PPD Reader Closeup: Letterman Writer Steve Young's Stupid "CelebriGum" Tricks

By David Schonauer   Monday February 11, 2013

“Every afternoon I stand by a second-floor window in the Ed Sullivan Theater and take mediocre photos of guests as they enter and leave the Late Show with David Letterman,” writes Steve Young at his CelebriGum blog. “In the foreground of each shot is a wad of old gum I noticed on the window ledge. There may be better paparazzi photos on the Internet, but this is the only place you'll find the juxtaposition of celebrities and hardened gum.”

Under this artist’s statement, Young includes a description of the work from his late-night boss, who properly calls the project “a perfectly silly, genius idea.”

“I spend time each afternoon in a hallway near Dave's dressing room, and that’s where I noticed the gum on the window ledge,” Young recently told PPD. The hardened wad began to intrigue him. “Months went by and it was still there. I toyed with the idea of taking photos to document its staying power.” But as an avid photographer—Young calls himself an “enthusiastic dilettante”—he wanted to turn the idea into something more complex. And as a writer for Letterman, a comedian who delights in balmy juxtapositions, he knew he’d found what he was looking for when realized he could photograph celebrities arriving at the theater with the gum glob in the foreground.



John Harbaugh and Elvis impersonator: "This is the kind of weirdness that keeps me coming back to the gum window," notes Young.


“I like the absurdity of it, and the plodding persistence of the project going on and on, as well as the thrill of getting the occasional truly striking image,” Young said. He created his CelebriGum blog as a way of collecting the images and commenting on them. “Many of the photos don't get much more fascinating than the conceptual gimmick, so I try to write something clever,” he said. The images often form themselves into strange, behind-the-scenes narratives: Recently, for instance, when Super Bowl-winning Baltimore Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh arrived for an appearance on the show, he was met at the stage door by another guest, one of the performers from the Late Show's Elvis Presley Tribute Artist Week. The coach and the Elvis impersonator struck a karate-stance pose for paparazzi on the street while Young recorded the scene from above. “This is the kind of weirdness that keeps me coming back to the gum window,” writes Young on the blog.



The CelebriGum blog's “favorite made-up gasbag art critic,” J. Arlen, says of this photo of actress Jessica Chastain, “Devastating. The axis captured by the CelebriGum camera delineates a modern trinity: the bold-faced name behind the fortification of official enthrallment, balanced by the excluded 'average Joe' and the piece of discarded gum”


Letterman found Young's photographic work so stimulating, or perplexing, that he sponsored an exhibition of it at New York’s Ameringer McEnery Yohe gallery in late 2011. But is it art? “I usually don't make it an overt part of the project, but I do think there's implied commentary on the absurdity of our celebrity-mad culture and the durability of the gum when so many of today's celebrities will soon be forgotten,” said Young. Letterman himself told the New York Times that Young’s project was, at its very core, stupid. “And so if you take something stupid and magnify it to this extreme, then it’s really stupid,” he said. “And I couldn’t be happier.”


tony"In an era when many celebrities are famous merely for being famous, and have accomplished about as much as a piece of gum stuck to a window ledge, it's instructive to consider the life and career of 86-year-old Tony Bennett," writes Young.


Young said he has considered featuring the CelebriGum images in a book but is daunted by the idea of getting releases from all the celebrities he’s photographed. “I have other projects I need to get to first,” he added. He does, however, now know who put the gum on the window ledge. “At the gallery show, champagne loosened some tongues,” he told us, “and I eventually got confirmation from a Late Show staffer that she'd put the gum on the ledge circa 2007.”

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