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On The Town

July 18, 2002|JESSICA HUNDLEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At first glance, you might mistake Gary Lee Boas' Brownie camera photographs for a vast collection of blurred and faded family memories. There is something remarkably familiar in the towering beehives, the tiny mini-dresses, the endless corduroy, all color bled to a strangely nostalgic pale. The images look as if they could have been pulled from the dust-covered albums that sit in bottom drawers, or in attic boxes, of just about anyone.

But a closer look reveals the subjects of Boas' prints to be not Uncle Joe or Junior at the Little League championships, but a slew of Hollywood icons: Charles Bronson standing on the side of a city street, Jack Nicholson walking down a crowded hallway, Mick Jagger slouched in the back seat of a car.

What began nearly 36 years ago as an impulse grew into a hobby, then full-blown obsession. Boas' immense body of work was finally compiled in 1999 (by local publishers Dilettante Press) into the book "Starstruck: Photographs From a Fan." The pictures themselves have traveled to galleries all over the world, finally arriving, last week, in Los Angeles.

Boas began taking impromptu photographs of celebrities after unexpectedly spotting singer Robert Goulet in his hometown of Lancaster, Pa.

"He was coming out of the doors of the hospital, and there were all these people around him, a crowd of people smiling and laughing, and there was something about that that excited me," remembers Boas, "the excitement of being a fan. People were delirious. So I ran home and grabbed my camera."

Soon Boas began traveling to Philadelphia and New York for theatrical openings and tapings of talk shows, waiting patiently at back doors for a celebrity (any celebrity; Boas wasn't picky) to emerge. The result of his persistence is literally thousands of snapshots of everyone from Lucille Ball to Richard Nixon, each captured for the camera in a way that is eerily revealing. Without an army of stylists and makeup artists to provide an aesthetic armor, these icons are shown in all their imperfection--as flawed, as vulnerable and as real as any Aunt Bertha or Uncle Joe.

Writing for Artforum a couple of years ago about Boas' work, Bruce Hainley noted: "Boas is what Andy Warhol might have been if, instead of aiming for that job in New York, he had stayed put in Pittsburgh with his mother, Julia."

As Boas describes his style, "There's an impulsiveness and innocence I have when I shoot as a fan. As a professional, you don't get the same results; you don't get the woman in the background with the cat's-eye glasses or the '57 Chevy. There's an element to them that makes them seem more real because you don't have that editing."

Meanwhile, Boas himself has become a kind of celebrity, signing autographs, doing interviews and, in a beautiful play of irony, posing for photographs. But after a lifetime of celebrity worship, his fanaticism seems to have finally begun to fade. Although he still takes photos, he seems less than dazzled by the allure of today's stars.

"Stars were more accessible then. They were out in the real world," Boas says rather wistfully. "I met Bette Davis in a back alley in Philadelphia, and you're not going to meet Julia Roberts in a back alley in Philadelphia. It's different today because it's not so much about talent as about what they're wearing or who they're shacking up with or if they had breast implants or not. Then, talent was what mattered most, and that's what really made me want to take their pictures, to capture that talent and that charisma. That was the real seduction."

Gary Lee Boas' "Starstruck: Photographs From a Fan" at Karyn Lovegrove Gallery, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., No. 8, L.A., through Aug. 17. (323) 525-1755.

Discussion and book signing tonight, Rocket Video, 726 N. La Brea Ave., L.A., 8-9 p.m. (323) 965-1100

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