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Talking Pictures.

I have a feeling that Talking Pictures is the kind of novelty item that gets dreamed up on a beach towel late in a hazy August. The premise is easy to pitch: famous people select their favorite photos and tell all. The authorial work is a snap--write an introduction and shape the famous people's responses. The research work is light, although, in truth, scheduling the interviews with the most famous of the famous people is probably a bitch. That leaves securing copyright releases for the photos, but that really isn't in the end the author's problem. The challenge, such as it is, consists of drawing up a list of celebrities and getting them to respond with marginal intelligence.

Scanning the index, I imagine that the authors were delighted with a number of their 70 respondents: Isabel Allende, Mario Cuomo, Jesse Jackson, Norman Lear, Rosa Parks, Benjamin Spock, and John Updike. Others probably elicited a hoot of camp success: Tony Bennett, John Epperson, Ginger Rogers, Fred "Mister" Rogers, and Martha Stewart. The rest of the known are an interchangeable shelf of trophies to supply marketing diversity: the glammy world of fashion spews forth Naomi Campbell, Isaac Mizrahi, and Anna Wintour. From under the key light emerge Dennis Hopper, Diane Keaton, and Joan Rivers. A click of the shutter reveals Mary Ellen Mark, Duane Michals, and Bruce Weber. And, yes, there are real people too.

The mix is so apparently diverse that I actually began scanning the table of contents for Asians and Native Americans (shockingly, none present). In a book that tries so hard to be squeaky clean, ethnic omissions loom large, particularly when--dead center--Ginger Rogers is found pontificating on God and patriotism as triggered by her favorite pic, Joe Rosenthal's Marines Raising the American Flag on Mount Suribacbi.

Martha Stewart's meditation on a photograph of a Polish peasant woman harvesting wheat in prewar Poland proves equally ill-advised: "What do I see into this picture?," she muses rhetorically. "First of all, it's backbreaking work. They use this fabulous rope to tie up the wheat. . . . From the first time I saw this picture, I wanted to learn how to harvest wheat. I love what the woman has on her head, and that she's wearing a skirt and a blouse. I can drive by a field, and I can identify what is in the field, but a lot of people can't. They do not know a potato from a tomato, but I have learned to look at everything very closely." Right, Martha; now tell us the difference between a potato and a grenade.

Hegemonic inanities aside, the book's biggest problem is its lack of truly interesting photographs. It's a problem that the authors programmed into their construct by assuring respondents that "the picture could come from anywhere--from a family album, a movie, an advertisement, television, a newspaper, even from a matchbook." In their populist negation of all criteria, Marvin Heiferman and Susan Kismaric end up with a chain collision where every image is smashed into an anecdote of exactly the same import. Occasionally something shoots to the surface and glimmers with originality before a dross of album faves, newspaper grabs, and fanzine promos sweep it away and under. Good pictures, like Weegee's Coney Island or Andre Kertesz's Satiric Dancer, are included but they cannot carry the entire enterprise.

Only two images in the entire book crackle with any real surprise: one selected by John Baldessari, the other by David Byrne. Baldessari chooses a production still by C. Kenneth Lobin from an unknown movie--a woman encased in bubbles, a hand with lacquered nails, a vignette of sky, a scrim of netting behind which another partially clothed woman slumps as if in supplication. It is an amazingly nervous, synthetic composition that refuses to relax into narrative or stylistic clarity, and Baldessari explicates it provocatively. Byrne's choice is taken from an old S&M publication and is as goofily, troublingly perverse as the notion of Bambi trying to slip on a condom. Byrne's comments on sexual imagery in visual promotion might also serve as a succinct critique of the authors' unwillingness to come up with anything more than a salable premise: "There's no context, or very little. They push buttons at random. Pure iconic images are just thrown at you, and you're left kind of riveted, yes, but empty. Visual drugs." Or, more accurately, visual placebos.

Richard Flood is a writer and the chief curator of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.
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Author:Flood, Richard
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1994
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