Photographer Jessica Craig-Martin Is High Society’s Cockeyed Optimist

Jessica Craig-Martin may live the life of your average

fashion photographer, shooting grinning celebs and Chloé-clad models, but on

the sly, she’s been working as an artist. For the last few years, her oeuvre has chronicled celebrity life in

its least glamorous, most naked moments. After she gets a smiley shot of Anh

Duong wearing the latest Tracy Feith frock at one of the swank parties she

attends for Vogue as their contract

photographer, she might then crouch surreptitiously on the ladies’ room floor

to capture Yvonne Force Villareal peeing, followed by Mary Boone’s bright

stilettos under the stall next door, or get the New York Post ‘s Richard Johnson on the dance floor glancing

lasciviously at a socialite’s jiggling breasts. These pictures aren’t glamorous

or alluring, or even very nice to look at. These pictures are art .

“Why do people go to parties? They’re all bad. But people

get dressed up-they go again and again. It’s some kind of strange optimism,”

Ms. Craig-Martin said when interviewed at her 17th-floor Horatio Street

apartment. It was noon. She was elegant and awfully pretty in her pajamas as

she edited the photos from a Dior couture shoot she did for an upcoming issue

of Nova, pausing at an image of a

model in a nurse’s uniform forcing an éclair down the throat of a beauty in

nun’s habit. That night, she was covering a party for Al and Tipper Gore.  “Let’s go see my agent,” she said, throwing

on a sporty track suit and sneakers.

This was a hectic day. Ms. Craig-Martin was in the midst of

trying to buy the apartment next door to use as her bedroom. (She had her

neighbor committed to Bellevue a few months ago after he started smashing

windows, playing loud music and ranting. “Having your neighbor committed’s the new thing to do in New York real

estate,” she mused.) After the Gore party, she was flying to Paris to prepare

for a gallery show and hadn’t bought her ticket yet. (She said she didn’t

normally leave things until the last minute, but one suspects that in fact she

does.) As she closed her front door, Ms. Craig-Martin realized she’d locked her

keys and beloved cell phone inside. Her doorman had to bail her out. When she

was reunited with her phone, she called to give instructions to her housesitter

and surprised her assistant by telling her she was buying her a ticket to

Paris. Then she got in touch with her travel agent several times, followed by

some guy named Guillermo.

At her agent’s office, located in a converted industrial

warehouse in Chelsea amidst unconverted industrial warehouses, she had one of

the hunky, slim-panted guys in the office fetch her art portfolio. Paging

through it, it’s immediately clear that Ms. Craig-Martin has a keen eye for the

grotesque. One of her favorite pictures is of a disembodied arm. The

liver-spotted flesh is so old it’s practically dripping off the bone. “That’s

Nan Kempner’s elbow,” she said of the slim septuagenarian socialite’s joint.

“It’s really scary.” Like most of her art photos, Ms. Craig-Martin used her

press credentials to get the shot at a party for Bill Blass: “I asked her if I

could take her picture for Vogue , and

then I just started taking other pictures.”

She took out a picture from “friend and muse” Ms.

Villareal’s wedding in Mexico. The art and fashion patroness was quoted in Vogue as saying that she enjoyed the

event so much, she often goes back there on vacation to revisit the experience.

Ms. Craig-Martin’s black-and-white photo, however, makes it look somber and a

little lonely. It shows a nearly empty room with a few catatonic guests sitting

far apart from one another. The groom’s 14-year-old nephew is slumped over on a

couch, passed out from drinking, she said. “I was completely drunk, too,” she

added. “And there was some guacamole on the lens.”

Another photograph captures the “notoriously litigious” (and

therefore headless) Ivana Trump sporting an emerald necklace and twinkly

earrings. Ms. Craig-Martin had asked her, “Are you wearing your own jewelry

tonight, or is that Harry Winston’s?” Almost everyone at the party was wearing

Harry Winston. Ms. Trump replied, “Darling, the necklace is Harry Winston, the

earrings are mine. They are five dollars. This is five million.” Ms.

Craig-Martin said she noticed the difference. “The earrings looked like a bit

of tinfoil. And her nails-they were Lee Press-On!”

Ms. Craig-Martin crops a lot of heads out of her photos.

