When I was growing up, my mother used to tell a story about a beautiful navy pea coat that she wanted after seeing it in a catalog. She begged her own mother, who felt the coat would not be warm enough for Wisconsin winters. Finally, my mother won out. But when the coat came, it didn’t look the way it had in the pictures. It wasn’t warm enough, and in the cold, the fabric got hard, so wearing it was like walking around in cardboard. The lesson seemed to be: sometimes dreams don’t match reality, and there’s nothing you can do.
Simone Lueck’s exhibition at Kopeikin Gallery through February 26, American Movie, conjures that sort of story. It features people Lueck found through casting calls she held in different cities, asking people to pose as either specific icons or generic ones. In Berlin, she asked people to play Marlene Dietrich; in Atlanta, she asked for Scarlett O’Hara; in New York, she asked for buxom brunettes and blonde bombshells.
Her unforgiving lighting seems better suited to a reality show, though, and the first thing you notice is how not-quite-right each figure is. Matthew, who responded to the Scarlett O’Hara call, wears a black wig and faux pearls over a vintage black dress with puffed sleeves and shoulders that drown his arms. He’s posed in harsh sunlight, and his wide, dramatic eyes pull at the heartstrings. But he seems all wrong, wearing that dress in that place.
Other photographers have used open calls for their work. When L.A.-based photographer Charlie White held a casting call for the ideal California teenage girl, it was unnerving how well the teens who responded fit themselves into the ideal of blond, sunny prettiness. Katy Grannan found subjects through classified ads and photographed them in intense California sun that threw their unconventionality into focus. The resulting images did not always seem kind, but Grannan allowed her subjects to be who they were.
Lueck’s images, on the other hand, emphasize what her actors are not. In an image of Cee, another Scarlett wannabe, sitting at a Dairy Queen, her big yellow hat makes it seem like she’s wandered away from a costume party. The show is effective in that way: it forces you to think about the gap between ideal and real. But it’s hard not to wish the gap were less glaring, because then maybe the images would feel more sensitive to each individual actor’s aspirations.