Monday, April 2, 2018

Gary Busey

Gary Busey, Toronto, May 2004

THERE IS A MAJOR DIFFERENCE BETWEEN TAKING PORTRAITS OF NORMAL PEOPLE AND CELEBRITY PORTRAITURE. Someone running a portrait business - doing head shots, wedding photos, portraits of families or children at their first communion and the like - are mainly in the business of making strangers look good for people who know them, in photos that are rarely seen outside of family and friends or some professional network. It's a straightforward task, and requires a roughly even mix of technical and personal skill.

Taking pictures of celebrities, however, demands that the photographer acquaint themselves with the public image of their subject - the persona that they've either cultivated themselves or had imposed upon them through fame or infamy (or some mix thereof.) I am very fond of a quote by the photographer Duane Michals, from the introduction to a book of his portraits: "There is no such thing as a bad celebrity portrait."

In the paragraph following this statement, Michals explains that people often mistake the beauty of the person in a photo with the photo itself. "Most often, it is an ordinary photograph of a beautiful person," Michals says. "If the same photo were of an ugly person, would it then be an ugly photograph?"

The enthusiastic response I got to the photos I posted last week of Anne Hathaway and Hilary Duff suggests that, by that logic the most beautiful photographs of all are of beautiful celebrities. Your feelings about a celebrity - and we all develop, if not feelings, then opinions about famous people - will go a long way to forming your response to a photo of them, regardless of its technical excellence or aesthetic qualities.

How then, do you respond to a photo of a famous person who might not be beautiful, but whose public image is known to you, perhaps in great detail? How much of what you know - and think and feel - will influence your response to any halfway competent photo of that person? How, for instance, do you respond to these portraits of Gary Busey, taken at the height of the strange, near-infamy that followed in the wake of his previous fame?

Gary Busey, Toronto, May 2004

Like most people, I became acquainted with Busey when he played Buddy Holly in the 1978 biopic about the early rock and roll star and his tragic death. He was an oversized actor who seemed to shoehorn himself into his character roles, and it was no surprise that his personal life turned out to be chaotic and out of control, and defined by a massive motorcycle accident he had in 1988 (no helmet; massive head trauma that lead to brain damage) and a cocaine overdose seven years later.

By the 2000s, reality TV and celebrity-obsessed media had produced a place where damaged celebrities, has-beens and the infamous could have new careers in a kind of anti-fame, fed by reality television and hundred of websites devoted to the full toxic flower of celebrity and pop culture. Busey had found a place in this, flaunting his outsized oddness as a mix of magus and holy fool. It was this Busey that I photographed for the free daily.

Busey was involved with seven films in 2004, the year after his reality TV show I'm With Busey had aired. I can't be sure just what he was publicizing when I took these photos, but he was mainly selling his public persona for my camera. The first half of the shoot involved some ferocious mugging for my camera, and some shots - not included here - where it was hard not to notice that his face had been put back together without quite achieving symmetry.

For the second half of our brief shoot, he called a halt to the proceedings to light up a cigar, moving the shoot to a spot by a window where a shaft of sunlight would fight with his cigar smoke. I can't be sure, even today, how much of this was an act, intended to sell this altered persona - a product of his troubled life history, to be sure, but at the same time an evolution from the public image that was part of his fame previous to any accidents or overdoses.

What I do know is that there's some qualitative, essential difference between a bunch of snapshots you might take of a wannabe badass, goofball buddy of yours, mugging and gurning for your phone and the 112 followers on your Instagram account, trying to project a devil-may-care fantasy of himself - and these shots of an actor who might do this several times a day, many times a year, for at least a decade or more.

One is a photo of someone trying to pretend he's someone he might not be, for friends who probably know better. The other is someone whose interest is in confirming to people who don't know him that he really is the person they imagine him to be. That is the difference between regular portraiture and celebrity portraiture.


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