Celebrities, Saints and Sinners: The Photograph as Holy Relic

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We are today surrounded not only by celebrities but, more importantly, their images. Yet even in this famously multi-media world, it is the photograph that remains especially equipped for celebrity imaging. This paper seeks to explain both the ubiquity and the appeal of the celebrity photograph. It pays particular attention to the idea of ‘presence’ in the celebrity image and ultimately argues that the photograph can be equated to a holy relic, especially the ‘representative’ classification of relic still recognised within organised religion today. It will be demonstrated that in both celebrity photograph and representative relic, the celebrity/saint, is both mortally absent yet curiously present. The paper begins by making trans-historical connections between images from the Classical, Byzantine, Medieval and contemporary periods, demonstrating the succession from hero to saint to celebrity; but it also explores conceptual issues of iconoclasm and ontology, finally uniting these historical and theoretical connections in the celebrity photography of the present day. It seeks, therefore, not primarily to uncover ‘new facts’ about the periods and practises discussed, but rather to elucidate the concerns of the present by drawing comparisons with images from the past. As Fred Inglis argues in A Short History of Celebrity, we need to understand: ‘just how historical is the contemporary.’ This is precisely what this paper seeks to achieve: While celebrity is often perceived as a contemporary phenomenon, its antecedents locate it firmly within history. Connecting themes include veneration through cult, premature death, perpetual youth and eternal life. Thus, this study of the celebrity photograph will help us to reflect not only on the nature of the medium, but also the increasingly religious nature of celebrity in the seemingly secular world today. Our understanding of the celebrity photograph must therefore be both ontologically grounded and historically linked. Ultimately, our investigation of the celebrity photograph will contribute to our understanding of celebrity itself.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)112-130
Number of pages19
JournalCelebrity Studies
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2011


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