This summer marks the five-year anniversary of Michael Jackson's death. Immediately after the King of Pop passed away in 2009, photographer Lorena Turner found herself documenting both ad-hoc and official Michael Jackson tributes with thousands of grieving fans, from Harlem's Apollo Theater to Downtown's Staples Center to Hollywood Boulevard. She witnessed throngs of impersonators of all ages moon-walking across the streets against a backdrop of merchandisers eager to capitalize on the mayhem with Jackson-inspired swag such as his signature sequined gloves and fedoras. Inspired by the widespread mourning and celebration of MJ's extraordinary life and premature death, Turner set out to find and photograph a selection of Michael Jackson impersonators in her new book, "The Michael Jacksons."
With an MFA in Photography, Turner teaches in the Communication Department of Cal Poly Pomona. She considers herself both a photographer and a sociologist, seeking to bridge the gap between photography and social-science research by using photographs to illustrate her analysis, which in turn brings meaning to the photographs themselves. In the case of "The Michael Jacksons," the result is equal parts photography and ethnography, featuring not just images, but also a written critical study of Michael Jackson's influence on American popular culture along with a series of six narratives related to some of the performers.
Between 2009-2013, Turner photographed 35 Michael Jackson impersonators, regardless of age, gender, or ethnicity. The only thing they all had to have in common was a dedication to channeling Michael Jackson's persona, and not as much through performance or even through resemblance, but in the way each subject interpreted Jackson, both personally and visually. In her book, Turner carefully explores how these performers construct their character through naming and identity, appearance, as well as race/racial identity.
"I really thought of this experience as 'collecting' people, and I didn't want to initiate any type of editing criteria and photographed everyone with whom I came in contact," she explains. "Most performers, however, did show up with at least three different 'looks,' so in the end, when I was editing the pictures, I could make choices that offered a variety of Michael Jackson looks. But really I wanted to choose the photos of the outfits that were the most unique of each performer."
For her project, Turner used the same background and lighting for each subject in order to focus on different interpretations of Michael Jackson's iconography. Through written narratives, she provides a context for each individual's association and experience with Michael Jackson, with the text complementing -- and in a sense, further illustrating -- the source of each subject's own unique form of visual representation.
"Overall, I have found this approach to be a bit of a tough sell in both the photography world and the academic world," she observes. "I've had sociologists tell me that they can't see what use photography would have in a research capacity, and in the photography world, there is an expectation that photographers and their work (literally) stay on the surface of things."
But the book is even more than an ethnographic study of Michael Jackson impersonators through portraits and and text. It's also an examination of Jackson's career and his personal life, and its impact on race relations as well as the manner in which the American population perceives race today. When it comes to impersonation, one may almost forget that technically, Caucasian performers are performing what could be considered blackface, which is rooted in minstrel-show stereotypes that further impeded African American civil rights in the United States. In the case of female performers, they're doing drag -- which gender theorists have argued is just another questionable appropriation of a separate demographic to either exploit and/or mock said demographic. But in the end, Michael Jackson's own reinvention of his personality moved many beyond stereotypes.
"It is clear that Michael Jackson worked to define himself as an artist who stood outside of the social definitions that we, as a culture, tend to pigeon hole musical performers," Turner points out. "I like to think that the performers are looking at Michael Jackson as an entity that exists outside of those distinctions/classifications."
Turner is careful to use the term "impersonators," choosing to classify different types of Michael Jackson performers into various categories. A lookalike, for instance, resembles Michael Jackson, but little else. Meanwhile, an impersonator often looks like Michael Jackson, but also draws from MJ's character through performance. The tribute artist, in turn, further employs and explores Michael Jackson's personality through looks, performance, and overall portrayal.
All are "representers" who seek to essentially convey Michael Jackson's presence. The "High Presenters (High-Level Execution/High Visibility)" are mostly impersonators and some tribute artists. They don't sing, but often appear regularly in front of large audiences in places like Las Vegas. "The Intermediate Presenters (Mid-Level Execution, High-to-Mid-Level Visibility)" perform in multiple venues, versus appearing regularly on one stage. Like the "High Presenters," they sustain themselves financially through their performances, wear quality costumes, and often have agents or managers. Then there are "Traditional Presenters (Mid-Level Execution/Mid-Level Visibility)" who are often at the start of their careers as Michael Jackson impersonators, or just performing as him for a short period before moving on to other projects. Finally, the "Neo-Presenters (Low-Level Execution/Low-Level Visibility) includes mostly sidewalk performers or people who are hired to appear at different smaller events such as birthday parties.
Locally, the growth of Hollywood Boulevard performers in Los Angeles signifies the recent rise of the area's (re)gentrification and mounting status as a tourist generation, enabling substitute stars from Superman to Elmo to work as living, breathing, costumed photo opportunities. It paved the way for more Michael Jackson "Neo-Presenters," and while Turner photographed residents of bigger cities such as Las Vegas, New York, and Atlanta -- as well as smaller ones such as Florence, South Carolina and Meridian, Mississippi -- quite a few of her subjects are based in Southern California. In the end, though, what does Turner believe to be the future of all these American interpreters, impersonators, and tribute artists -- "High-Presenters" or otherwise?
"I believe there will be a decline of this type of performance because so many of the representers today came to Michael when they were in their early teens/teens, which was the time he was doing some of his most popular work, and he had a very strong foothold within popular culture," she says. "Now that he's not generating new work, there's a stagnancy and he doesn't have the same appeal to young people. Contemporary and future impersonators/tribute artists are more likely to emulate or represent performers who embody social and cultural issues that parallel their own experience, their own time. That being said -- even though I finished writing this book [in 2013], I still see new representers who are young posting their performance videos and marketing themselves on Facebook all the time. And they do it with such great energy -- as if they have singularly discovered the magic of Michael Jackson. It's really wonderful to see that."