No … that can’t be Camilla! And what’s Sven up to? In Alison Jackson’s work your wildest fantasies about the famous come true, says Waldemar Januszczak
Do you think Prince Charles ever paints Camilla Parker Bowles, naked? I do. The Prince’s well-recorded enthusiasm for watercolours and his fierce faith in his own aesthetic judgment — expressed so noisily in his great 100 Yawns war against modern architecture — mark the prince out, to my eyes, as a man who seeks to get down to things, artistically. Such a man is unlikely to shy away from encounters with the naked truth. Thus, historians of the future, combing their way through the Windsor archives, may, indeed, one day come across a princely stash of royal recordings of Camilla in the buff.
But when it comes to knowing what’s really going on behind the closed doors of our public figures, why should posterity have all the fun? And perhaps we do already recognise — this is a big, time-scrambling idea here — some of the things about our deeper selves that are still to be discovered. Sure, the future will have all the banal facts at its disposal. But we already have something more valuable and, occasionally, funnier than that. We already have Alison Jackson.
Jackson is an identity-raider: the ultimate impressionist. Weak approximations of her, the Bremners and the McGowans, turn up on the telly making feeble attempts to pass themselves off as a vicarish Tony Blair, or a thick and high-pitched David Beckham. But Jackson herself never makes the mistake of thinking she can be exactly like lots of other, different people. Instead, she employs lookalikes whom she styles and photographs in ways that make their resemblances uncanny. She then pushes these perfectly styled doppelgängers past the security gates, past the privacy guards, past the broad outlines of the received image and deep into the celebrity’s intimacy zone, where great mischief can be and is caused. I admire what Jackson does so much that I’ve made a feeble attempt to bask in the outer reaches of her glory by writing a short foreword to a new collection of her hard-core photo- clonings that’s heading your way.
Certainly, the picture of Charles painting Camilla undressed as Eve filled my heart with joy and my mouth with giggles when I first saw it. It’s one of Jackson’s more camp images. And one, therefore, that leaves a gap in your acceptance of it through which mistrust can merrily creep. It’s convincing, but simultaneously phoney. Jackson knows that we know it’s a setup. But this cannot be said of her best-known and, in the end, her most historically spooky image: the utterly extraordinary Snowdon-esque portrait of Princess Di and Dodi al-Fayed, with their baby.
I originally encountered this transgressive steal from the royal photo album that never was when Diana’s death was still reasonably fresh in our minds, and found it so utterly convincing that the picture seemed to me to have entered into the realms of voodoo.
Seeing it again in Jackson’s new book, with Diana’s story yet again pressed into the nation’s foreground by the amazing revelations of her butler, it seems no less convincing. I can certainly accept that Dodi is being played by a stand-in; I can accept — just — that the cute Arabesque baby that Di and Dodi cuddle cannot be theirs. But nobody will ever be able to convince my reactive imagination that I am not looking at the real Diana. My logical mind knows it.
But my illogical visual instincts refuse to accept it. Jackson’s Diana is the perfect counterfeit.
So what does all this inspired forgery achieve for us? Well, certainly it teaches us not to trust anything that we see, let alone most of it. Ever since Stalin cut and pasted Trotsky out of the official visual records of early Soviet history, it has been clear that the power to tinker with the image is a truly scary one, and that we consumers of the tinkered image need to have our wits about us and our scepticism within grabbing distance whenever someone unveils photographic evidence, dossiers and the like for us.
But scepticism is a negative response, and I am not sure that negativity is finally part of Jackson’s ambition. It is hardly sensible to waste so much overly serious imagistic attention on the hilarious likes of Sven-Göran Eriksson flashing his Union Jack knickers at us, or the entertaining spectacle of our future king, Prince William, horsing about prematurely in the royal regalia, as future kings do. Jackson’s real subject is surely fame and that ravenous cuckoo that has sneaked into fame’s nest, celebrity.
Everyone who appears in Jackson’s doppelgänger pictures is known to us already, otherwise there would be no point in raiding their identities. All, therefore, have entered into the same Faustian pact with the powers of darkness to maintain this fame. This pact is a cruel one. They gain the recognition they need to achieve their ends — to get to No 1, to manage the England football team, to be the people’s princess, to succeed to the throne — but in doing so they lose their exclusive rights to their own privacy. Otherwise, what’s in it for us? In order to supply them with the fame they need to succeed, we, the public, demand a chunk of them, of our own choosing, in return.
So although the work appears to be about the famous people who appear in her photographs, it’s actually about the audience that consumes those photographs: us. Most of her imagery is intent upon nosing about in the private lives of her sitters. Robbie Williams and the Queen are in the toilet; Marilyn Monroe masturbates, and Prince Philip carefully examines the photo of Marilyn Monroe masturbating. All these astonishing sights are in the book. The best of them are recorded with a frightening access to the aura of truth: they’re so bloody convincing. Who wouldn’t have wanted to have been a fly on the wall when Diana discovered Charles with Camilla? Who wouldn’t have wished to witness Tony grabbing Cherie’s bikini top in a swimming pool in Barbados? Well, now you can.