08/02/15 - Andy Gotts' 'Behind the Mask'

The concept of a 'celebrity photographer' is an interesting one.  An artist who titles themselves as such is making it clear that they consider themselves to be a certain type of portrait artist, focussing their work solely on people who typically spend their lives already in front of a lens.  Perhaps these photographers want to show a different and possibly less glamorous or more honest side to these familiar faces; being immortalised in art may feel much more permanent than being snapped at a premiere or papped on the way to the gym, and I can see why the idea might appeal to a performer who has gained that coveted 'celebrity' status.

'Behind the Mask' is an exhibition which marks a collaboration between photographer Dr Andy Gotts MBE and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, featuring actors who have either won or been nominated for a BAFTA since 1954. 

I headed off to the gala opening at the Williamson Art Gallery and Museum in Birkenhead to see the exhibition in all its glory.  For someone who tends to get straight into pyjamas immediately on stepping through the front door after work, getting dressed up for an event is always fun and I even gave my Gatsby clutch bag its debut public appearance.  The gallery had a lively atmosphere, full of people dressed to the nines and mingling whilst viewing the art and nibbling on canapes which were circulated by black-clad waiters in enigmatic gold masks - very fitting for the BAFTA-themed evening.  There was live music and swing dancers which added an extra level of entertainment and excitement to the event.

This collection of photographs was first exhibited at Somerset House in London before transferring to Salford's Lowry.  I managed to catch the exhibition at its second location and thought that, although the images were very striking and a veritable who's who of the acting profession, the placement of the exhibition left a lot to be desired.  It felt a little tucked away to one side and wasn't particularly well advertised - if I hadn't gone to the gallery looking specifically for this exhibition, I might have walked straight past it.  It was gratifying to see the photographs much more prominently placed and displayed effectively over two large galleries.  The stark black and white presentation really helps the subjects' faces to make an impact.

And because of where the gallery is, the fantastic image of Bond star Daniel Craig is displayed in pride of place...for those who don't know, he originates from Hoylake on the Wirral which is mere miles from Birkenhead!

There's something for everyone, with famous faces including Julia Roberts, Ian McKellen, Tilda Swinton and Michael Caine.  The exhibition as a whole is very difficult to pin down; the photos cover a range of styles and seem retrospective, a result of years of work and development.  My personal favourite is the stunning image of Marion Cotillard (BAFTA winner in 2008 for La Vie En Rose and nominated in 2013 for Rust And Bone).  The slight wash of colour gives the image warmth and the whole picture exudes classic Hollywood glamour.  My date for the evening, Shaun, preferred the image of Lauren Bacall and found that attempting to separate the photographs from their celebrity context helped him to appreciate the pieces purely on their artistic merit.  It's easy to feel a connection to a picture of somebody that you recognise, but I believe that the familiarity can also detract from your ability to judge it as a work of art.

I was able to grab the photographer Andy Gotts for a chat near the end of the evening, and he was a pleasure to speak to.  A very generous man with some fascinating anecdotes and he was kind enough to sign my exhibition catalogue for me as well.  I got the lowdown on some of his famous friends (when he travels to New York, he often stays at Kate Winslet's house - how fabulous!) and who might have been a bit of a diva to photograph...but I couldn't possible share that tidbit!

The exhibition is open in Birkenhead until 22nd March 2015, so make a venture to the Williamson if you are in the North West area.  If that isn't possible, the photographs will be available to view at the Munro Gallery in Leeds from 1st July for a month.  I would seriously recommend you have a gander if you can, particularly if you're a film fan!

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