The ‘world’s most photographed’ people are either startlingly beautiful or ugly but important, says Freddy Gray
There is a surprising omission from the National Portrait Gallery’s World’s Most Photographed exhibition: Pope John Paul II. When the great pontiff died earlier this year, we heard repeated – and entirely believable – claims that he had been caught on camera more often than anyone in history. Certainly one can say with absolute confidence that John Paul was snapped more than Queen Victoria, whose grim expression greets the viewer in the first room of this exhibition.
This is not the start of a long gripe about antiCatholic prejudice in modern Britain, just a warning that this show does not live up to its billing. Indeed, it could be argued that none of the 10 subjects on display qualifies for the world’s “most photographed”.
It seems that the Gallery’s directors did not think that the advertisements needed to be anywhere near the truth. They obviously wanted a snappy title that tied in with the New Brit obsession for listings, as in the endless string of television programmes called Top Ten..., The Hundred Greatest..., or even Britain’s Naughtiest... (Dare one put the Herald’s Greatest British Catholics competition in this bracket?) Aside from its irritatingly deceptive title, the exhibition is highly entertaining. With the exception of John F Kennedy, the subjects can be split into two groups: beautiful icons and ugly important people. JFK, who was both handsome and powerful, bridges the gap.
The first group includes some of the most wonderful faces ever to have been committed to film. There are plenty of fascinating shots of Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn. These two are equally photogenic, yet they are attractive in very different ways: Hepburn, elfin, stylish and humorous; Monroe, silly, girlie – and sometimes naked. There is one remarkable shot of Marilyn at the back of a crowded acting class. She does not appear to be wearing makeup and is not posing, yet still the eye is instantly drawn to her radiance. Those immune to the charms of Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn can turn to Greta Garbo, whose strange beauty stands out among the exhibits in the first room.
Elvis Presley, James Dean, JFK and Muhammad Ali were all famously good-looking men. The photographs of JFK are particularly striking. We see him in various incarnations: playboy, family man, sombre statesman. He looks the part in all of them.
The other group of subjects, important but less attractive, is more intriguing. There are inspiring portraits of Gandhi and Queen Victoria, but it is the third greatest mass-murderer in history who really captures the attention. In the early stages of his public life, Adolf Hitler was reluctant to pose for the camera. He thought that if people did not know what he looked like, it would add to his allure. But he soon came to realise the importance of photography to his propaganda machine, and duly embraced the lens.
As the exhibition notes point out, the most arresting images of these famous people are those which were never shown at the time because they did not match the official image. Thus “Hitler in Lederhosen”, which depicts the Führer looking very camp in a pair of hearty Bavarian shorts, sadly never made it to the Nazi Fotofest. In conjunction with the National Gallery, BBC Two is running an excellent 10part series on the subjects of this exhibition. Half have already been shown, but readers can still catch documentaries about James Dean, Greta Garbo, John F Kennedy, Mahatma Gandhi and Queen Victoria. Well worth a look.
“The World’s Most Photographed” is at the National Portrait Gallery until October 23