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Being in Pictures

From childhood, Pittsburgh-born artist Andy Warhol (1928-1987) had worshipped celebrities. Stricken at an early age with a rare neurological disorder, the young Warhol found comfort and liberation in reading popular celebrity magazines and DC comic books. Warhol acquired his first Polaroid camera during the early 1960s. He first focused on images of male nudes but later turned to portraits. Intrigued by celebrity, Warhol captured private moments of public figures including Truman Capote, Ted Kennedy, John Lennon, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Dorothy Hamill, Bianca Jagger, and Farah Fawcett.
Many of Warhol’s polaroids were the source for his famous paintings, drawings, and silkscreen works. Warhol observed celebrity while documenting the panorama of fame, and in 1979 wrote: “Now it doesn’t matter if you came over on the Mayflower, so long as you can get into Studio 54. Anyone rich, powerful, beautiful, or famous can get into Society. If you’re a few of those things you can really get to the top.” (Warhol and Colacello, Andy Warhol’s Exposures, Grosset & Dunlop, Inc., New York, 1979, p.19)
In 2007, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts established the Andy Warhol Photographic Legacy Program that sought to provide the public a greater access to the artist’s photographs. The program donated over 28,500 of Warhol’s original polaroids and gelatin silver prints to more than 180 college and university museums and galleries across the country. Each institution received a selected gift of more than 100 polaroids and 50 black and white prints that reflected the extraordinary range of figures and subject matter captured by Warhol with his camera.
The polaroids reveal Warhol’s process. Viewers could absorb the intense emotional engagement that the artist had with his sitters, along with Warhol’s attraction to his subjects’ beauty, and his fascination with their power and persona. In the images the sitters’ reaction to Warhol and his camera display individuality and celebrate human presence. Another body of work in the Legacy Program includes black and white prints that Warhol made with a Minolta SLR, the automatic 35 mm camera that allowed him to shoot without concern for focus or light levels. The gelatin silver prints had become a visual diary of Warhol’s life. They expressed his aesthetic philosophy, compositional skill, eye for detail, and compulsive desire to document the world around him.
Warhol often made several images of his subject and by making several polaroids he had more material for his work, and at the same time, more about the sitter was exposed. Looking at a single polaroid, the image is fully identified with the artwork that it ultimately inspired. The single image becomes a signifier for cultural concepts such as beauty, power, and worth. In contrast, seen as a series, the polaroids destabilize the iconic status and resist the idealization of the subject.
Unlike his celebrity portraits, Warhol shot images of nudes, figures, and objects that he considered his “landscapes.” Provocatively explicit, the nudes expressed raw sexuality and erotic intensity, while images of objects showed silence, seriousness, humor, wit and the brilliance of the poetic eye that had captured them.
An exhibition of photographs entitled “Andy Warhol: Photographs” is currently showing at the DePaul Art Museum in Chicago. From the gift received through the Legacy Program,
DePaul has selected a group of Warhol’s polaroids and black and white prints that provide a view of the artist’s aesthetic consciousness as well as his unique embrace of our world. The images include objects, mannequins, male nudes, a striking 1979 polaroid series of controversial Jewish-Italian industrialist and publisher of left-leaning newspapers, Carlo De Benedetti, and an arresting 1979 polaroid of Farrah Fawcett. The exhibition runs through June 3.

Published: April 14, 2012
Issue: Spring 2012 Issue