Warhol's Polaroid Portraits at McCaffrey - Grist for the Mill or Transcendent Immateriality?

It wasn’t that long ago that Andy Warhol’s Polaroid portraits were relegated to secondary status.  Timothy Hunt, who acts as the exclusive agent for prints and photography at the Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts points out in his introduction to the McCaffrey catalogue that Warhol himself had referred to his Polaroid camera as his “pencil and paper” producing the “sketches” from which images for the finished paintings would be chosen.  Many, especially in the world of ‘fine art’ photography, still consider them as merely archival grist for his very profitable portrait painting mill. 

Warhol’s entire photographic output—estimated to be well over a hundred and thirty thousand images—originally seen as a way-station on the road to his more “transformative” canvases, is now being reassessed by scholars as the “purest” example of the Pop master’s exuberant embrace of American culture.

Complicating matters considerably is the reality that the first and only photographs exhibited by the artist during his lifetime were “Andy Warhol Photographs” at the Robert Miller Gallery in New York.  It closed just three weeks before the artist’s unexpected death from a routine gall bladder operation on Feb. 22nd, 1987.

Seventy black-and-white photographs, made complicated by the stitches from a sewing machine that joined identical repeating images together in grids of from four to twelve prints each—often with a length of loose thread dangling from the center—were presented to the viewer without criticism or comment of any kind.  Rich in complexity, Warhol’s surfaces never try to give interpretations but draw heavily on his earlier repeating silkscreen paintings while creating unique objects out of multiples of images.

Warhol’s stitched photographs also make a sly reference to the artist’s “Screen Tests from the mid-1960s.  The short, slowed down single-reel filmic portraits of 500 or so friends and acquaintances employing a “strategy of indifference” created four minute close-ups of almost motionless subjects.  Here were films that mimicked the still photograph with the intent to explore the medium not as an art form, but in its ability to confer mythical status on a person or a thing.

In these intimate and candid screen tests, Warhol or an assistant acting as his surrogate would more often than not employ a strategy that was calculated to emphasize a more organic, neo-realist form of cinema, which often times casts amateurs in important parts.

By this time Warhol was a regular at Jonas Mekas’ Film-Makers’ Co-op on Park Avenue and the Charles Theater on East 12th Street and a sophisticated film connoisseur.  He was well aware of the style of shooting practiced by the poetic realism of Jean Renoir and Marcel Carne as well as the neo-realism of Michelangelo Antonioni and Luchino Visconti.  Their avoidance of artiface in editing, camerawork and lighting in favor of a simple ‘‘style-less’’ style heavily influenced Warhol and aided him in his resolve to use ‘‘local color’’.

The surrealist practice, reminiscent of the Dada concept of ‘‘automatic’’ writing with pencil and paper or paint to canvas was also a huge influence—Warhol would adapt that concept creating his own version of ‘‘automatic’’ writing but with actors and the motion picture camera.  The occasional wooden delivery from his non-professional ‘‘actors’’ (Warhol was a believer that players can also seem witty by virtue of their very awkwardness) was a small price to pay for the ultimate payoff which was a rich portrait of the artists, writers, musicians, students and celebrities—often fuelled by amphetamines or alcohol—who made up the Factory scene.

In the case of the commissioned photobooth portraits, the sequential, filmic qualities of the quartet of images would have doubtless appealed to Warhol’s understanding of the cinematic genre and his fascination with seriality.  With the likes of Holly Solomon, Ethel Scull and Judith Green, Warhol would shoot strip after strip of four-for-a-quarter exposures to engage the sitter in a performative strategy that was calculated to call attention to the session as an ‘‘acted’’ event.  Some of the performances constitute an ‘‘amateur’’ form marked by an expressive vacancy in the sitters’ eyes and an unmotivated stiffness or awkwardness of movement (Holly Solomon is quoted as saying she often thought the process boring).  Other performances seem indistinguishable from professionals with their efforts more authentically ‘‘natural’’.  Warhol found that by juxtaposing images of different emotional states in front of the timed flashing of the camera, it amplified the sonority of the artistic statement.

But what of the tens of thousands of Polaroids that Warhol shot during his multitude of portrait commissions from the 1970s and 1980s?

We know that after the artist listened to everyone’s opinion (friends, husbands, dealer, sitter) he would select only four or five images from the multiple packs of Polaroid color 108 film that he had shot during his session.  Somehow all the other Polaroids would disappear into Warhol’s pocket at the end of the session.  Do they warrant the scrutiny and value that his printed photographic images on canvas with the aid of a silkscreen had? 

