Lauren Greenfield’s documentary The Queen of Versailles (2012) is one of the more astute cultural responses to recent economic instabilities. It follows the Siegels, an incredibly wealthy American family, as the recession threatens to wipe out their massive fortune. In one particularly telling scene, David Siegel admits that despite his ‘riches’ he doesn’t even own his own home. His mansion, limousine and property portfolio have all been bought on endless credit. We start with Siegel attempting to build monuments to capitalism, only to see him end up with a mountain of debt.
Max Farago’s Look Like Barbie, Smoke Like Marley attempts a similar excavation of the American Dream. Shot on location in Los Angeles, the photographs are marked by their proximity to Hollywood (and the adjacent porn industry). This is a world populated by young rich kids and surgically enhanced models, and Farago, a photographer more commonly found working in the commercial world, is well versed in selling us this lifestyle. Everything seems like a cypher for something else – things are hinted at rather than revealed, hidden behind furtive glances and vacant expressions. The photographs are situated somewhere between a fashion shoot, a reality TV show and something more ominous.
The Kiss (2012) is characteristic. We see a young couple glimpsed in the corner of a mirror. They are locked in a passionate embrace on the floor. Details destabilise our assumptions: the man’s shirt is stained with either blood or wine; are the woman’s hands tied? Are we witness to a clandestine love affair gone wrong, or perhaps a more prosaic drunken fumble? We’re never quite sure whether we are looking at real lives or fake smiles, acted poses or raw emotions – fact and fiction are continually blurred. Meaning slips off the surface like smearing lipstick.
Authentic or artificial? Farago’s images reveal a world in which people have long forgotten what the difference is. It is a place where real crisis merges into melodrama, and emotional literacy is formed by talent shows and gossip magazines. Identities and relationships are never clearly defined: friend, family, actor or model? Personalities seem to be composed through social networking – constantly open and subject to change. The choreographed poses in Farago’s compositions take us a long way from a historical notion of documentary photography. Yet what these images make evident is a society that mediates its own therapy as entertainment, within which authenticity becomes just another commodity to trade. Siegel’s mountain of debt demonstrated what happens when the fuel that fired the American Dream runs dry; Farago’s images tell us what happens when it’s running on exhaust fumes.
This article was first published in the Summer 2013 issue.