Catherine Zuromskis

In his recent definitive biography of Andy Warhol, Blake Gopnik cannily describes the famed pop artist as a ‘closeted photographer’.[1] Indeed, while Warhol has been celebrated (and sometimes reviled) for his work as a painter, a film-maker, a sculptor, a savvy self-promoter, and an iconic countercultural personality, we rarely think of Warhol as a ‘photographer’ in the conventional sense. Yet few photographers have been so astoundingly prolific. Warhol first began making photographs with a Kodak Brownie at the tender age of nine (his older brother John helped him set up a darkroom in the basement of their Pittsburgh home) and his fascination with photography continued into and throughout his adult life. From his emergence as an artist in the early 1960s through to his death in 1987, Warhol seems to have been almost continuously either behind or in front of a camera. During the last decade of his life, according to one account, Warhol shot a roll of film a day.[2] Part of this photographic habit was to fuel his art practice. Warhol used Polaroids to make images for his silkscreen portraits, and late in his life he produced a handful of 35 mm black-and-white print multiples stitched together with thread. He also published a series of photobooks that mingled the social commentary of Robert Frank’s street photography with the star-gazy, flashbulb eye of the celebrity paparazzo. Over the course of his life, Warhol also befriended, dated, collaborated with, and posed for, numerous photographers – from his lover, the documentary photographer Edward Wallowich, and his best friend and confidante, Brigid Berlin, to a teenage Stephen Shore, official in-house photographer Billy Name, and renowned fashion and art photographers like Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton and Robert Mapplethorpe. Together, these photographs constitute a near-continuous photographic record of Warhol’s routines, social engagements and artistic production, from the experimental beginnings of the Factory in the 1960s, to his celebrity-studded lifestyle of the 1970s and up to his death at the age of fifty-eight. And yet, until recently, this massive body of photographs has garnered surprisingly little attention.

Or perhaps it is not so surprising. The sheer volume of images alone poses a distinct challenge to the researcher, the curator, or the archivist – a truly comprehensive assessment is all but impossible. And Warhol’s photographs are not only large in number; they also defy easy aesthetic categorisation. Warhol liked his cameras idiot-proof and maintained a profound lack of interest in honing any kind of photographic skill. As a result, his photographs are consistently bad – for want of a better word. They are blurry, erratically lit, chaotically composed, and poorly timed. Warhol favoured an approach – one hesitates to call it an aesthetic – that seems utterly artless, banal, even boring. And at a time when many art photographers worked to elevate their work by distinguishing it from commercial culture, Warhol did just the opposite, embracing consumerism by taking on portrait commissions for wealthy socialites, shutter-bugging at celebrity soirees, and obsessively chronicling his own possessions and luxurious lifestyle.

Perhaps then, a better way to understand the aesthetic meaning of Warhol’s vast and confounding corpus of blown-out Polaroids and grainy black-and-whites is through a more indirect route, to think of them not as works of art, but instead, as precisely what they appear to be: everyday, ‘snapshot’ photographs. Snapshots are, first and foremost, personal images. We take snapshots of people, places and things that mean something to us. As a consequence, the ‘snapshooter’ is generally less concerned with the aesthetic or formal innovation and more with capturing a moment or an individual on film. Put a bit differently, a good snapshot need not be a ‘good photograph,’ per se, as long as it is a photograph of someone looking good. And the process of taking snapshots is one of signification, of designating an event or an individual worthy of preserving and remembering. The subject of the snapshot is invested in the photographic act as well, and by choosing to pose or not, to smile or not, contributes to the quality of the image. The snapshot then implies a kind of tacit social contract, in which the subject agrees to pose, and the photographer, to flatter the subject as best they can. And within that contract is a mutual affirmation of past and future affections between photographer and subject.

