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Brigitte Bardot at the James Hyman Gallery

HELEN LENARDUZZI: Britney Spears sits in a barber’s chair, her vacant eyes, rimmed with smeared mascara, gaze through the glass of the mirror as she runs the razor over her partially naked scalp. Meanwhile, hundreds of camera flashes rebound off the shop window, each signifying another angle, another second of this personal meltdown that will be touted for thousands of dollars and festoon the front pages of tabloids for days and weeks to come. A year on and the same expression stares, unfocussed, down the lens of cameras as she is wheeled into the back of an ambulance, headed for an L.A. hospital following a police stand-off at her home. “How tragic,” shoppers think to themselves as they hand the latest copy of the celebrity magazine over at the till, thinking back to the first image of Spears in pig-tails and track-suit bottoms, singing nonsensical lyrics to a high-school sweetheart.

 Now reproductions of these images of the destruction of an icon probably lie faded and fluttering in desolate landfills. But imagine a time when these same images could sit on the stark walls of a Central London gallery, with a credit and calculated price on an adjacent placard.  Is it possible that such opportunistic shots could eventually be elevated to “oeuvres d’art?”  Are the sole ingredients necessary to transform a lowly “paparazzo” into an ingratiated and approved “photographer” the passing of time and the good fortune to have been equipped with a camera in the presence of an enduring icon on a walkabout? If the title of the current exhibition at the John Hyman Gallery is any indication, then the answer would be a likely “Yes.” However, Brigitte Bardot and the Original Paparazzi: An Exhibition of Rare and Original Vintage Photographs is an exhibition perhaps as confused as a Photography postgraduate who suddenly realises that he spends his time walking backwards as quickly as possible, falling out of his flip-flops, in a constant endeavour to catch a moment of tenderness between David and Victoria. It is not, as it suggests, purely a collection of stolen moments of privacy from Bardot’s defining years, but rather a mêlée of staged or consensual images interspersed amongst the more unauthorised pictures. 

 Upon arrival I am informed by the attendant that the exhibition is chronological, and so it starts with Bardot preparing for a scene in the 1959 film La Femme et le Pantin (a year before the term “paparazzo” was coined for the purposes of Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita). But the gelatin silver print is a 1978/80 colour reprint by the photographer, Roger Corbeau. As you move around the room you are made aware of the enduring counter-argument to celebrities’ complaints over press intrusion: you can’t court the press when it’s convenient and then denounce them when it all gets just a little too intrusive. And so, it transpires, the attendant was right. It is chronological. But what the visitor is met with is not so much a time-accurate account of events in this particular icon’s life, but rather the whittling away at the relationship between press and star, initially symbiotic, and eventually parasitic. It is more a chronicle of the erosion of barriers between seller and product. Following the walls takes the visitor on a journey through photo-shoots, on-set frivolity, off-set dalliances, first-borns, suicide attempts and career revivals throughout which Bardot clearly has diminishing control.

 I very much doubt that Bardot would welcome this exhibition as a fitting 75th birthday tribute, the occasion with which it was planned to coincide. It is not so much a homage to the star who has long-since replaced her glamorous image with that of a bedraggled animal rights activist, but a thinly-veiled reflection on the evolution of the celebrity photographer to the jpeg-thirsty hound of today. So, can we expect to peruse the works of Adnan Ghalib in an artistic context in years to come? That depends upon whether there are depths to which paparazzi-photography has yet to delve. 


Brigitte Bardot and the Original Paparazzi: An Exhibition of Rare Original Vintage Photographs is on display at the James Hyman Gallery, 5 Savile Row, London W1S 3PD Mon-Fri 10am-6pm & Sat 10am-2pm, 4th Sept-3rd Oct 2009.

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