23 January 2012

No Sky in the Eye's Way

See the real "painted photograph" here
How cruel of magazine and newspaper editors to exclude Marlene Dietrich's trunk from all the fun. In the spirit of trash art, I've remixed an already-edited production still (on the right), dismissing Dietrich's face in favor of her apparently discarded torso, an exquisite physical feature carefully constructed by a solid foundation and almost as deserving of idol worship as her legs, whose beauty required no effort. Oh, you probably wanted to see the authentic edited picture. Well, click here and scroll down, where you'll find the No Highway in the Sky promotional shot that misleadingly blurs Dietrich's middle finger.

If you prefer to view the non-digital rendering of the analog-edited image, visit the Painted Photographs exhibit, which will run until March 18, 2012 at the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool. On display from photographer Martin Parr's private collection are the so-called "painted photographs" of celebrities such as Dietrich. Museum goers will see how the press used to crop photographs before the preeminence of digital editing tools such as Photoshop. What they'll think, I don't know, but Sean O'Hagan of The Observer aptly called these hand-edited images "a kind of found art."

Although Andre Breton comes to mind at the mention of found art, I wouldn't compare his work to this exhibit. Maybe Parr initially discovered a press-edited image by chance, but these photos eventually became objects that he consciously sought, given that they represent a collection that took years and trips to the United States to assemble. Instead, this exhibit reminds me of Marcel Duchamp's readymade works, such as the "Fountain" that I remember reading about years ago in some introductory art history course. It raises questions about authorship (Is it the work of the photographer, the pencil-wielding editor, Parr, blah, blah, blah?), artistic merits (Are these press images, which were originally produced for commercial purposes, art? The Open Eye Gallery's "About Us" page would have us believe they are.), and also defacement (Did press staff vandalize these images by scribbling on them?).

That Parr could put his flea market finds in a space devoted to displaying art answers the "Is it art?" question in the affirmative, as far as I'm concerned. As for the issue of vandalism, I wouldn't bother considering it. These images were made to be modified by publications; in fact, Phaidon upholds the practice by cropping the Dietrich image for their online article. Now, who's the author? That I can't answer. Dietrich might raise her hand from the grave, as it was, of course, her face that made the photo (and, obviously, that work of art was all the editors wanted from the shot).

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