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Revealing the Mechanism of ‘Buy It!’ Message : Art: The link between photography and the culture of consumption is examined in the ‘Commodity Image’ exhibit in Laguna.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Not so long ago, we were what we ate. Now, according to Willis Hartshorn, incoming director of the International Center of Photography in New York, we are what we buy.

But that doesn’t make us the most shallow people in the history of humankind.

“There is a tendency today to be very negative about issues of consumption and consumerism,” said Hartshorn, curator of “Commodity Image,” an exhibition opening today at Laguna Art Museum. “There’s a tendency to feel self-conscious, particularly among Americans.

“But the act of consumption has defined us from the beginning of time,” Hartshorn said. “It’s a complicated relationship, and some of it may be unattractive, especially when it’s a matter purely of fashion or style. But it is such a strong driving force, so central to how our world works, that I think we underappreciate its power and influence.”

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To sort out that complicated relationship, Hartshorn, 43, uses mostly recent photographs to look at our preoccupation with consumption; the role of photography in today’s consumer lifestyle and how commercial photography influences our collective desires; how photographs themselves have become a commodity, and other far-flung aspects of the pas de deux of photographic art and commerce.

The touring exhibition, which opened in New York last year and traveled to Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art before reaching Laguna, is divided into eight sections such as “Celebrity, Sex and Glamour,” “Work and Labor” and “Money.” Art, advertising and social-documentary photographers include Cindy Sherman, Barbara Norfleet, Lee Friedlander and Stephen Meisel.

“Photography in the Art Market” traces Ansel Adams’ “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” (circa 1941) through incarnations as a gelatin silver print, wall calendar and post card. Also displayed are a print of Adams’ “Yosemite Valley, Winter” (1940) as it appeared on a Hills Bros. coffee can and contemporary photographic commentaries on Adams’ work including Michael Bishop’s “Aspirinrise” (1973) and Jim Stone’s “Pricerise” (1981).

In other sections, Andrew Bush muses on the workings of the art market: A print of a $1 bill in an edition of one fetches $1,000, while the image of a $1,000 bill, printed in an edition of 1,000, fetches $1. The press kit for the Photo, Fragrance for Men cologne suggests that “The Lagerfeld Photo Man shoots and directs the scenes of his own life. Passion. Success. Energy . . . .”

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According to Hartshorn, photographs may be endlessly seducing us into buying things we don’t need, but that doesn’t mean we should think of photography as the devil’s handmaiden.

“It’s like so much else in our culture,” he said. “You have to accept responsibility for understanding what is going on around you. We can no longer suggest that the way photographs operate is something we don’t understand. We know where truth ends and where fantasy begins in an image. Or (at least) we know where we should become suspicious.”

Knowing where to be suspicious allows individuals to exercise freedom of choice and good judgment, which Hartshorn suggests is preferable to society trying to limit choices, ostensibly for the good of the individual.

“Like cigarettes,” he said. “Clearly the only defense is not to get rid of these things, cigarettes.”

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Funny that Hartshorn should bring up cigarettes: The exhibition and tour is being sponsored by Philip Morris Companies Inc.

“It’s an interesting point,” Hartshorn said. “Philip Morris was very conscious of the fact that the very questions raised in the show were questions that they faced on a daily basis. It is to their credit that they were willing to participate and support something that asked questions that struck very close to home.”

For the public, the question that strikes closest to home is not which came first, the desire to smoke or the advertisement showing a smoking cowboy; not which came first, designer jeans or the image of a sultry model wearing those jeans.

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But since we know so well how easily photographic representations are manipulated, the question becomes: Why do we so readily swallow the messages they convey--and buy what we see?

“On one hand, we don’t anymore,” Hartshorn said. “As a culture, it’s clear that we’re suspicious. We no longer look at a photograph and say, ‘That’s reality, that’s true.’

“We allow ourselves to suspend our disbelief in moments when it suits our emotional needs. When the image represents a product, we allow ourselves to believe its message (because doing so) provides a level of pleasure and reassurance, because it provides an element of fantasy.”

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All of this may be giving the public a great deal more credit than is due.

“I’m not saying that we all know this, (but that) there is enough information that we all should know this,” Hartshorn said. “One thing the exhibition is saying is that you can t be passive.”

According to Hartshorn, it is possible to learn how to avoid being seduced by images’ seductive power.

“You have to be able to look at how many directions (an image) is coming at you from,” he said. “We must be able to (see the image as) independent.

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“I don’t want people to just be turned off, to think that all this is so terrible and manipulative,” Hartshorn said. “I want people to step back and look at the operation.

“To see how Madonna is functioning in our culture, how she has been able to use every medium available--books, television, movies, magazines, recordings, absolutely everything--to create herself and constantly re-create herself to somehow keep us interested.

“Those mechanisms are what this exhibition is about,” he said. “Those are the mechanisms that continue to fascinate.”

* “Commodity Image” opens today at Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach. Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Through July 24. $3-$4, under 12 free. A lecture series is being offered in conjunction with “Commodity Image.” Featured speakers will be Mitchell Syrop, whose “Junk Bond” is featured in the exhibition (May 25); David Avalos, best known for a project partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts in which signed $10 bills were distributed to migrant workers in San Diego (June 1); and John Rosenfield, curator of rock memorabilia for the Hard Rock Cafe chain, (June 8). Lectures are at 7 p.m. $8 each or $15 for all three lectures. (714) 494-8971.

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