The Street as Studio – A Reflection on Ron Galella’s ‘Windblown Jackie’ and C&A Commercials
The British satirical magazine Private Eye has an oft recurring feature called Ad Nauseam. In it, commercials are lambasted because they either peddle easily debunkable myths, or because the creative directors of said commercials have ripped off the idea from a popular amateur video on Youtube.
It seems however that the creative minds responsible for the spring campaign of C&A might have had pictures by Ron Galella on their mind instead of the most recent Youtube viral. More specifically, they seem to have taken the famous image of Galella chasing Jackie Kennedy Onassis down Madison Avenue as the starting point for their commercial. Galella, the first and foremost paparazzo photographer, was especially fixated with Jackie. He took thousands and thousands of pictures of her and he followed her every move throughout the entire 1970s. Galella would spend many a day waiting outside her apartment for an opportunity to photograph Jackie.
Ron and Jackie, Jackie and Ron. It can only be described as a very special relationship. Whereas Jackie professed to hate Galella – after all, she instructed her Secret Service agents to smash his camera and to confiscate his films, and she dragged him to court several times for invasion of her privacy – Galella saw in her something more than a celebrity that needed to be taken down a peg or two. She was his muse. He was half, or perhaps even completely, in love with her. His best photograph is a portrait of her.
“Ron and Jackie, Jackie and Ron. It can only be described as a very special relationship.”
On October 7th 1971, Galella had just finished shooting the model Joy Smith for her portfolio. He then made his way to Jackie’s apartment for another photo opportunity. As Jackie exited the building, Galella started chasing her down Madison Avenue. He pushed one of his cameras in the model’s hands. Smith proceeded to photograph Jackie being pursued. The resulting image shows Jackie wearing a pair of simple white trousers and a grey cardigan, and sporting a pair of huge sunglasses. She does not seem to be wearing any make-up, nor has she done up her hair. Frostiness is coming off her in waves. Jackie may be getting photographed, but she is determined not to give anything away to the viewer. Galella on the other hand looks focused, a man driven by his passion.
At a certain point during his pursuit Galella jumps into a taxi to keep on following her. When the taxi driver decides to lend a helping hand by honking, the decisive moment is there. Jackie turns around mid-stride, she takes off her sunglasses and she starts to smile. Galella snatches the moment with both hands. The resulting image, called Windblown Jackie, is both stunning and tender. This is a beautiful and sweet woman, caught unawares. It expertly captures Galella’s infatuation with her.
At first sight, something similar is going on in the C&A commercial. We see a man chasing a woman down the street in a big city. It could be New York. She could be Jackie. She has long, loose brown hair. She wears big sunglasses. Her outfit is simple yet elegant. She patently ignores the fact that someone is following her closely. The commercial then moves on to other characters going about their daily business in this bustling metropole, whilst not noticing being followed around. But this first scene is the most interesting to my mind.
After all, the woman is not just being chased, she is being pursued by a man carrying a large, white canvas. In fact, we assume it is a man, but we never catch a glimpse of him. In the same way many photographers hide behind their cameras, the stalker hides behind his white backdrop. The busy urban environment on view supposedly indicates that the chase is spontaneous and real. However, that very idea is contradicted by the placement of the white canvas directly behind the woman. In this way, the scene turns into a mobile photo studio.
The white background might look neutral at first glance, but as Broomberg & Chanarin have shown with their series American Landscapes, there is no such thing as a neutral white backdrop. They captured the white canvases used in photography studios across the United States in situ. So we see the real surfaces of the walls and floors adjacent to the artificial white backdrop on which illusions are created and dreams are being marketed through advertising. The white canvas in the C&A commercial therefore indicates that both the model and the clothes are being set up to be shown at their best advantage. An illusion is conjured up, a product is being sold. And indeed, later on in the commercial, a price tag appears in the top corner of the white background.
The artificiality of it all is not only obvious from the white canvas, but also from the chase itself. Galella’s pursuit of Jackie feels real. The emotions visible on both Galella’s face as well as Jackie’s prove it. The model from the C&A commercial on the other hand is completely emotionless. She is an empty vessel, a clothes horse. The pursuer’s emotions, or lack thereof, are not even on show. Everything and everyone is under complete control. There is no possibility to catch an unguarded moment like in Windblown Jackie.
 The brilliant exhibition Street & Studio: An Urban History of Photography at the Tate Modern Art Gallery in 2008 shows that to distinguish between street photography, with all its connotations of realism, spontaneity, and authenticity, and studio photography, with the accompanying notions of artificiality, control, and the creation of illusion, is in fact not that simple and straightforward. The exhibition shows that crossovers between the two have been part and parcel of the medium of photography ever since its inception.