Many of the images produced through Warhol’s enthusiastic picture-taking habit demonstrate the candid informality and intimacy so characteristic of snapshot photography. Certainly, the signature looks of preferred cameras such as the photobooth and the Polaroid Big Shot conveyed a sense of novelty and play. Warhol’s fascination with the photobooth and the clunky Polaroid Big Shot, with its fixed focal length, served as the basis for his celebrity portrait paintings, but these images also produced many more images (by his own account as many as fifty for a single portrait) that were notably not made into paintings and, perhaps, were never intended to be.[3[ Take, for example, a photobooth strip depicting an intimate trio affably crammed into the small space of the automated portrait studio. They are Warhol’s dashing studio assistant and collaborator Gerard Malanga, exuding male glamour in a bold polka dot shirt and slicked back hair; Warhol’s lover, the moodily handsome Philip Fagan, hanging shyly back, his head tilted slightly toward Malanga; and emerging comically from the bottom of the frame, Warhol himself, his gaze hidden behind dark glasses. Warhol’s expression is almost inscrutable, except for the third frame, where a slight curl at the side of his mouth suggests a touch of a smile. It is a sequence that seems to have no artistic pretentions; rather, it is a familiar kind of image, a group of friends and lovers, posing together just for fun. Similarly, in outtakes from his extended Polaroid portrait sessions, Warhol captures irreverent and candid moments, which stand in stark contrast to the stylish flatness of his silkscreen paintings. A Polaroid of Lee Radziwill (baby sister to Jackie Kennedy and a Warhol friend and muse), for example, almost maintains the aristocratic elegance that defines her 1973 portrait but seems here to be just stifling a laugh. In these and other moments of irreverence, flamboyance, self-seriousness or befuddlement, Warhol’s subjects appear approachably ordinary through the familiar language of the candid snapshot.

Equally important is the role that photography played as a mode of social exchange and commemoration in the Factory – a space that served in its various iterations as a studio, salon, office and party space, populated by an ever-changing assortment of artists, assistants and visiting onlookers. In a description that is both revealing and, in this age of social media, surprisingly prescient, Billy Name describes it as space where ‘cameras were as natural to us a mirrors … It was almost as if the Factory became a big box camera – you’d walk into it, expose yourself and develop yourself’. [4] Similarly, Warhol described the proliferation of documentary technologies in the Factory in the late 1960s as a social force:

The sounds of phones and buzzers and camera shutters and flashbulb pops and the Moviola going and slides clicking through viewers … Machinery had already taken over people’s sex lives … and now it was taking over their social lives too, with tape recorders and Polaroids.

Warhol was a famously detached person, and numerous accounts call attention to the verbal, psychological and technological barriers the artist created between himself and the world around him. Yet, here he describes technology as integrated into the social dynamic of the Factory. Photography became a vital tool in the formation and commemoration of this emerging countercultural community, and the photographs of Name, Berlin and other Factory denizens document everything from the making Warhol’s films and paintings to the Factory crowd at lunch at the local diner. Similar to the family reunion, the tourist vacation or a growing child, the Factory seems to realise itself through this kind of documentation. As the saying goes: pictures, or it didn’t happen.

Warhol also shot tens of thousands of black-and-white photographs with various 35 mm point-and-shoot cameras during the last decade-and-a-half of his life. These photographs constitute perhaps the biggest portion of Warhol’s photographic production and chronicle both everything and nothing: friends, celebrity parties and trips foreign and domestic, but also shop windows, detritus on the sidewalk, a newspaper lying on a sofa cushion, a toilet. Warhol published a small selection of these photographs in a series of books – Exposures (1979), America (1985) and Andy Warhol’s Party Book (published posthumously in 1988) – essentially sharing his ‘snapshots’ (captioned in the books with Warhol’s friendly reminiscences and light cultural commentary) with a broader public audience. As we look through these black-and-white photos, both the stardom on display and the casualness – even the indifference with which Warhol seems to document his subjects – are striking. The many recognisable celebrities are rounded out with a sizeable number of nobodies – waiters, club kids, homeless people and unidentified bystanders – and the celebrity photographs themselves are anything but glamorous. Warhol’s use of flash and frame is erratic, pointing and shooting wherever and whenever he liked, with seemingly no regard for the finished product. And the resulting images are remarkably unflattering even as casual snapshots. Here is legendary performer Grace Jones forking cake into her mouth; there is comedian Robin Williams wandering absent-mindedly through a thrift store, or ‘empress of fashion’ Diana Vreeland scratching her nose. The point is not that Warhol makes his subjects look ugly (though at times he does), but rather that he captures them in moments where they appear, to use Warhol’s term, ‘unfamous’.[6] If Warhol’s silkscreen portraits are an exercise in crafting celebrity artifice (all surface glamour and no substance), then his black-and-white snapshots prompt us to consider whether stars are really no more exceptional then we are, that celebrity itself is a superficial effect. Just as Coca Cola, which, as Warhol famously observed, costs the same and tastes the same whether you are Elizabeth Taylor, the president of the United States or ‘the bum on the street’, photography, for Warhol, was thoroughly inclusive and equalising, presenting everyone and everything on a strikingly even footing.[7]

