Sep 2005 Journal

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Art notes

In an era when the celebrity cult could hardly be more intense, the National Portrait Gallery has launched its latest exhibition, The World's Most Photographed, until 23 October.

Ten outstanding figures from the world of politics, film, sport and the monarchy highlight the many ways in which photography has been used to enhance or even cover up their celebrity.

Ironically, Queen Victoria used the camera to preserve her privacy. Her poses of choice opened a royal window to subjects who, for the six decades of her reign, regarded her as their invisible queen. Now, her public could see the 'widow of widows', as she became known vicariously, with all due pomp and circumstance. Victoria became the most photographed woman of her age and is said to have smiled for the first time at her subjects in 1887 during her Golden Jubilee.

Political leaders like Hitler and Kennedy used the camera to reinforce a different message. Although Ghandi, with a full head of black hair fashionably centre-parted in 1888 is less familiar, the simplicity of his home-spun Indian dress became the eternal hallmark of his purity.

By contrast, Hitler was obsessed with the brutal power of his image and vigorously pursued those who held unauthorised photos of him. And no wonder. In some he looks more like a Charlie Chaplin send-up. There is one showing him in lederhosen. Of course, such self-serving portrayals render the demagogue ridiculous years later. Hitler eschewed political mystery when he saw the potential of the camera to force his way into the public psyche. His official photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann, took more than two and a half million unremarkable pictures of him

The camera best preserves the mystique and the power of the beautiful, like Monroe, John Kennedy, James Dean, Greta Garbo and Audrey Hepburn. A rare picture of Hepburn after ballet class in New York underscores a little-known fact about the actress, who eventually became a UNICEF ambassador in Somalia. Her celebrated elfin shape derived from starvation in wartime Holland, preventing her from following her chosen ballet career. Betty Press's haunting 1992 photograph of her holding a skeletal child brings the memory back to her face. And yet - if we are talking about the most photographed - where on earth is Princess Diana?

Another memory preserved through photographs is the exhibition of postgraduate art student Bonny Zhu at Cork Street's Arndean Gallery. Her pictures are hidden images of the Jewish refugees of Shanghai, granted sanctuary by the Chinese and later their wartime Japanese occupiers, who granted transit visas to more than 2,000 Polish Jews during the war. They were musicians, doctors, professors and tailors, who opened shops and businesses in the ghetto. They even influenced Shanghai's architecture, as Bonnie's photos of 'White Russian Jewish onion shapes' show - but vanished with the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.
Bonnie takes a sentimental journey through the streets like Zhoushan Road, where they lived - replaced now by Chinese children. Some of her work uses the solarisation technique, irradiating black and white prints with flashes of colour.
Gloria Tessler

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