Hannah Montana star Miley Cyrus has defended her controversial photograph in Vanity Fair by saying, "it was supposed to be artistic." Her Disney bosses didn't see art but manipulation, calling it a ploy to sell magazines.
Well, it was "artistic," even though maybe it wasn't all that original. Celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz's imitation of an Old Master image of a sloe-eyed Cyrus wrapped in a white sheet isn't necessarily great art, but it has lots of historical precedent, both aesthetic and sociological.
"The Cyrus pictures certainly point out one of the biggest contradictions in our society," says Tom Beck, curator of the Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, which houses an important regional photo collection.
"On the one hand, our society loves to be titillated with erotic imagery, which publishers know because it sells magazines," Beck says. "On the other hand, we have worked mightily to diminish the sexual display of young women under 18, while here is Vanity Fair capitalizing on a 15-year-old looking over her shoulder with a decidedly erotic leer."
Beck says alluring images of young women are nothing new in the history of art or photography. He names two famous 19th-century images, the Grande Odalisque by Ingres and Manet's Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe, as pictorial antecedents to the come-hither, over-the-shoulder glance in Leibovitz's photo. There's also Sargent's lubricious portrait of Madame X, which scandalized French society in the 1880s.
Photographers early on picked up on the possibilities of combining sexual allure with mass-market celebrity. The pioneering 19th-cen- tury photographer Nadar practically invented celebrity portraiture by printing thousands of calling cards featuring the faces of well-known writers and actors.
One of Nadar's most famous portraits was of the young actress Sarah Bernhardt, whom he depicted wrapped in voluminous swaths of white fabric that echo the sheet-like garment worn by Cyrus. The picture may even be one of the models on which Leibovitz based her shot, Beck says.
"Celebrity portraiture is a complicated dance between stars, their publicists, the magazines and photographers," says Holly Stuart Hughes, editor of Photo District News, a leading trade magazine for professional photographers that frequently reports on problems between photographers and their celebrity subjects.
In general, she says, the publicist is in charge of - and responsible for - the celebrity's overall image. Publicists demand - and get - the right to approve every aspect of a shoot, from the "concept" of the image and choice of photographer right down to the props, costumes and poses of the star.
Leibovitz is known for photographs in which she gets her celebrity subjects to do something outrageous. Whoopi Goldberg posed naked in a bathtub full of milk. Demi Moore was shot naked and pregnant. The list goes on.
In "these ... elaborate pictures ... the celebrity is a complete participant in the production, and the publicist is there every step of the way," Hughes says.