Photography James Abbe National Portrait Gallery, London

'This show emphasises the folly of putting our faith in idols - whether in Hollywood or Nuremberg'

If, in the 20th century, popular culture has replaced religion as the opium of the people, its icons are photographs of the idols in its temporary pantheon. An important force in the creation of this alternative ideology was the American photographer James Abbe, who, from the 1920s, made his name with portraits of British and American cinema and music- hall stars.

While his skill was undeniable, Abbe's achievement as creator of a genre of character studies of starlets is perhaps not as revolutionary as it might be painted. His early portraits have the posed stiffness of David or Corot, while his backstage images of the same period are merely uninspired photographic versions of Victorian paintings. With his portrait of Cecil B De Mille of 1922, however, Abbe does enter new territory. The great director sits in a 17th-century interior, a surreal vision in correspondent shoes, staring fixedly at an ivory statuette of a nude girl, as if his gaze alone might bring her to life. It is this ability to impart something of the essence of the sitter that marks out Abbe's better work from the gloss of the fan-club photograph.

Compare, for example, two photographs of the Dolly Sisters, a famous Twenties cabaret act. Pictured in their risque Folies Bergere-style costumes, they smile directly at the camera with the shaky self-confidence of the 1920s sexual revolution. Caught off duty, however, as one lights a cigarette for the other, their winning smiles have been replaced by a look of knowing cynicism which hints at the sham behind their stage presence. At their best, such works by Abbe are uniquely candid commentaries on early tinseltown. For the most part, though, for all their intimacy, they are merely the idealised images demanded by the fans.

That such visual hagiography did not satisfy Abbe's ambition became evident during the late 1920s. In 1927 he embarked on a new career in the emerging sphere of photojournalism with a visit to Moscow. Although initially it was the film industry that attracted Abbe's attention, he soon began to look at the real-life events of a rapidly changing world. In this guise he travelled to Cuba, Mexico and Germany, where he chronicled the rise of Nazism.

The truth is, however, that, for all his enthusiasm, Abbe was not cut out to be a photojournalist; his style had been nurtured in an atmosphere of carefully controlled unreality. His photograph of Brownshirts in a Munich bierkeller, for example, has a curious similarity to an earlier image of a crew backstage on a Hollywood film set. In such parallels this show emphasises the folly of putting our faith in idols - whether in Hollywood or Nuremberg. Abbe deserves his place as one of the great myth-makers of the 20th century. Goebbels would have loved him.

n To 24 March. Details: 0171-306 0055

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