April 12, 2006

Famous, Photogenic and Unborn


These are strange times. You're reading a news story about a magazine cover showing a photograph that hasn't been taken of a child who hasn't been born.

As Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie prepare for the birth of their first child, buzz is building in the celebrity media around who will publish the first picture of the baby.

The current cover of New York magazine comments on the hype with a fake paparazzi photo of the couple and their child leaving a hospital.

"EXCLUSIVE: BABY BRANGELINA! FIRST PHOTOS" screams the headline, set in big yellow type that evokes People and other star-obsessed publications.

Below, in little white letters that you must be close to the magazine to read, the cover adds, "COULD FETCH AS MUCH AS $5 MILLION."

A caption in itsy bitsy print explains that the picture is a fantasy: "Brad is an imposter; Angelina is a computer clone. The baby has not yet been born. If the blessed event occurs by the time of publication, let's just pretend this cover never happened."

The cover picture is one of a series shot for the magazine by photographer Alison Jackson. Based in the tabloid epicenter of London, Jackson specializes in working with look-alike models. Her work has appeared in gallery exhibitions and books, and she works with TV shows including NBC's Saturday Night Live.

"We only know celebrities through photography. They wouldn't exist if not for this medium," Jackson says. "I'm showing how that can be manipulated in such an easy fashion."

New York photography director Jody Quon says she first noticed Jackson when she won an International Center of Photography Infinity Award in 2004.

"I've been waiting for the perfect opportunity to use her," Quon says.

Inside the magazine, more phony photos by Jackson show the family at home, reminiscent of Life's documentary photos of the Kennedy family in the 1960s. The lead photo shows "Angelina" breast-feeding the child, while another picture shows the couple changing the baby's diaper on a bed. In every shot, the "stars" are wearing sunglasses, a visual clue that somehow reminds the viewer that these people are supposed to be famous.

"What I love is the reality check," says Jackson. "You think you're looking at something real and it's not."

The article, by Jason Zengerle, deconstructs celebrity coverage while also indulging in it. Zengerle writes that paparazzi photographers have begun to scope out Pitt and Jolie's apartment in Paris, the city where, according to speculation, the birth will take place in the next few weeks. The article's headline is "Not Since Jesus."

The story goes on to describe the cat-and-mouse game of celebrity vs. photographer. Pitt and Jolie may employ decoys, subterfuge and back-door escapes to shield their child from the flashbulbs. Or, the couple might arrange for a friendly photographer to get the first baby shot in exchange for a "donation" to a favorite charity. Worst case scenario for the paparazzi would be if Pitt and Jolie stage a red-carpet-style photo-op so all photographers get essentially the same baby picture, making all of the photographs of little value.

If – and that's a big if – a photographer manages to snap an exclusive of the couple with their infant, the picture could command a price of $1 million or more. Odds are it would sell to a celebrity weekly magazine hoping for bragging rights and extra newsstand sales.

But until the child is actually born and a photo is actually taken, all the meta-coverage is just a prediction, much like Jackson's cover photo.

As for whether the cover will cause too much confusion, Quon says she thinks the magazine's readers will get it.

"For me, it's almost like performance art," she says. "That was the whole exercise: How far could we push it?"

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