Sunday, January 07, 2007

Grant Gets Close: The Transfiguration of the Flesh

(click on the picture above to view the entire sequence of images from the beginning)

Grant Lamos, a photographer who works mainly in black and white and maintains a photo-a-day style blog called Street Zen, has been steadily working his magic on what many might think would embody an unpromising and mundane assignment. He shoots celebrities at premieres and other events around town, but he shoots them in an extraordinarily direct, realistic, even brutally honest fashion that strips them of the hucksterish aura normally clinging to famous characters, yet he does not rob them entirely of their dignity. And the irony is that by doing so, he transfigures them. Here for example is Abe Vigoda:

By knocking all the glamour out of the event, by presenting them all snaggle toothed and warty without the distraction of color and makeup and flattering light, he succeeds not only in bringing them down to earth, making them oh so very human and magnifying their imperfections, but he also sends them right back up to the stratosphere without missing a beat. The direct, confrontational, right up in your face stance, which produces incredible detail so that every flaw, every pore, every bit of life’s harsh lessons can be seen etched into these faces, succeeds in recreating these totems of material success and monumentalizing them in an unexpected manner. They are the Easter Island idols of a bankrupt starmaking machinery that typically deludes itself about where the value of its properties lies and overlooks the very real and astonishing power that ordinary daily life conceals. They are like ancient runes, Ur-celebrities, whose features we read anxiously to discover the secret of their superhuman humanity.

To my eye there is more than a little bit of Weegee in this series. The puckish, ironic and deflatory gaze, best exemplified in his famous picture “The Critic,” is shared by Grant, and of course the contrasty lighting, the mix of irreverance with a sympathetic feeling for humanity, the delight in the comic, if not to say burlesque, nature of our pretensions, all are in tune with the cigar-chomper’s wry take on life. But there is much more. Some would jump to the conclusion that the power of Grant’s work lies in its demystification of an essentially empty ritual that seeks to create the illusion of royalty, perhaps even deity, for a secular and egalitarian society. He debunks the whole show, like a perverse carny barker who would have the crowd just go away. But I think the genius of these bracingly intimate portraits is that they rescue the human being from underneath the oppressive weight of all this ostentation and return it to a state of fleshly grace. The sheer lumpy, pocked meatiness of these faces is so palpable, so much there, that one cannot doubt their reality, the eternal leadedness of being. And in recovering that substance, Grant recovers their spirit as well. They are much more vivid.

All this reminds me of another artist, Chuck Close, whose monumental head shots have long been popular in the art world.

His brand of Photorealism, however, had a very different thrust to it, though it too was initially concerned to render detail with an almost unreal immediacy due to its magnification. Ultimately it was not about fleshliness or corporal being; it was about atomization and a focus on the compositional element of the paint – he focused on detail to the point that he emphasized its essential non-human materiality. Grant’s focus is resolutely on the carnal. He makes the “stone stony.” You can almost smell the breath exuding from the forced smiles. Here is his Grant’s tribute to Chuck:

There is something similar to the art of caricature in these portraits. Caricature tends to exaggerate disproportionate features in the subject and give it a force that is larger than reality. But while it strives for instant recognition of the personality by reducing it to one prominent feature, Grant’s work strives for something like what Viktor Shklovsky, the Russian modernist, called estrangement (ostranenie). It is dislocating, disconcerting. It causes you to readjust your coordinates. Sometimes you have to look twice or more to identify the character otherwise so familiar to you on screen, and other times you feel like Grant has captured the very essence of that screen persona. While Robert DeNiro here looks like some boozer stepping out of a Paddy’s bar near the Deuce, Nick Nolte has never looked more Nolteish,
and the unfortunate screwiness of the screen character that Rosanna Arquette has been forced to play ad nauseum is here presented conclusively.

Everything is so convincing, so sharply defined that these people appear trapped in the image – trapped in the camera’s flash, trapped on the red carpet, trapped in a role that has subsumed their identity to the point where it threatens to disappear. This is not to say that all the celebrities come off looking bad or ugly, nor do I find the “ugliness” ugly at all. On the contrary, many of the young starlets look quite beautiful: though the light be harsh, they radiate a kind of charisma still, but there is no doubt that many of them have the look of a deer caught in one’s headlights and they seem almost hysterical at times. While Hilary Swank seems somewhat grotesque in terms of the exaggerated features, it is not disagreeable; but Paris Hilton’s self satisfied vixen is somehow, even though she is quite fetching in her furs and her face betrays no flaws.

In the end this lapse into vivid carnality, this pratfall from an illicit grace, is just what saves them all and makes them all the more memorable. Grant has cast them in the role of a lifetime, to play themselves with unimpeachable conviction, and the interpretations, while not freely given, are endlessly surprising.


morgan_hagar said...

Nice entry Jon. I've enjoyed Grant's work for a couple of years now and it's nice to see others recognize him.

Jeremy said...

Cheers for that Jon, i never knew his work. Interesting to see.

Gabriel said...

Wonderful! So glad you brought this unique shooter to my attention. Thanks much!


Paul Treacy said...

That Nick Nolte shot is really something.