In the arsenal of things that a photographer can do with a camera, Alison Jackson launched the equivalent of a guided missile in 1998. That’s when the London-based artist published a photograph of “Princess Diana” with a dark-skinned, curly-haired baby boy — the supposed love child of her affair with Muslim fiance Dodi Fayed. While obviously staged with look-alikes — in the manner of Caravaggio’s “Madonna With Child” no less — the image was credible enough to incite cries of “blasphemy” from conservatives and “genius” from art critics.
Since then, Jackson has produced hundreds of similar, equally provocative images that range from President Bush taking an intimate sauna with Tony Blair to Robert De Niro frolicking with a bevy of bikini-clad hotties; from Osama bin Laden leisurely reading the Financial Times to Michael Jackson calmly removing his nose.
In the process, the 45-year-old photographer has become something of a celebrity herself in her native England, where she now brings her tabloid tableaux to life in “Double Take,” a half-hour sketch-comedy show on BBC2. The show, which involves a small army of makeup artists and exhaustive staging techniques, won Jackson a British Academy of Film and Television Arts award for innovation. “When Jackson gets everything right,” explains critic Waldemar Januszczak, “her images send irresistible signals to weird nether regions of the brain located somewhere between the comedy cortex and the cortex that controls cruelty.”
But Jackson, who has a post-graduate degree from the Royal College of Art, insists that she’s not practicing satire. Rather, she sees her art in terms of post-modern strategies, where the politics of representation are underscored and laid bare. “My aim is to explore the blurred boundaries between reality and the imaginary,” she says, “the gap and confusion between the two.”
But her best scenarios are not always the most exploitive or shocking. Rather, they are intimate moments that would never happen in front of a camera, yet seem utterly plausible. The aforementioned image of Princess Diana for example, or Jackson’s video of the Queen Mother teaching Prince Harry how to wave like a Royal.
“Likeness becomes real and fantasy touches on the believable,” adds Jackson, sounding a bit like an industry director. “The viewer suspends disbelief. I try to highlight the psychological relationship between what we see and what we imagine.”
Now Jackson is poised to tap America’s prurient interests with the publication of a major survey from Taschen Books and a pending TV deal with a major U.S. cable network. Nonetheless, she remains just as enamored of the seductive pull of voyeurism as the rest of us. And yes, she loves it when people are fooled by her pictures.
Alison Jackson’s photographs are currently part of the landmark art exhibit “Superstars: The Celebrity Factor” at Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna. http://www.kunsthallewien.at