and Valerie Virga

I spend a big chunk of my day worrying about photographs—what’s in them; how, when, and even whether I can get them. Although I never hold a camera myself—unless it’s aimed at one of my 3-year-old twins—as art director of this publication, I’m the one whose head is on the chopper if there’s nothing but a big, ugly empty space to accompany a story.

In truth, this part of my job is usually pretty easy. Your average article subject wants a picture in the paper, or at least is willing to have it taken. But sometimes—if it’s clear the article is going to be critical; if the subject is in legal trouble, incarcerated, or deceased; if the subject has fled the country—the problem of finding a photo becomes a bit tougher. Occasionally, we get lucky, usually because the reporter interviews a friend or colleague who has pictures of the person in question. Most often we compromise, choosing from a spiraling descent of stand-ins—running through enemies, family, friends, and lawyers—if necessary landing on the most despised subject of all and printing a picture of a building, or “brick shot.”

Many publications have more resources than this one for tracking down photographs, but few subscribe to the methods of the star-stalking National Enquirer. The National Enquirer: Thirty Years of Unforgettable Images shows what is possible when a publication has a virtual CIA for a photo desk. Secret agents? The Enquirer pays guests to sneak cameras into press-barred events—which is how it acquired pictures of Elvis’ funeral. Black helicopters? They were used to buzz Madonna and Sean Penn’s wedding, causing so much wind and noise as to ruin the event. Situational ethics? The book quotes (through a friend) Madonna blaming Penn for the ruined wedding: “This has been the worst day of my life. The whole thing could have been avoided if Sean…had just let the press in for a couple of quick pictures.” Paid informants? The Enquirer bought exclusive rights to photograph the Rosenkowitz sextuplets from the family itself. Car chases and fisticuffs? Nic Cage is shown pummeling a photographer. Black budget? It’s all fueled by the Enquirer’s phenomenal weekly 2 million paid circulation, most of it from supermarket sales.The book is virtual pornography—not just for those interested in celebrity but also for typically mild-mannered photo editors who can imagine themselves at the epicenter of a world of intrigue, betrayal, power, money, and gloriously bad taste, no matter how much they publicly scorn the lifestyle.

Thirty Years is quite possibly the most democratic book of photographs ever published. Not only are the subjects a mixture—of those who are freaks because they are famous and those who are famous because they are freaks—but the photographers also come from all walks of life. Alongside the work of professional studio photographers is the work of paparazzi, policemen (in the form of lineup photos), proud parents (kiddie photos of future celebs), and friends and family. Most of the images are not particularly engaging as photographs. And, just as most never truly had any news content (unless you’re the sort of person who cares that Richard Gere had an extramarital blowjob in 1995), most are hopelessly banal on their second go-round.

The editors of Thirty Years have employed several cunning but ultimately unsatisfying methods to combat the skimpiness of the material. The first is the use of hulking long captions to explain not just what is being seen but where the subject was on his or her career and/or love arc when the moment was immortalized. The captions are most often overprinted on the photographs themselves, making large portions of each unforgettable image unviewable.

Though clearly something is necessary, the captions as written often render the photographs themselves irrelevant. One of only a few that have (or, rather, had) unquestionable news value is a portrait of O.J. Simpson. The caption reads:

O.J. Simpson 1996. The FBI said the murderer of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman wore a rare pair of size-12 Bruno Magli shoes, fewer than 300 of which were sold in the United States. Although O.J. Simpson denied ever owning “those ugly-ass shoes,” his feet seem to have picked up a pair somewhere, as this 1996 photo taken at a Buffalo Bills football game proved. Although the picture was discovered too late to be used in O.J.’s criminal trial, it was put to good use in the Brown and Goldman families’ victorious wrongful-death suits against him, during which his lawyers claimed it was a fake.

The photograph, of O.J. walking along the sidelines in shoes no one but an expert would recognize, is clearly worth not 1,000, but a respectable 109 words.

The photos are usually presented as diptychs, each image meant to comment wryly on its neighbor. This works better in some cases than others. The aforementioned photograph of foreign hottie Stina Norbye about to take a toke on Gere is paired with a picture of Willie Nelson taking a suck on a jay—a cheap visual pun. More sinister is the pairing of Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding, raising her bare arm for balance in an attempt to prevent a quick trip to her ass, with Julia Roberts, raising her bare arm to wave to fans. Harding conspired to have the knee of opponent Nancy Kerrigan broken. What was Roberts’ sin? She is shown next to the pariah of woman’s sports because she failed to shave an armpit. Assault and crimes against glamour are equal in the Enquirer world, because both allow the reader to feel moral outrage. Is the outrage always valid? No question is more irrelevant.

The pairings work best when they manage to celebrate kitsch and skip the absurd moralizing. A photo of Liberace in 1982, at the height of his Las Vegas/Tonight Show glory, shows a fur coat too long to wear without employing a pair of children to carry the train, which tumbles dramatically down stairs beneath him. This is paired with a 1988 portrait of Carol Dorries, the woman with the world’s largest collection of Cabbage Patch dolls (482). She, like Liberace, is surrounded by her glory on a staircase, her faithful, dimpled friends smiling for the camera from multiple ledges. Who could fail to be charmed by Tammy Faye Bakker rubbing fake red rubber noses with Bozo the Clown, Dennis Rodman in a wedding dress, and “most pierced person” Elaine Davidson (620 holes) posing with her finger through her tongue?

Happy couples are the most popular subject of Thirty Years, but there are few that are not captioned with the story of subsequent divorce. Likewise, the rich at play is a favorite theme, but these shots are mostly accompanied by grim words about rehab and relapse—loss of both money and power.

And if the Enquirer operates under the dubious assumption that the failings of the rich and famous are more interesting than our own, it does so no more dramatically than through one of the darkest themes that runs through the book—the reveling in aging and physical deterioration, which to Enquirer editors are not facts of life but evidence of weakness of character. Hence, Xaviera Hollander, author of the tell-all The Happy Hooker—and a woman for whom the usually amusing accusations of sexuality would be especially absurd—is shown grotesquely fat and wrinkled in her bikini; Charlie Chaplin, the great physical comic, appears wheelchair-bound; and an elderly Bette Davis dares not flash her famous eyes toward the camera. The crime of aging is presented no differently from the others: A tarted-up Courtney Love, who is paired with Davis, similarly gazes away from the camera; Meg Ryan, who acted so unseemly as to pursue Russell Crowe, appears haggard beside the object of her desire.

In its sum, Thirty Years is as much a collection of trophies as of images, each evidence of a victorious peek into a private life. More than anything, it demonstrates that a CIA photo desk creates many of the same problems as the real CIA. We all fear unchecked power. We should despise it when exercised in pursuit of the trivial. CP