'David Bowie Is' features Ziggy Stardust in pictures

David Bowie

David Bowie (David James, The David Bowie Archive / June 13, 2012)

"David Bowie Is," the exhibition catalog for the "David Bowie Is" retrospective that opened recently at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (currently breaking museum-attendance records, and running through August), is vast. "David Bowie Is," the coffee-table book, is also a pleasant orange. That's the first thing you notice: The front is orange, the back is orange, many interior graphics are orange; on the front, faded into a sunset hue, Bowie as youthful and spiky, that iconic lighting-bolt makeup slashing his face, and on the back, Bowie in his 40s, haggard and stricken. But composed. Always composed. There is not a picture in this doorstop — toothy Bowie at 6, sitting for what appears to be a school photo; cool Bowie at 20, cigarette at his side, staring questionably at the camera on a London rooftop; disguised Bowie several decades later, in a silver wig and disorientingly exact as Andy Warhol, on the set of the movie “Basquiat” — that appears candid or not self-consciously aware that someday, someone will wonder about this image, its meaning and how to replicate it. 


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Indeed, it's hard to say where to begin with this thing, because, as the exhibition's open title suggests, it's impossible to say where Bowie's headed. The book, like the show, is organized more by its themes — influences, style, sexuality — than a boorish collection of rock-star artifacts, though there are those: album covers, concept sketches from videos, mannequins wearing every conceivable Bowie costume.

And the stuff Bowie has kept — he reportedly has an archive of 75,000 pieces — is fun to stare at, the album-shoot contact sheets always telling. But the writing winding between the stuff, from music critic Jon Savage, Camille Paglia and others, lends context and picks away at Bowie with such insight — Paglia writes of Bowie's "genius for using the camera as others use a paintbrush or chisel, not from behind the camera but before it" — that it's a rare hagiography with soul. It's also, without a plane ticket, the closest you're going to get to this exhibition for some time. It's expected to tour, but that, like the man, remains a mystery.

Christopher Borrelli is a Chicago Tribune features reporter.

"David Bowie Is"

Edited by Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh, V & A Publishing, 288 pages, $55

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