Many people would probably recognize examples of Los Angeles photographer Greg Gorman’s work, some of which is now on exhibit at the Catherine Edelman Gallery. Yet few people–even those who pride themselves on their knowledge of photography–know his name. But they should.
Comparisons in art are often treacherous, but occasionally they’re unavoidable. And Gorman’s work inevitably invites comparisons with that of his better-known contemporaries Bruce Weber and Herb Ritts. All three have attracted attention with their portraits of celebrities in magazines and advertisements, and with their coffee-table volumes of nude figure studies. All three photograph many of the same people, and all three revere Hollywood glamour photography and the fantasies it expresses–though Weber and Ritts have managed to obtain higher-profile assignments.
Many of Gorman’s celebrity works–for movie posters, album covers, and such publications as Vogue, Interview, and Rolling Stone–clearly pander to our fixation with the mystery of motion pictures, and he freely acknowledges a debt to the illusionary work of George Hurrell, the dean of Hollywood glamour photographers who died last year. In fact, Gorman appears anxious to take up Hurrell’s mantle, though his straightforward movie-star portraits are the least interesting works on exhibit, possibly because they are so much like Ritts’s and Weber’s.
If anything distinguishes Gorman’s photographs of Hollywood’s finest, it is their relaxed quality. He does most of his shooting in his home studio in the hills above LA’s Sunset Strip, and this domesticity seems to occasionally enable him to achieve some surprising results. A photograph of a plaintive Bette Midler sitting against a stucco wall, ankles crossed and gazing away from the camera, captures an uncharacteristic but highly appealing quality in someone we associate with a far more manic demeanor.
Gorman seems to have had more fun with his advertising assignments, particularly his full-face portraits for the optical manufacturer L.A. Eyeworks. Intended to illustrate the line “A great face is like a great work of art. It deserves a great frame,” the series featured some great faces wearing some pretty funky glasses–and provided a wry commentary on the very notions of glamour and beauty Gorman’s editorial portraits usually project. A head shot of an impishly smirking Pee-wee Herman is given the kind of soft dramatic lighting one assumes would have delighted Jean Harlow, but the lensless pair of glasses he sports is so incongruous that no movie-star persona emerges.
One photograph in the show is of Raquel Welch in a pair of dark sunglasses emerging from behind the wheel of her convertible, aware that a dozen strobe lights are bouncing off her but paying attention to none of them. I couldn’t tell whether this was one of Gorman’s portraits or one of his advertisements.
Like many commercially successful artists, Gorman assiduously pursues related interests he may find less financially rewarding but more artistically fulfilling. He has concentrated considerable energies on his nude figure studies, and their remarkable clarity, precision, and intelligence set them apart from the work of his colleagues. Weber and Ritts may create compelling images of bronzed gods and an occasional goddess for a largely homoerotic effect, but Gorman appears to be going deeper than eroticism.
For instance, a group of images of Tony Ward (former Madonna boy toy, “Justify My Love” video costar, and one of Ritts’s favorite models) are so delicate and stylized they seem to have been lifted directly from an ancient Greek vase. And the photos of Ward and a woman identified as Rosetta capture a lyrically fluid choreography.
Oddly enough, many of these nudes are less overtly erotic than the celebrity portraits. Jamie Lee Curtis in a platinum-blond wig and a transparent black sheath practically commands you to come hither. A tousle-haired Kim Basinger is more diffused and distracted, but the effect is no less beckoning. Even Iggy Pop smolders into the lens.
Gorman’s images of Jamie Lee, Kim, Iggy, and others may be familiar from the pages of glossy magazines. His Greek-vase portraits aren’t likely to ever appear in one. But they’re all on view at the Catherine Edelman Gallery, 300 W. Superior, through Wednesday, December 23. Hours are 10 to 5:30 Tuesday through Saturday; call 266-2350.