Friday, April 12, 2024

Norton Photo Exhibit Captures A-Listers Exposed, Unawares

“Ellen Graham: Unscripted,” a small but mighty single-gallery exhibition on view at the Norton Museum of Art, is a testament to its creator’s unique ability to disarm her subjects. Graham spend four decades photographing celebrities, artists, royals and other public figures for magazines including Vanity Fair, Vogue and Newsweek, and while her work has the richness of formal composition, it’s imbued with a sense of naked, fly-on-the-wall vulnerability. Cutting through her sitters’ pretenses, she penetrated their most intimate environs, and captured them as if no one was looking.

This often meant shadowing places, and actions, where no public cameras had presumably been before, whether it’s Cloris Leachman bathing with her child—and covered up to her chin in foam—or Natalie Wood breastfeeding Courtney Wagner. Graham observes Lizabeth Scott, mid-laugh, in a bath towel; an equally jocular Carrie Fisher, in a bathrobe; and Nadia Gardiner, gazing into the lens from a bathtub, her hair a clutch of sopping seaweed obscuring her face.

“Carrie Fisher,” Beverly Hills, CA, 1974

The level of trust these A-listers granted to Graham is remarkable. There’s a singularity to these candids that must have been striking in their time but is especially potent today, when celebrities’ images are so stage-managed and airbrushed and committee-controlled and IG-filtered that they risk reducing flesh-and-blood people to wax figures. That’s never a concern in Graham’s art, which dares to portray glamorous people in exhausted, untidy moments, their iconic visages frequently hidden.

We see a partially undressed Helmut Berger, shielding his eyes while collapsing onto a messy bed. Graham shot Warren Beatty in a state of rest in his own arms, his eyes closed, his lips curled into a beatific smile. We don’t see any of Marlene Dietrich’s face, just a helmet of blond hair atop an extravagant fur coat. Even a performance photo of Barbra Streisand is unorthodox: Babs’ outstretched arm partially covers her face, and half the frame is a black void of negative space.

“Sharon Tate,” Beverly Hills, CA, 1968

And when an opportunity arose for a bit of playful self-awareness, Graham embraced it. French chanteuse Marie Laforêt is shown sitting on her sofa directly below a painting of a nearly identical figure, in a nearly identical position (Is it herself? A relative?). We see the French viscountess Jacqueline de Ribes window-shopping one of her own designs on a storefront mannequin, a meta-commentary on celebrities existing within their own bubbles.

That metaphor suggests part of Graham’s genius: She had the gift of determining when to puncture that bubble, and when to let it float effortlessly into the ether.

“Ellen Graham: Unscripted” runs through June 16 at the Norton, 1450 S. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach. Museum admission is $18 general admission and $15 for seniors. Call 561/832-5196 or visit norton.org.


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John Thomason
John Thomason
As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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