Christine Keeler by Lewis Morley. Google Images
If there is an iconic image, it has to be that of Christine Keeler astride a plywood chair taken by Lewis Morley in 1963. Keeler is nude but the back of the chair covers her, so nothing can be seen.
I was visiting a photographer friend on Tuesday, with the idea of doing a shoot in his studio. He showed me an original print of Keeler's photograph taken by Morley and signed by Morley. It was so beautiful I practically begged him to photograph me in a similar pose, I really wanted to do my own version of this iconic image. I really wish to thank Hugh Gilbert for humouring me. You can see the image here.
Shoot ended and on the way back home, I could not help reflecting on why this image of Christine Keeler has become so famous and is so embedded in popular consciousness. The Victoria and Albert Museum has an entry on it in its online catalogue , as a gelatin silver print of Morley's endeavour is now part of its photographic collection. Morley claims this was an accidental shot, the last exposure on the film he was using.
An exhibition of the photograph at the National Portrait Gallery in 2013 prompted Jonathan Jones to write in an article published by The Guardian that "Keeler was in a tradition of unrespectable women in the public eye that goes back to Restoration royal mistresses such as Nell Gwyn. Compare her with Charles II's lover" also at the National Portrait Gallery.
It is very hard to say why a particular image captures the imagination of millions and thus becomes iconic. Maybe it is that the image strikes us at a deep emotional level, maybe it is because it perfectly captures an instant which cannot be replicated and has a ring of truth, no, authenticity, about it.
It is not just photographs that achieve this status of being instantly recognisable, of speaking directly to someone at an emotional level. Paintings do too. Or images like the wayang (Javanese shadow puppet theatre), replicated even on tees, which have become signifiers of Indonesian culture.
As author Martha Tedeschi states, “Whistler’s Mother, Wood’s American Gothic, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Edvard Munch’s The Scream have all achieved something that most paintings—regardless of their art historical importance, beauty, or monetary value—have not: they communicate a specific meaning almost immediately to almost every viewer. These few works have successfully made the transition from the elite realm of the museum visitor to the enormous venue of popular culture.”
I guess Christine Keeler's astride a chair has achieved this status, starting off as a popular image and making its way into repositories of high culture, such as museums and art galleries.Martin Kemp writes that truly iconic images accrue legends: extraordinary images demand an extraordinary explanation. Morley's photograph of Keeler shares in this tradition, stories about it abound.
Why so? I am not sure. We all recognise iconic images but it becomes enormously difficult to say why they are so. This mystery makes them even more alluring, enhancing their iconicity.
A friend and member of deviantArt wrote the following comment (I usually plug my blogposts on dA):
The nature of the "iconic" also interests me... how does an image become so? It's easier, I suppose when it directly captures a specific moment of triumph or trauma shared by millions... the moon landing, The crowd at Martin Luther King's death pointing toward the shooter, etc. In part that photo was associated with a moment in history, the Profumo Scandal, as well as a visual allusion to the newness and differentness of social mores of the time... it helps that Keeler was such a beautiful young woman... who better to be the face of such a moment? But even now that Cold War politics and the pretence of "respectability" amongst those in high places have washed away, the image remains and still has power. I sometimes liken it to parapsychologists' hypothesis of how a haunting works... a moment of such emotional energy occours that it leaves some kind of "print" on a place that some people can feel. Don't know if I truly believe in ghosts... but socially, the iconic image, the moment that leaves behind a symbolic impression that encapsulates an entire experience seems to work like that.
Very well said!