some of the collection with photos exceptional enough to be featured on book covers in the library’s cinema history collection.