On "Celebrity" Photographs

Many of the second-hand shops I've been in have many photos of celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe or James Dean, etc., posing as if in family photos or photos given to loved ones. These photos sell particularly well and are prominently displayed, never dumped in milk-crates or other anonymous bins in these stores. They also don't cause a feeling of curiosity and heartsickness like the "real" but now abandoned family photos; rather, they have an invincible veneer of optimism about them, as if confident in the fact that their "faces" will be recognized by all who see them and that their status as ideals or icons of desire will remain powerful.

Perhaps this is just the function we've asked such celebrity photos to play---to create a kind of imaginary community or family or relation where we can imagine we can eternally be their lovers or family members and the identity of the person pictured will never be forgotten, never become un-"celebrated." Of course these "names" belong to many, not one; they're identities are personal in a heightened way yet also impersonal, collective, in the public domain. Yet our intensely personal memories associated with them and with our friends who also like them oddly erase such a generic identity---we remember them vividly for the pleasure they gave us in such and such a movie, etc. At least this is the illusion and the allure.

It seems possible for such celebrity photos to be shadowed by loss too, however---loss greater than whatever tragic legends may be attached to some of the famous faces. (For Garland and Monroe and James Dean and Paul Robeson and others certainly had measures of tragedy in their lives equal to their fame.) I bought one of these celebrity photos, a striking shot of Judy Garland with tomboy-short hair and a sun-bright laugh. It is postcard-sized but was placed in an elaborate hand-carved wooden frame. It appears to be from her late-1950s period, around the time when she made A Star Is Born.

While I was driving home, I began to wonder why there were so many Garland mementos among the photos for sale in that shop. How many of the items came from the lost homes of those who have died of AIDS? (Garland's one of the gay community's favorite stars.) There surely have been thousands of such sales in Philadelphia over the last decade.

Imagine the job of sorting through these photos gathered from an apartment of someone who had died without others to claim them. Taking the photographs down from the walls or out of photo books, cleaning them by hand, cataloguing and tagging them for auction. Walter Benjamin's father's ghost haunts Judy Garland's laugh, for that is like the job his father had in Germany at the turn of this century. And Benjamin's own determination to develop a theology of the displacement of things as the key to the psychic life of an era: how many of his insights were rooted in his memories of his father's work?

In the 1920s and 30s in Germany, Benjamin was fascinated with once-fashionable modern shopping arcades that had become seedy: but behind this fascination may be the ghost of a dusty warehouse housing homeless goods soon to be auctioned, and the blurred faces of men who move through the rows of stacked items tagging and checking them. Such a warehouse (and all second-hand stores like the ones I've been in) are shadowy mirror-opposites of the modern shopping mall: sites where all that was once new is doubled by its shadow-image, all that's loved and lost and again for sale because it is old rather than new....

Viewing famous celebrity "instant" relatives or imaginary lovers in second-hand shops seems different from viewing photos of anonymous people also found there. For these now unknown people once were not anonymous; they have lost what the celebrity faces can rarely lose---a living memory that can see the photo and know "who" they are, can tell stories about them. Even the photos with writing on the back or front, "identifying" persons or places in the shots, have this sense of loss about them, for the writing now marks the loss of memory, the arbitrariness of names, rather than the opposite.

We warm to celebrity photos because they seem "just like us," in our poses, in idealized versions of situations that we can imagine our own lives containing. But with a difference: they make what might have been our own plain lives seem memories that we can securely and eternally be nostalgic for, memories beyond the touch of time and beyond forgetting.

Celebrities are celebrities because through them we imagine our own lives making such a leap into a celebrated eternity of memory. But of course the truly astonishing change would be for a celebrity to help us to understand the opposite. Not just tragedy---celebrities can have tragic lives lived out in public, and frequently do---but anonymity, the descent into a loss that others no longer cared about or knew about, or once did but now can no more.