There are artistic reasons for this-she thinks people focus only on the face

when they look at pictures of celebrities. But there’s another reason. Though

Ms. Craig-Martin isn’t the worrying type, she worries a lot about being sued.

She couldn’t say what part of her work in particular was against the law, but

she figures an image-sensitive subject could come up with something. She hired

a lawyer earlier this year, who advised her not to buy insurance against that

contingency. “They’re less likely to sue if you don’t have any money,” she

observed. But, she continued blithely, “I will

be sued. I know that. I just want it to be over the right photo. “

So far, there hasn’t

been any real trouble. Maybe that’s because the people in her pictures don’t

always realize they’re the subject of fine art. Reached by phone, Ms. Kempner,

who told W not long ago that she

“can’t stand flesh-you know, all that wiggly-jiggly fat,” was surprisingly

peppy to learn about the photo of her own wiggly-jiggly flesh. 

“I’d love to see them,” she wheezed. “I’ll keep my eye out.

You know what they say: If you can take my picture and write about me, I don’t

care what you say. It’s good for my book,” she said of her new collection of

recipes. “It’ll help me sell copies.”

The Post ‘s Mr.

Johnson knew about his portrait. “It’s great. It captured a joyous moment. It

was a great party, though I can’t remember where, or who threw it.” Did he

think he looked lascivious? “No!” he said, adding, “I’ve probably gotten

funkier on the dance floor, I’ll say that!”

Proudest of all was Ms. Villareal. “I love it!” she said of

the picture her friend took of her urinating. “And she took another picture of

me for Vogue that night!” She has one

of Ms. Craig-Martin’s photos above her dining-room table that shows Ms.

Villareal slurping chocolate soufflé with her eyes rolled back in her head.

“There’s a deep understanding of the superficial,” she said with a laugh. She agrees

that the wedding photo was sad. “Her work is both funny and it has moments of

sad reality. It’s not sad like, you know, ‘That person wore latex with that

suit,’ but sad like, ‘Oh, look at our society.’”

Ms. Craig-Martin sees not only the sad reality of society,

she’s also finely attuned to the disgusting bits that get glossed over. She

might have gotten a succulent photo of Gucci’s Tom Ford hosting the Dia Center

for the Arts benefit gala for Vogue,

but she also got a nauseating snapshot of a greasy salmon platter for herself.

“I once told someone at the London

Telegraph -it was a good quote,” she said. “I’m trying to remember: ‘When I

get to a party, the first thing I look for is how the food is dressed.’” This is Ms. Craig-Martin in a nutshell: as

obsessively conscious of her own image as she is of images in the world around

her. She points out the tiniest details of her photos-smudged lipstick, a

bizarre handbag-while she recalls other articles about her and suggests

beginnings, endings and things worth mentioning in this one.

Ms. Craig-Martin, 36, didn’t start taking pictures

professionally until she turned 30. She grew up in New York and London, where

her father, Michael Craig-Martin, is an artist and a former influential art

professor at Goldsmiths, where he taught Sensation

artists Damien Hirst and Gary Hume. “He’s held responsible for the new

generation of aggressive young British artists,” she said. She spent a year in

college before dropping out to trot the globe as a nanny for Helen and Brice Marden,

after which she worked as an assistant stylist for British Vogue . She was fired after seven months (though for what, she

wouldn’t say). Eventually, she moved to New York to work in the editorial

department at Vanity Fair . She got

married, studied anthropology at N.Y.U. and quickly got divorced before fleeing

the country. A six-month trip to Asia convinced her she wanted to be a travel

photographer, but the best work she could find back in New York was documenting

Christmas parties for a venture capitalist. Her boss, who was a bit of an

aesthete, encouraged her to take candids. These “strange pictures” eventually

became her art project. A reputation as a good party photographer brought her

to Anna Wintour’s attention in 1997. Soon, her party pics of art-world

acquaintances like Rachel Feinstein, Cecily Brown and Tracey Emin began

appearing among those of the usual celebrity suspects in Vogue ‘s “Talking Fashion” pages, helping to make artists chic again

for the first time since the 80′s. In 1999, the Times Styles section dubbed Ms. Craig-Martin “the symbolic love

child of the union of art and fashion.”