We do know that Andy would work for hours to get what he wanted, and we know that it was fun for him as he was intensely involved in the process of photography and working with people.  We also know that unlike the traditional portrait photographer—where the Polaroid was simply a technical preview for the ‘real’ session on film—Andy used the unique Polaroid as his primary tool.  This is quite the irony for a man canonized for the filmic qualities in his paintings and his undoubted fascination with seriality.

The new-to-the-market Polaroid “Big Shot” camera was Andy’s photographic instrument of choice.  Introduced by the Polaroid corporation in 1970, the cumbersome and difficult to focus fixed-focal length lens required the operator to move back and forth in front of the subject to get the double image of the sitter’s eyes in the viewer to become one.  Despite the difficulty in finding focus and the camera’s bulky dimensions, once the instrument was “locked-in”, it provided the very flattering bathed-in-light effect that Warhol loved.

Situated just above the 220 f/29 meniscus single-element lens designed especially for head-and-shoulders close-ups, the “Big Shot” came equipped with an overhead “magic cube” flash which provided the high-contrast, slightly bleached-out look that helped obscure wrinkles and other blemishes on his subjects.  Besides producing the glamorizing look required for a Warhol Polaroid portrait, the “Big Shot” doubled as the perfect photographic instrument that provided an ideal transfer to acetate and silkscreen for the crucial painted canvas end product that Warhol had gained fame, riches and celebrity status for inventing (by the fall of 1974 his portrait business was well on its way to becoming a million-dollar-a-year operation).

The Polaroid sessions would start before Warhol arrived at the studio with a cold buffet lunch from Balducci’s or the like where the sitter would become comfortable with the other guests, assistants, and Warhol’s inner circle, taking in the glamour of the world-famous Factory.  By the time Warhol arrived and the guests had left, the commissioned sitter would be comfortable with Andy’s entourage and ready to engage with his/her photographer in conversations that would revolve around gossip generated perhaps by the departing guests or from good stories going to print at Andy’s magazine ‘‘Interview’’.  Makeup for women and grooming for men would take at least a half an hour while Warhol and his assistant (Ronnie Cutrone or Jay Shriver) would prepare the studio for the session.  Polaroid film packs were opened and loaded into three or four identical cameras to assure quick and easy access to film when the client was projecting some authentic aspect of his/her personality.

Posing on a simple side chair against a white wall at the front of the studio at a distance of only three feet from Andy (the camera’s focal length dictated this distance) allowed for a comfortably natural distance to engage the client in pleasant or provocative conversation depending on the kinds of expressions Andy wanted to elicit from the sitter.  What is clear is that Andy would direct the client in such a way as to minimize imperfections like a double chin or protruding nose while consciously seeking to capture the appearance, style and personality of the sitter in as potent and irresistibly way as was possible.

As was Warhol’s custom of working in a mechanical and repetitive way, every sitter was assured the same identical lighting and photographic immediacy.   But within the structure of these ritualistic sessions Warhol always found a way to explore the gamut of human emotions.

Dennis Hopper’s portrait is a perfect example of how Warhol had an eye for that special element of composition and detail and was able to elicit performances that were romantically ‘real’ while being ironic or outrageous too.  Glenn O’Brien, an early editor at ‘‘Interview’’ (recently re-appointed by owner Peter Brant) once described Warhol’s photographs as ‘‘steeped in analytical socio-pathology’’.

Hopper’s picture at McCaffrey was taken in 1977 when the actor was wholly engaged in ‘‘the method’’ in preparation to play the sociopath Tom Ripley who sells forged paintings in Wim Wenders’ acclaimed thriller ‘‘The American Friend’’.  He arrived at the Factory dressed in the character’s wardrobe complete with cowboy hat, vest and boots.  Sensing Hopper’s commitment to ‘inhabiting’ the character by ‘living’ in the wardrobe even when he was off the film set, Warhol capitalized on the actor’s resolve and shot him with great simplicity and elegance.  Hopper’s dark brooding eyes and intense stare, coupled with the sly smile playing ever-so-slightly on his lips walks that fine line between the dark and light of the character—a performance that is coming from the actor’s own history.  The viewer cannot distinguish between what was planned and what was accidental—Hopper and Ripley appear as one and the same.

