Staged photography takes many forms but most of the work that might be loosely classified under this heading has an narrow audience. Jeff Wall’s Dead Troops Talk was sold at auction in 2012 for $3.6 million, slightly less than Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still #96 which sold for nearly $3.9 million (1) the previous year; Christies described the Wall print as “one of the most recognised works by the award winning Vancouver artist” which is no doubt true but in reality few outside of the art world or academia would recognise either of these constructed realities. Art photography has rarely escaped from the museum, gallery or the photo book. However, in Alison Jackson, staged photography has one practitioner who whilst not a household name is someone whose photographs are instantly recognisable having featured in the UK tabloid press, on magazine covers world-wide and as the art work behind three Schweppes advertising campaigns (i). Her practice is to photograph celebrity lookalikes in staged private moments, usually topical but fictional re-creations of moments we like to think occurred.
Jackson’s work straddles the art world, she has collections at the SF MOMA, The Royal College of Art and the Musée de las Photographie, yet is published by the tabloid press of several countries. Her web presence reflects this dichotomy; alisonjackson.com is modelled on the Mail Online site and has a distinct tabloid aesthetic whereas alison-jackson.co.uk is a more typical photographic artist’s site. She seems to inhabit both worlds with equal ease, able to explain her motivations for the art critics and buyers yet comfortable in her work having become part of popular culture.
Private (3), the earliest of her four books, contains a broad collection of her earlier work, mostly in black and white but with several colour plates. The first reaction to many of her photographs is to laugh, they are humorous, satirical and ironic; on face value she lampoons celebrities from The Queen to the Beckhams, showing us the moments we want to see but that the paparazzi never captured; Tony Blair frolicking in the pool with Cherie, Sven-Goran Ericksson posing in his Union flag underpants, David Beckham dripping blood in the aftermath of the famous boot incident or Osama Bin-Laden reading the FT. At this level they are satirical cartoons, accessible, often titivating and voyeuristic, perfect for the front cover of Stern Magazine or The Daily Mail; in fact her website lists nearly 150 publications who have used her images and they have become so well known that when genuine pictures of Prince Harry in the nude were published, the press, thinking they were her constructed realties, contacted her for copies (4).
Her ‘subjects’ are mostly individuals who use agents and image consultants to promote and manipulate their image as exceptional and special beings, contemporary demigods. Subsequently it seems possible that the celebrities are the target and Jackson explains that many have expressed their irritation with her work but her exploration of the media construction of celebrity is really aimed at us, the audience. We appear to crave a view behind the scenes, around the fence constructed by media managers and when we gain that access we want the celebrities to be shown as mundane, ordinary, flawed, imperfect and human, brought down-to-earth. Jackson recognises that we are not in love with the celebrities but with their image, more precisely with the photographs of them, millions mourned Diana but of those millions a tiny proportion had ever met her and even fewer knew her; Jackson argues that “we” loved the image not the person so to change the subject for a look-a-like is equally real.
As William Ewing points out “ironically her photographs can claim objective, documentary status, there is no trickery” (5), they are truthful in the way that theatre exists as a reality even when communicating a fiction and she has played on this sense of reality by choosing different photographic approaches that underline the reality of the shots. A grainy long-lens paparazzi view of the Blairs in a swimming pool connotes its candid nature and heightens the sense of voyeurism as Cherie’s bra is pulled aside by Tony. But not all Jackson’s work is as playful, the Snowden-like studio shot of Diane and Dodi Fayed (ii) with their newborn baby, is formal in both composition and quality, a typical Royal publicity release, thereby questioning whether the British public would have accepted an Egyptian as step brother to the heir to the throne. The photographs of Marlyn Monroe are complex at a different level, they do not pretend to pry into the life of a contemporary celebrity, a star who pre-dates but possibly foretells the cult of celebrity, but suggest both the cause and results of her confused mental state whilst offering an alternative and happier end to her story.
Her photographs are less about lampooning the Royals or the talent-less stars of reality TV and more about the culture of celebrity exposé which sells millions of publications and fuels social media. But, Jackson only asks asks one question, albeit very effectively and phrased it in several different ways. It is a pertinent question that goes to the heart of contemporary popular culture where it is possible to be famous for being famous. She asks us to question how we react to her imaginary revelations, would we feel any less comfortable to view a real photograph of Prince Philip paying a little too much attention to a picture of Marlyn Monroe masturabating? Are we horrified, amused, aroused or indignant and did we turn the page to find the next secret exposed? Does it matter that the celebrity has been replaced by a lookalike, where is the division between truth and reality?
However, as important as this question is, it is just one question so both the joke and the thinking behind it wears a little thin with repetition. Jackson has found a niche and however much she discusses the ills of the mediated society, her work has increasingly become part of the cult of celebrity rather than a comment upon it.
Notes on Text
(i) Schweppes ran three advertising campaigns in 2001, 2002 and 2007 that were created by the Mother London agency and shot by Alison Jackson. The campaigns featured look-a-likes in unlikely but somehow believable scenarios. Cherie Blair pinching Tony’s bottom, Margret Thatcher visiting Jeffrey Archer in prison and Tony Blair pulling a Christmas cracker with Gordon Brown. (2)
(ii) Emad El-Din Mohamed Abdel Moneim Fayed
(3) Jackson, Alison (2004) Private. London: Penguin.
(1) CBC News (2012) Jeff Wall photograph sells for record $3.6M US (accessed at CBC News 27.9.15) – http://www.cbc.ca/news/arts/jeff-wall-photograph-sells-for-record-3-6m-us-1.1205822
(2) Sweeney, Mark (2007) Blair and Brown in Schweppes Ads (accessed at The Guardian 27.9.15) – http://www.theguardian.com/media/2007/nov/27/advertising
(4) Silver, Leight (2014) Interview: Alison Jackson, the Artist Behind the Fake Photo of Kanye and North West, Talks the Cult of Celebrity (accessed at Complex 27.9.15) – http://uk.complex.com/style/2014/01/alison-jackson-interview?_ga=1.230224860.1593271351.1381660386
(5) Jackson, Alison. Essays (accessed at the Artist’s website 27.9.15) – http://www.alison-jackson.co.uk/essays/