The actor exhibiting her y2k collection of celebrity photos
In a new show at Junior High Los Angeles, Sarah Ramos offers a snapshot of fandom before Instagram.
The autograph is an ancient preoccupation, dating back at least to Roman times. Autograph collecting later arrived in America around 1815, and manifested during the Victorian era as a kind of hysteria: dedicated auction houses sprang up to service the market, and scribbled signatures went from cherished mementos to investment-grade commodities, reducing celebrity encounters to a transaction of pen and paper.
That is, until 2004 when Paris Hilton rang the death knell on John Hancock, and declared the selfie to be “the autograph of the 21st century." But the autograph book wasn’t dead yet and, just a year later, a 10-year-old Sarah Ramos would have the chance to collect the starlet’s signature, a core memory she committed to history in her diary: “We all got pictures w/ her and I got an autograph. Brittany was like ‘if she likes you she’ll call you bitch, and if she hates you she’ll call you bitch.’ Then she was like ‘Hey gorgeous.’ So I was like, does that mean she doesn’t like me?”
The entry is signed across Sarah’s child-actor headshot which she has unearthed along with other ephemera from the early 2000s for her debut exhibition Autograph Hound: A Retrospective at Junior High in Glendale, LA. The show, running now through 1 May with the help of the New York-based THNK1994 Museum, charts a lifelong celebrity obsession examined through the wide-eyed lens of one girl’s point-and-shoot. “The autograph hound journey is an emotional roller coaster,” Sarah says. “You first get that rush from seeing somebody you recognise, the adrenaline of asking them for that photo. If you overthink it and wonder if it's tacky, the moment’s going to pass you by.”
It began in 2001, when a euphoric Sarah in head-to-toe Limited Too got to pose with her twin gods, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, courtesy of a Caribbean cruise organised for superfans. She started acting soon after, and over the next 20 years documented nearly every Hollywood run-in, from Disney Channel stars to pop idols to the cast of Malcolm in the Middle. “When you do end up asking for the photo, it's humbling because you're pretty much just asking a stranger for a favour,” Sarah says. “You put them on a pedestal and yourself below them. You said, ‘a photo with you is more valuable to me than my dignity.’”
At the heart of the collection is a young girl’s latent desire for acceptance. As she gets older, Sarah becomes more disenchanted with the biz (“We don't live in the world that I was promised in 13 Going On 30”); her fan photos become blurry, tinted with irony. Still, she can’t suppress the inner fangirl, and her face keeps its same expression throughout: in a blissed out state of worship, like Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa if it had been captured on a T-Mobile Sidekick. “I like to think of my work as kind of upcycling the detritus that I have accumulated over the course of my career,” Sarah says. “It’s about reclaiming or elevating and celebrating things that I have felt ashamed of and been conditioned to believe had no value.”
Also exhibited are Sarah’s rejected audition tapes, edited into real movie scenes; City Girl, a web series lifted straight from a rom-com she wrote in 2003; and hand-sketched portraits of her fellow castmates on NBC’s Parenthood, which became a masterclass on how to work with your heroes. But, she says, she still struggles with the politics of celebrity, straddling the line between cool and what’s extra. “There's a level of enthusiasm that's accepted and a level of acting like you're not impressed, and if you were to act impressed it would imply you didn't belong here. But my takeaway is that celebrities are fans, too.”
At the opening of Autograph Hound on Friday, Sarah’s followers and famous friends posed for photo-ops all night in a bizarre simulacrum of the very machine the exhibit was interrogating. Both classes participating in the social contract of an art show about celebrity, by a celebrity, attended by celebrities. Stans had permission from the artist herself to embrace their inner autograph hound, which involved tears and sweat and heart palpitations, mainly in the all-star presence of internet boyfriends Logan Lerman and Dylan O’Brien. “Sarah’s work is cutting edge and totally ahead of the curve—a true, honest artist,” Dylan says after the show, where we’re interrupted by repeated requests to sign iPhones and Modelo beer bottles.
“I would say 99% of fans who came up to me that night, and just in general, start off with an apology,” he says. “Ironically, the hidden key is that you almost get more of me the less you ask for.” Over the course of a decade, Dylan can count on two hands the amount of times someone has come up to him just to say they liked his work. But lately, which is every day, there’s always an ask from a fan.
After all, a selfie is a handshake. It’s a hello or a goodbye, a way to start a conversation with a stranger, or end it. It's a photo on your camera, or a scribble on a page, collected in the purest admiration.
‘Autograph Hound: A Retrospective’ will be available at Junior High LA until 1 May.