Like a latter-day documentarian who parlayed the traditional concerns of Social Realism into his ‘‘media-based aesthetic’’, those Polaroids—every indication points to over a hundred unique pictures exposed—captured not only the appearance, style and personality of the sitter but also touched on issues of class, sexual and racial identity of the character Dennis was playing. 

Joan Collins’ portrait taken in 1985 has been described by Nigel Farndale in the ‘‘Telegraph Magazine’’ as ‘‘… almost a collage of defining features; the jutting cheekbones, the black-rimmed eyes, the red pouting lips and, of course, the big hair.’’  But it is the immediacy of it, the expressive seduction that is going on that could only come from a Hollywood diva who, at the time of Warhol’s portrait, was the highest-paid actress on television in the #1 show in the United States.

‘‘Dynasty" (1981-1989) re-launched Collins as a powerful sex symbol and icon of independence in her 50s. Warhol’s image nails the Alexis Carrington persona but digs deeper through the cleverly constructed facade to allow us to see the potent and irresistible strength and ironic playfulness beneath the surface—exactly the kind of transparency that Warhol would be loath to cop to in an interview.

With the Collins/Carrington performance, it reverses the assumptions of the method which was the primary mode of performance in the Hopper session.  Instead of treating performance as an outgrowth of an essential self, it implies that the self is an outgrowth of performance.  Ms. Collins does not just embrace the theatricality of her character Alexis, she seems to celebrate it as if it were her ‘authentic’ and everyday life.

More than one observer has noted that Andy Warhol’s profound awareness of the way mass media has defined the norms of experience in the contemporary world has shaped all aspects of his art, but his exploration of the fabrication of image is perhaps most visible in his own self-portraits.  His ‘‘Self-Portrait in Fright Wig’’ taken in 1986 a year before he died is a superb illustration of his unrivalled and up-close theatricality.  Presenting an image both of Warhol the man and Warhol the artistic phenomenon, the late self-portrait reveals the artist grappling with not only the intangible quintessence of fame and celebrity but also the charting of his own rise as a brand in its own right. 

Executed only months before his unexpected death in hospital while recovering from gall bladder surgery, Warhol’s Polaroid of himself is a fertile combination of celebrity, vulnerability and death.  Wearing a black turtle-neck sweater that makes his body disappear entirely and allows for his severed head to hover in space like the disembodied head of the Medusa, Warhol exposes his starkly isolated, distinctive appearance to the viewer’s sharp scrutiny in unparalleled photographic detail.  Here the heightened contrast emphasizes the bone structure of the skull below the taught skin accentuating the artist’s gaunt features and pallor creating what some have suggested is a striking visual echo of Edvard Munch’s celebrated ‘‘Self-portrait with Skeleton’s Arm’’ together with ‘‘The Scream’’ which he appropriated for another work just two years before.

Warhol’s Polaroids—which fell on the back story of his extensive grounding in performance-related direction with the early photo booth pictures and his screen tests—formed the basis of almost two decades of commissioned and non-commissioned work.  Was this work merely a step on the way to the artist’s silkscreen paintings?    

Jenny Moore, a curator for The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts (which just celebrated its 20th anniversary), stated it succinctly : ‘‘Through his rigorous—though almost unconscious consistency in shooting, the true idiosyncrasies of his subjects were revealed.’’ 

Identity for Warhol was not simply a given—not some static factor that could be ‘captured’ by the camera.  To Andy, the ‘authentic core’ of the human personality was a variable construct created between the photographer and the sitter in their distinctly performative search for identity.  Capturing the essence of a person was for Warhol a strategy applied by public relations people—he was much more interested in exploring the subtle nuances and permutations of the sitter by allowing the viewer to see the subject through the intimacy of his ‘privileged’ relationship. 

The complex ideas and practices contained in these jewels of the medium of the instant picture are now being reinterpreted as the very building blocks of an śuvre that has been modeled on the destruction of the distance between the product and the person who might consume the product.  The intimate life of the celebrity is united, for a moment at least, with the grid of two hundred and fifty million.


NB : I am indebted to Vincent Fremont’s excellent eyewitness account of Warhol’s working proceedure in the production of Polaroid portraits found in his introduction to ‘’Andy Warhol Polaroids 1971-1986’’, New York : Pace/MacGill Gallery, 1992, pp. 4-7.

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