Alison Jackson is showing me a photo on her iPad of the Queen changing the nappy or checking the sex of baby George as Kate and Wills stand by, smiling. “I have about eight babies,” she says. “Because they only last about an hour and we do a full-day’s shoot.”
Of course the scene is staged, not real. This is Jackson’s trademark: lookalike celebrities posed in private moments that the public would never otherwise see. Often the images appear to have been captured surreptitiously on iPhones, but this latest series looks Hello!-worthy. In another photograph, Kate, Wills and baby George are in the bath together. “I’ve got five lookalikes of Kate,” says Jackson. “I shoot them in a particular way.” She points to Wills’ hairline. “The light’s shining behind him so it looks like he’s bald.” She smiles. “Tricks like that.”
Jackson, 43, has just got off the “red-eye” from New York, where she has been holidaying with friends in the Hamptons. We meet at the top-floor restaurant of The National Portrait Gallery, overlooking a spectacular but muggy London. She is formidable: glamorous in a tight-fitting black top and immaculate blonde hair. Her figure is toned and she wears large sunglasses like one of her celeb subjects. When she takes them off, her eyes are large and green and penetrating. I feel as though she is boring into my soul or sizing me up for a lookalike photo.
Jackson is a huge fan of Andy Warhol, and she speaks in similar Svengali-like tones. “I think any screen, or any image, is very seductive,” she says. “One makes the people into objects, which is delicious as a viewer, because then you can just fantasise. You can project your own fantasies onto the performer, rather than have to deal with the real person, which is always slightly awkward.” There is a pause, then we both laugh. “We really are living in a time of imagination.” This weekend, a lucky bidder will have the opportunity to pose in one of Jackson’s photographs as part of the Macmillan De’Longhi Art Auction. Raising money for cancer support services, there will be an exhibition of the auctioned works at the Royal Collage of Art.
Jackson is fiercely clever, enormous fun, and utterly fascinating about her work and the larger philosophical implications of constructing mise-en-scènes of famous doppelgangers, which have ranged over her 15-year and very fruitful career from Marilyn Monroe masturbating to Tony Blair line-dancing in cowboy regalia on George Bush Jnr’s Texas ranch. There is an early shot of Prince William gripping the hair of an adoring fan who has written in red lipstick on his chest: KING. Rather than the expression of an adoring father, his face shows sexual aggression and right-to-rule arrogance.
I put it to Jackson that her images once seemed like critiques of those with wealth and power, a takedown of the empty icons of mass culture, but now seem gentler, less subversive. Indeed, walking through The National Portrait Gallery gift-shop on the way to our meeting, there are postcards of the real Kate and Wills that appear no more cosy than Jackson’s latest series. “I’ve got to gauge it every time something happens,” she says. “And I think the whole Wills and Kate thing is very euphoric.” Is she a royalist? “Well, I’m certainly not anti-royal. I don’t think they’re a drain or a drag.”
Jackson’s career has been entwined with the fall and rise of the royals, following the death of Princess Diana. She made a series of works in the aftermath that are disturbing: she aims a gun at images of Diana’s face and shoots. Next, she made a series of works in which she dressed up as Diana. So why did she decide to stop impersonating and start hiring lookalikes? “I wanted to get it right,” she says. “I wanted to actually replace the real. Can you replace the real? Rather than just fake it. I think you can.”
There is a Warhol-esque embrace of the American Dream behind Jackson’s vision. And in her own way, she is visionary. She describes growing up in her wealthy landowning family’s 11th-century renovated monastery in Gloucestershire. “I lived a very sheltered life,” she says. “And I lived my life with my camera. So I took photographs all the time. But I didn’t have much to take photographs of because I lived in the middle of nowhere, with nobody around. All on my own.” Did her parents introduce her to art? “No, I knew nothing. I had a very bad education and didn’t really learn anything other than needlework, and I had a phobia of needles anyway. . And then I was supposed to marry someone and stay down in the country and never ever leave. I knew that I would literally drown in nothingness there.”
But she did leave. Despite the family money, Jackson is a self-made woman. She moved to London and became a receptionist in a TV production company instead of going to university. She became a producer at the age of 22. Later, she studied sculpture at Chelsea as a mature student and then photography at the RCA. She doesn’t have any children. “I enjoy what I do so there was a point when I made that decision,” she says. Is it possible for women to have a family and a successful career? “I think you can do both. I just think it’s much more difficult. She doesn’t want to say whether she has a partner or not.
In the future, she would like to direct a feature film and do a PhD on “voyeurism and replacing the real and authenticity, those kinds of things that I’m really fascinated by”. She remarks, wryly: “The edited view is so much better.”
Macmillan De’Longhi Art Auction, tonight, tomorrow and Monday at the Royal Collage of Art, London SW7.
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