I Wanna Be Famous
Inexplicably some people want to be famous at any cost, while others are hoping for abduction by aliens, with the prospect of being used in sex experiments. Both groups have equal chances of success. But the really, seriously delusional are those who want to be famous as photographic artists. These unfortunates are professionally classified (according to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association) as suffering from “Type 1 Narcissistic Personality Disorder”. And I am not even making this up.
However, let us start with what is meant by fame, before moving on to tips for getting it, if the incurables among us still think it is worth.
I suppose we can agree that any definition of fame would include such phrases as “popular acclaim”, “known far and wide”, and similar tributes. Now lay back and concentrate. Name a photographer who is famous. Who did you come up with? Robert Mapplethorpe. Annie Leibowitz. Sally Mann. Who else? Never mind… We have enough names for our purpose. The next question is: How many people in North America know of, right away, any one of these names? As I cannot hear you, I will answer the question myself. Probably 150 thousand… More? OK, let’s up the figure to 250 thousand, although I think that this is stretching it way too far. Here is the first conclusion: in a continent of 300 million, even the higher figure does not represent “public acclaim”; it means that the name is recognized by only 1 person in 1200. Now, compare: When Rosie O’donnel declared her lesbianism, she inundated every major news outlet for weeks, including the cover of Time plus seven inside pages, and her coming-out episode was watched by everyone in the universe except me. That is fame. And the second conclusion is: Most of the time, fame has absolutely nothing to do with merit, achievement, talent, contributions to society or culture, brilliance in a chosen field, lifetime dedication… Basically it has to do with sex.
The point is that if you want to be famous the least likely route is via photography. Photographers are invisible in the culture. They do not preoccupy the tabloids; they do not shake hands with Presidents; they are not asked to open orphanages. Fame in this field is not fame at all, but a fickle passing fad of total irrelevancy to the culture at large.
And I will now reveal to you, for the first time anywhere in print, the secrets to becoming a short-lived, inconsequential success.
What you photograph is more important than how well you photograph it. One of the supreme lessons of photographic history is that there are a limited number of subjects which really attract people’s attention. They are: portraits of actresses, female nudes, and nudes of female actresses, not necessarily in that order. The budding famous photographer would do well to bear this in mind… I will be frank with you: Famous people are best to photograph because you borrow their fame in order to increase your own. Like Annie Leibowitz.
The other sure-fire subject for success is anything which is highly disturbing. The more outrageous the images (unconventional sex, dead things, freaks, or preferably all three) the better. The aim here is to get denounced by the Church, the educational establishment and/or a Senator as a corrupter of public morals. It is not a coincidence that Joel-Peter Witkin is successful. His images of severed heads, hermaphrodites and big breasts are as offensive as they are compelling.
Next to sex, Religion is a good subject. The instructive example here is Andres Serrano, who was a photo-nonentity until he cleverly offended everyone in America by photographing a Crucifix in a jar of his own urine, or Kool-Aid, or something. Now he is famous, sort of…
If you do not have access to famous people or weirdos, then you have to cultivate a powerful pusher in the medium of photography. Pushers, once upon a time, used to be photographers, or at least knowledgeable about the field. For example, when John Szarkowski was chief pusher at the Museum of Modern Art, he could create a reputation by stamping “MOMA Approved” on the foreheads of his chosen acolytes. Now that Szarkowski passed away, the MOMA no longer has the power to create fame, and therefore there is no more point in dropping off your portfolio… So you have to suck up elsewhere, like the saunas frequented by rich homosexuals who are not photographers. This was Robert Mapplethorpe’s clever ruse, and you can learn a lot about what is wrong with contemporary attitudes in photography by studying his rise to fame. He was a second-rate professional studio photographer until he determinedly cultivated a rich friend/lover called Sam Wagstaff. You must find your own pusher who is plugged in to the sort of moneyed clout that will do you the most good, but I cannot help you in this matter, as I have never visited a sauna, of any kind. However, if you have a portfolio of explicit photographs of sexual acts unimagined even by abducted-by-aliens wannabees, if you have cultivated a rich pusher, and if you have outraged the moral standards of the nation, your quest for fame is pretty much assured.
Should all this fail, all you have to do is die, for it is no coincidence that all the most famous photographers are no longer alive. Someone will discover your remains (the photographs, that is) and will promote them in order to boost their own income and sense of entitlement.
I know… I know… One or two of you still care about beauty, truth, virtue, ideals and all those words which prompt the gagging reflex in all neurotic fame-seekers. So my advice, although it is hardly worth wasting a sentence on so few of us, is: Face it! You will never be famous or even abducted by aliens, and because of it, in this society, you’re a loser. Like me.