Visual Arts

Nancy Ellison's Celebrity Photos "Altered Egos" on View at Decorative Center Houston

The retrospective of the photographs of Nancy Ellison are about celebrities, but not just any celebrities - they include many of the towering iconic figures of twentieth-century film art - individuals whose film personalities taught us about the world.

Where would be without Jack Nicholson, or Sharon Stone? The poorer, no doubt, but I'm not sure, since I can no longer imagine a world without them. They have imprinted themselves upon us, in vivid and indelible images.

Sting has graced our ears with his music, and delighted our eyes with his lean sensuality, for so long that he is now part of the fabric our lives. Ellison caught him emerging from the surf at Malibu, his wet suit half off, in a striking photograph that speaks volumes - even with the music off. Ellison reports that it is this photograph, admired by the famed couturier Gianni Versace, that made she and Versace friends.

Ellison often has the opportunity for just one shot, and has to make the most of it, as was the case with Sting, and also with Jack Nicholson. She created the memorable photograph in 1982 of Nicholson perched alone in the middle of Galveston Bay, where he was filming a scene for Terms of Endearment. She made the most of it, though it meant wading into the water herself to get it.

There is some subtlety here, as well as wit. A 1985 photograph of Brigitte Nielsen has her with a blue parasol, and an orange parasol as well, coquettishly held, not quite covering her attractive and naked left breast.

There is an occasional flaw. The photograph of Burgess Meredith, the virtuosic actor who provided memorable film and theater performances for six decades, is staged holding a cat, giving it a posed, artificial look, but even here Ellison has captured Meredith's bright-eyed intensity and the benevolence of his persona, two of his personal trademarks.

Equally staged, but this time brilliantly, is the 1990 photo of Sharon Stone, leaning next to a mirror placed on an easel, so that her reflection appears to be a second, oil portrait. Ellison reports that it is Stone's favorite photograph, since "people can see her two faces". The cigarette in her mouth cheapens her, deliciously and deliberately, to match the undercurrent in some of her films. After starring in "Total Recall", she posed nude for Playboy, to coincide with the film's release. Ellison's photograph is intriguing, and of course "Basic Instinct" two years later made Stone an international star.

The Orson Welles photo is quieter that one might expect, for a genius who lived life so voraciously and with all-consuming fire, but I came to admire its self-containment. We see a man who knows everything, and we see him calculating how much to let us see. There are depths within depths here, layers under layers, and Ellison has caught the quiet banked fires of a master manipulator of our souls.

There are six large and dynamic photographs of Keith Roberts, principle dancer with American Ballet Theatre, who has worked extensively with Twyla Tharp, on and off Broadway. There are leaps aplenty, capturing his energy and grace, and I especially liked one, though more static, where Roberts seemed to be supporting his tight, muscular body with one hand.

Richard Gere is photographed on the set of "Intersection", in 1993, a film that sank without a trace, even with Sharon Stone co-starring.

While some photographs - Sting and Nicholson, for example - are necessarily shot on the fly, Ellison reports that for others the difficulty is in getting the sitters to concentrate on the photographic process, as most of these iconic figures have so many projects, and so much going on in their lives, that their minds are distracted. Ellison has the patience to await the right moment, as these works testify, and we are grateful for that.

Ellison can also use shadows to good effect - sometimes hauntingly. She shot Arnold Schwarzenegger on the set of "Total Recall" in Mexico City, and he himself suggested an additional shot of him half in shadow, very suitable for a film where little is as it seems. Ellison said of Schwarzenegger "He has a face like a Martian landscape."

Houston-born Patrick Swayze, named by People magazine in 1991 as the "sexiest man alive", is captured by Ellison in a remarkable image that reveals his physical charisma, and also places him in a working-man's setting appropriate for his blue-collar appeal. He died young, at 57, and is a keen reminder of how much we have lost.

Part of the charm of the exhibition is the trip down memory lane, as we are reminded of the icons who have left us, as well as those who still remain with us, such as the eternally vital Mick Jagger - yes, he is here, as are Dustin Hoffman, Sean Penn, Anjelica Houston, and many others. This is a large exhibition, varied and universally interesting, and one that will richly reward the viewer who is able to spend considerable time with it.

Nancy Ellison Photography Exhibit: Altered Egos continues through August 29, at Decorative Center Houston, 5120 Woodway, open 9 to 5, Monday through Friday, 713-961-9292, or online at

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Jim Tommaney