Lately, she’s been doing well. She recently showed at trendy

Deitch Projects in Soho and just sold a collection of 22 photos to Charles

Saatchi. (Her prints cost between $2,000 and $3,000 each.) She has a show at

P.S. 1 that opened in October, and a number of her images are part of the group

show “Party Pictures: From Studio 54 to Cannes 2000″ at Lawrence Rubin

Greenberg Van Doren Fine Art-a gallery known for nurturing sexy female

photographers like Malerie Marder and Dana Hoey-opening Dec. 13. “It’s shocking

to her that she’s become an artist,” said Ms. Villareal, who met Ms.

Craig-Martin before she started serious photography. “She grew up with

artists-her friends were artists-but she never saw herself that way.”

Her nibble of notoriety puts Ms. Craig-Martin in an awkward

situation. She now worries that people may recognize her as she snaps candids

and get scared or-worse-pose. As it is, she noted, “It’s quite hard at this

point to take an interesting picture of a celebrity.” But “interesting” is not

what her employer is after, anyway. “Everyone’s supposed to look good . What Vogue wants is so narrow,” she brooded. “Basically, [it's] Gwyneth

Paltrow in a douche commercial. Or you take the whole of Cannes, which is

hideous, and you publish 10 pictures and say, ‘That’s how glamorous it was.’

There’s a lot of ugliness.”

Ms. Craig-Martin’s art, however, is not so much about the

ugly truth but, as she explained, “the hope of glamour.” One of Ms.

Craig-Martin’s prettiest photos shows Fran Lebowitz sitting alone in a banquet

hall, surrounded by tables set in crisp, warm colors. For perhaps the only

time, you can see the travel photographer in Ms. Craig-Martin. The room looks

pristine, even inviting. “There has to be that optimism,” she said.

The optimism explains why most of the time, it’s more fun to

try and get into a party than actually to be there, she said, relating tales of

list-crashing and sadistic publicists. “Once you’re inside, the glamour

evaporates,” she sighed. But don’t get her wrong: Ms. Craig-Martin has managed

to have some fun on the job. She’s made out with Marilyn Manson (“He was a very

good kisser,” she said-twice) and has been whacked in the head with a penis

while shooting an orgy that erupted on a speedboat during the Venice Biennale.

(She later wrote about the experience for sex site Nerve.com.) Her dual status

in the fashion and art worlds gave her the unique opportunity to introduce

Damien Hirst to Martha Stewart. Ms. Stewart, she said, complimented Mr. Hirst’s

work. In return, Ms. Craig-Martin related, Hirst said in his Cockney patois, “I

like your telly show. I learned how to cut the head off a pineapple.” Things

got awkward, though, when Ms. Stewart tried to introduce Mr. Hirst to

photographer Todd Eberle. “Yeah, I know him,” Mr. Hirst said. “I hate him. He

fucked my wife.” Ms. Stewart looked concerned. “I’m sure you’re thinking of the

wrong person,” she said. “Todd Eberle is gay.” Mr. Hirst retorted, “I know. My

wife’s gay as well.” (Neither Ms. Stewart nor Mr. Hirst would confirm the

story.) Ms. Craig-Martin took a photo of them, in which she wanted to show

that, deep down, they are both the same person: “Totally anal megalomaniacs.”

Ms. Craig-Martin herself could be said to be a strange

hybrid of Mr. Hirst and Ms. Stewart. She may have an eye for the flamboyant and

the grotesque and be desensitized to random genitalia and bodily secretions,

but she still enjoys the trappings of the good life. A “totally admitted Prada

whore”-albeit one who has admitted to using fashion as a “means of subterfuge”

and a way to blend in at parties-she’s exceptionally fit and blond, and looks

about 25. Lately she’s been lusting after a $6,000 mink sweatshirt. “You can

just throw it on with jeans,” she said, adding, “In fact, that might be the only way to wear it.” It isn’t

surprising to learn that she was photographed for Vogue ‘s society page at a party for her father. What’s next, an

appearance in an art photo-perhaps one of friend Vanessa Beecroft’s Gucci-girl

tableaux-or one of her own photographs? She called from Paris to say as much:

“You can say I’m destined to become my own subject. I was sitting in bed and it

hit me. I guess I’m kind of lampooning myself with my art. You need an ending

for your article. And I think that’s it.”