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Snapshots Behind the Fantasy: David Drebin’s Illuminative Photography

Book cover of Before They Were Famous by David Debin. 

By MEGAN REED, April 2019      

Stars, are they just like us? It’s no secret there is big money in answering this question: the mass proliferation of paparazzo worldwide chasing public figures in their daily lives to then be published in weekly celebrity gossip magazines are ongoing proof. And how do they do this? Through the photographed image. With its advent in the early 1800s, photography almost immediately democratized whose image could be seen and captured. Suddenly, anyone could have a portrait taken without needing the time and resources to hire a portrait painter (most typically associated with the wealthy and status-holding to that point). So while any of us can have our photograph taken and published anywhere via the internet, has the image become any less associated with the status, wealth and power of those being worthy of being seen? 

Waiting for the Call, 2009

David Drebin, through his photography, masterfully circumvents the fantasy behind celebrity culture and its backdrops. In images simultaneously dreamy and incisive, Drebin punctures the surface of what could arguably be attributed to a deeply entrenched capitalist mindset. We’re all used to ads, to seeing things, whether of lifestyle or status, to be bought or sold. But we, as humans, really crave the story behind the stuff, beyond the hyper-cultivated, curated, and branded spokesperson or product. In other words, we yearn for meaning and true insight--it can’t all be about image, can it? If it is, (as we collectively shudder an existential gasp) where does that leave the rest of us? David Drebin’s photography brings art to the rescue, showing us the magic of what photography can do to capture the truth what it means to be individuals all searching for meaning and purpose in life.

I Love You with Girl, 2006

We speak on the occasion of the upcoming release of Drebin’s latest book, Before They Were Famous, which contains photos of public figures like Steve Jobs and Charlize Theron long before they were household names and legends of their own fame. Importantly, the photos were shot by Drebin in the early days of his own career, when he was a predominantly commercial photographer-for-hire. Though Drebin’s commercial career is in and of itself impressive, one can’t help but notice the significance of the fact that these photographs reveal glimpses of celebrities before fame had bought and paid for them as public figures, captured by Drebin before he, himself, found his own agency and creative authority (and success, it should be mentioned) as a photographer following his own creative path. This relationship seems significant: Drebin captured these people when they were just that: people, not public figures, still on the cusp of stardom and fantasizing about their future paths. Drebin’s view of them is honest, unembellished, snapshots of the human spirit as it positions itself on its own paths toward desired greatness. There’s vulnerability on display here; the ordinariness of humanity, captured by a photographer, who, too, was in the midst of finding his own voice. 

Steve Jobs, 2001

Since those early days of commercial work, Drebin’s career trajectory has reached stratospheric proportions. No longer shooting celebrities or commercial subjects, Drebin has made a global name for himself photographing (and indeed, making--his artwork moves into other media as well, including sculpture) his own vision. Drebin describes himself as a seer of sorts: he does the seeing, while the rest of us are, as he says, “distracted by our phones.” His photos, whether of people or places (cities and seascapes repeat often), have an uncanny ability to simultaneously reveal the surface and the depth of anything in his viewfinder. A self-described introvert, Drebin dreads parties or interactions with large groups of people. He calls some of his images (particularly the landscapes) “little movies” in which he’s capturing the “energy” of the context within, whether human, human constructed or natural. And this is what lends to him being such a great observer; rather than participating in these moments as someone seeking to fit in or be acknowledged, the distance the camera affords him allows him to see moments for what they really are: complicated, convoluted, messy, beautiful mishmashes of humans navigating life all at the same time. Drebin’s superpower is to dive beneath the surface and to swim back up with deeply illuminative images that show us what lies underneath.

Charlize Theron, 2003

In one of the images in Drebin’s recent book we see Charlize Theron standing on a non-descript set, lit dramatically, wearing a red dress likely intended to capture attention, with a searching look on her face. She’s alone, on display, her stance reflective of what it means when any of us pose for a photograph: we want to be recorded, validated, included, as it were. She’s the epitome of beauty, of course, but she looks vulnerable, too. She needs our gaze to make this image mean anything. Similarly, in “Gotham City” from Drebin’s Dreamscapes series, a dramatically backlit Manhattan cityscape takes up the entire frame, the sky that magical cerulean blue that takes over the city just at dusk, fueled by city lights and the setting sun. New York looks enormous, yet warm, magical, yet overpowering. If you can make it in this city, you can make it anywhere, no? In the right hand corner a warm, orange glow grabs the viewer’s attention: illuminating a brightly lit apartment with a small, almost indistinct person framed in the window. A reminder that behind these big dreams, whether of celebrity status or the magic of living in the big city lights, are just human beings: some seen, some not, some vulnerable, all fallible, all amazing; some lonely, some on top, but all doing so, in the grand scheme, collectively, together. And that’s where the real magic in life is. WM

 

Megan Reed

 
Megan Reed is a writer and fine artist based in Los Angeles, California.

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