Warhol’s celebrity subjects are relatable because they are both famous and ‘unfamous’. The same applies to Warhol himself. In various self-portraits, books and interviews, Warhol performs a kind of aesthetic inscrutability, transforming himself into an ethereal icon, all vapid expression and silver wig. In Hollywood movies and memoirs of the 1960s counterculture, Warhol is similarly depicted as a freaky Svengali presiding over the psychedelic world of the Factory with affectless detachment. Yet, looking at the photographic archive of his life, we encounter a different Warhol, a living, breathing, desiring individual, who reveals glimpses of extraordinary ordinariness through his photographic habits and postures. We see Warhol at work in the studio and posing for portraits with his iconic affectless mien, but also more casual images of the artist at a meal with friends, talking on the phone, or with his pet dachshund Archie. Warhol’s sexual proclivities are evident in the many photographs here of beautiful young men, and their gestures of queer intimacy. In one sweetly intimate black-and-white, Warhol captures himself grinning mischievously and reaching towards his long-time boyfriend, Jon Gould, who smiles openly for the camera. The timing is characteristically poor, and Warhol’s gesture is hard to read – is he reaching in for a caress? Is it an attempt at photo-bomb? But the easy closeness of the two men is unmistakable, unguarded and full of warmth.

In his consideration of Warhol’s lifelong fascination with documentary technologies, Jonathan Flatley has argued that the camera, for Warhol, was essentially a machine ‘for liking’.[8] In so doing, Flatley suggests that to make a likeness was also, for Warhol, a gesture of connection and affection. By sidestepping aesthetic considerations and embracing the ordinariness of Warhol’s photography, we can see photography as a dynamic part of Warhol’s social life, forging social connections between the artist and his subjects and revealing moments of humanity and banality beneath the dazzling artifice of celebrity culture. In this context, even Warhol’s photographs of half-eaten meals and trash on the sidewalk are important; they are all part of Warhol’s visible, democratically ‘likeable’ world and thus deserve our attention. It is also here, in the photographic traces of Warhol’s life – in turn exciting and utterly ordinary – that we arrive at the true art of these images. Warhol is undoubtedly one of the most difficult and complex artists of the twentieth century, in no small part because of his tenacious refusal to concretely define the terms of his aesthetic practice. Warhol’s art can, in some sense, be located precisely in this refusal. This is evident in his iconic pop art paintings of Campbell’s soup cans: representing both a familiar American brand and Warhol’s lunch of choice, these paintings pugnaciously and brilliantly contaminate the rarified space of the art gallery with consumer culture. Conversely, Warhol’s banal photographs of the everyday lives of both celebrities and nobodies deserve our conceptual consideration as artworks for the way they force us to reconsider issues of aesthetics, social relations, sexual politics and, indeed, our very understanding of Warhol himself as an artist, a businessman, a celebrity and an individual. By refusing to distinguish fine art the from the everyday, Warhol at once undermines conventional aesthetics and broadens them, inviting all of us into his ordinary world of life and art.

Catherine Zuromskis is Associate Professor, School of Photographic Arts and Sciences, College of Art and Design, at Rochester Institute of Technology, USA.

[1] Blake Gopnik, Warhol, Harper Collins, New York, 2020, p. 842.

[2] Bob Colacello, ‘Paparazziism: or how Andy Warhol became a real photographer’, in Karl Steinorth & Thomas Buchsteiner (eds), Social disease: photographs ’76 – ’79, Institut für Kulturaustausch, Tübingen, 1992, p. 16.

[3] Warhol quoted in Carter Ratcliffe, Andy Warhol, Abbeville Press, New York, 1983, p. 114.

[4] Billy Name, All tomorrow’s parties: Billy Name’s photographs of Andy Warhol’s Factory, Frieze & D.A.P., London 1997, p. 18.

[5] Andy Warhol & Pat Hackett, POPism: the Warhol sixties, Harcourt, Brace and Company, San Diego, 1980, p. 291.

[6] Andy Warhol, Andy Warhol’s exposures, Andy Warhol Books/Grosset & Dunlap, New York, 1979, p. 19.

[7] Andy Warhol, The philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), Harcourt, Brace & Co., San Diego, 1975, p. 100.

[8] Jonathan Flatley, ‘Like: collecting and collectivity’, October, no. 132, 2010, p. 73.