Clive Holden: Unfamous Faces in American Places


Fame doesn’t fulfill you. It warms you a bit, but that warmth is temporary. ― Marilyn Monroe


By Matthew Ryan Smith

Clive Holden: UNAMERICAN UNFAMOUS. Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto.  January 23 – April 14, 2013.


Clive Holden’s new work UNAMERICAN UNFAMOUS, recently on display at the Ryerson Image Centre at Ryerson University in Toronto, speaks about fame as something which defines American-ness. For those unaffected (or impervious) to the baptism of celebrity, the very ‘success’ of their lives and legacy can be thrown to question as, it seems, a successful life has become dependent upon a recognizable one: life, liberty and the pursuit of fame. Holden’s work moves about in these circles. Essentially, and unrelentingly, UNAMERICAN UNFAMOUS desacralizes the cult of celebrity by appropriating non-celebrity faces as sites for meditation. His handling of media is grounded in a hyper-aesthetic network, where faces and places of the unfamous are paced and circulated at vacillating intervals, charging viewers to strain their memory and revel in apperception.

Occupy Protester (Oakland, CA). Community-nominated by Sanaz Mazinani.

Occupy Protester (Oakland, CA). Community-nominated by Sanaz Mazinani.

For the work’s inaugural exhibition and iteration, Holden has isolated, cropped and put on display one-hundred images from the nearly 270,000 photographs in the Ryerson Image Centre’s Black Star photo collection that do not contain a direct relationship to American fame or celebrity culture, specifically, to Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Jackie O and the other faces associated with Americana. Moreover, Holden has concerned himself with exhibiting images that have seldom been seen, and by doing so responds to the question of whether or not it is fundamentally un-American to be unfamous. It’s a biting prospect because it cuts into the very integrity of the American way of life, and in subsequent exhibitions, Holden will draw on a variety of media archive resources in his search for visual history’s unjustly ignored.

The large data-driven installation, created for media walls or projections, uses complex coding systems such as HTML5, JavaScript and CSS to create randomization algorithms which construct a circuitous system where the flow of images and their juxtapositions cannot occur more than once. Composed of electronically interchangeable rectangular frames, it shuffles and shifts, depending on the algorithm, from eight frames to thirty-two then sixteen and back to eight again. This volatile framing structure serves to reduce, reconstruct and increase images in a frenetic and unanticipated configuration. Much like his other works such as Countdown 8s (2013) and Wind at Lake Manitoba (2013), images intermingle with written text such as the words “UNAMERICAN” and “UNFAMOUS,” which flicker alongside multi-coloured film leaders, drawing attention to the appearance of narrative cinema itself. Somewhere in this randomized repetition and fulguration lies a story, perhaps only half-formed, but ever-evolving. It’s a story of cultural critique and personal dissatisfaction, where other people’s lives, other famous people’s lives, are supposed to fill the gaps in our own.


“Mediamontage” still, incorporating details from a Steve Schapiro photograph.

Arrested in snapshots of informal time are images of people, the so-called “unfamous” themselves: young, old, black, white, Asian, women and men in all their uncelebritous glory. Many reside unaware of the camera while some match its cold, monochromatic stare. Holden’s selection of images—in addition to the ten that were community-nominated via the internet and chosen from personal collections—are driven by the idea that to “know” someone may not necessarily imply that you must know them deeply, face-to-face, but to attempt to understand them, to empathize with them and their circumstances. So UNAMERICAN UNFAMOUS may also be about the pure want to understand another individual. It was for this reason that Holden decided not to choose many compelling photographs in the Black Star collection that represent war, poverty, political unrest and so on. For Holden, “among the remaining photo subjects, there were people in the throes of extreme grief, often in war zones. As compelling as these were, it seemed to me that they were mainly photos of grief itself and less about the person who was doing the grieving.”

By selecting ten community-nominated photographs as part of the one-hundred photographs through an online public participation strategy, Holden expands the limits of the work by incorporating “unfamous photographs” from private collections. UNAMERICAN UNFAMOUS elevates the status of the individual by consecrating them into the annals of a work of art while illustrating the media process by which celebrities have little control over their images.

For subsequent exhibitions and unique iterations of this evolving work, Holden has stated his intention to expand on the same themes while using images from a wide variety of public, private, and personal media archives, discarded photo and motion picture resources, as well as those accessed through a greatly expanded social media-fueled community outreach. In each exhibition, local, regional or national focuses may also be brought to the work’s on-going manifestation.



  1. For more on these works see my exhibition review of Holden’s 2013 show at Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto: Matthew Ryan Smith, “Mediated Algorithms,” Afterimage: The Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism, Vol. 40, No. 6 (2013).
  2. James Fowler, “Unamerican Unfamous: An Interview with Clive Holden,” (04 February, 2013).



Matthew Ryan Smith, Ph.D., is a writer, independent curator and educator based in Toronto, Canada. His writings have been featured in several Canadian and international publications including C Magazine, ArtUS, FUSE, Afterimage, Magenta, Visual Arts News and Artinfo Canada.



Who’s your favourite unfamous un-American?


For the inaugural exhibition of UNAMERICAN UNFAMOUS, a random composition installed on Ryerson Image Centre's media wall in 2013, ten community-nominated snap shots and 100 photographs from RIC's Black Star Collection were incorporated into the work.

Future iterations will be made with raw materials from other filmic and media archives in the on-going evolution of the work, until its final version in 2020. These public collection materials will be combined with personal and found media such as Super 8 and 16mm family movies, and social media-nominated photos from the communities wherever the work is shown.