Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 23, 2000
Gordon Baldwin and Judith Keller Nadar/Warhol: Paris/New York Getty Trust Publications, 1999. (089236565X)
Candace Breitz Andy Warhol: Photography Thalwil and Pittsburgh: Edition Stemmle in association with Andy Warhol Museum, 1999. 400 pp.; 12 color ills.; 300 b/w ills. (3908163102)

It is not hard to see the significance of photography—as idea, as technology, as way of seeing—to Andy Warhol’s art. His most famous paintings are appropriated photographs (think of the Marilyns, Jackies, race riots, electric chairs, or the commissioned portraits) and they visually signify as such. Moreover, Warhol’s method for making use of photography—silkscreen—mimics the process of technological reproduction that characterizes photography. (Warhol: “With silkscreening, you pick a photograph, blow it up, transfer it in glue onto silk, and then roll ink across so the ink goes through the silk but not through the glue. That way, you get the same image, slightly different, each time” [POPism, 22].) Given the importance of photography to Warhol and to Pop more broadly, it is a little surprising that only now are we beginning to see exhibits and books on the topic.

It turns out, as these two exhibition catalogues show, that Warhol’s engagement with photography was more idiosyncratic, variable, and enduring even than we already knew. His photo-biography, as it were, is something like the following. Warhol began his lifelong devotion to collecting photos during his childhood with a movie star photography album that contained, for example, a photo of Shirley Temple autographed to the young Andrew Warhol. The essay on Warhol in Nadar/Warhol tells us that his older brother worked in a photo shop and that Warhol had his own darkroom in his basement while he was still in high school. At least as early as the ‘50s, Warhol started appropriating photos from various, mostly mass-media contexts as the basis for drawings and paintings, such as the line drawing of James Dean that became the cover of the 1957 A Gold Book by Andy Warhol (reproduced in Warhol—Photography). In the early ’60s the silkscreen process standardized and allegorized Warhol’s photo appropriation. Meanwhile he made lots of photobooth photos of friends, used photobooth images to make the famous Ethel Scull portrait, and took lots of Polaroid snapshots as well. In the early ’70s he obtained a Polaroid SX-70 Big Shot, which was the camera he used for the commissioned portraits of the ’70s and ’80s. In 1976 he acquired a Minox 35 El, and it was this camera (or other small SLRs like it) that he carried with him everywhere for the rest of his life. It more or less replaced the tape recorder—his wife as he called it—that had earlier been his constant companion.

As the first book to deal exclusively with the topic of Warhol’s engagement with photography, Andy Warhol—Photography will be indispensable for anyone with a serious interest in Warhol. The most striking material is connected to his mania for collecting photographs and the snapshots that he took on a daily basis. We see examples from his extensive photo archives: from the childhood photo album to the press photos of car crashes and suicides, and the FBI’s Thirteen Most Wanted Men booklet; as well as endless celebrity photos, including scores of Marilyn Monroe shots from which he chose the one—the blankest and most iconic looking—that was the basis of the famous portrait painted shortly after her death. One thing that becomes clear from this material is that despite Warhol’s protestations to the contrary, the photos that he appropriated were not only found but also chosen, or more exactly collected: the condition of possibility for Warhol’s appropriative art was an energetic collecting practice.

Warhol—Photography also shows us some of the different types of quotidian photography that Warhol was interested in. There are, for example, lots of the photobooth images. These photos, which come in series of four, narrate—among other things—the passage of a brief moment of time. This temporal seriality is different from the deadpan repetitive seriality of 100 Campbell’s Soup Cans, but it prefigures the serial nature of the snapshots that he took one after the other, at least a roll a day, for the last fifteen years of his life. The photobooth pictures and these snapshots narrate time imagistically; there is always a next one, but it is not always clear what the relationship is between them, except that they indexically record a particular passage of time. Of the photos he took on a daily basis we see lots of different examples, organized thematically, which I am not sure is a good idea, since it is not clear that Warhol had any investment in this thematic organization. Nonetheless, the variety and everydayness make it clear that Warhol basically photographed everything of even minor visual interest almost everywhere he went, as if he were trying to live a photographically mediated life. So there are photos of signs and advertisements and various commodities and celebrity and noncelebrity friends at home and at parties and architectural details and hotel toilets and food and cute guys and men having sex, and lots more. There is, at the end of the volume, a collection of photos of Warhol taken by other people, some of them by famous photographers such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Duane Michals and others by Factory regulars and friends such as Billy Name and Brigid Berlin. It is as if Warhol actively encouraged those around him to take photos, as if, as far as he was concerned, the more photos in the world, the better.

As for the essays: the majority of the ten essays in Warhol—Photography are there to provide information about the material presented. John Smith, an archivist at the Warhol Museum, writes a helpful essay about Warhol’s photo collection, a collection he helps us see as Warhol’s primer for learning the tropes of fame. Margery King discusses Warhol’s collection of publicity photos and the press photos of suicides, accident deaths, the electric chair, etc. We also have Ethel Scull and Holly Solomon talking about their portraits and Gerard Malanga and Vincent Fremont giving first-person accounts of Warhol’s photographic practices. This is all helpful enough, but one feels the absence of essays would do some work toward conceptualizing the material presented and Warhol’s engagement with photography itself, in all its variability and idiosyncrasy. To be fair, exhibition catalogues rarely do this, but one is nonetheless a bit surprised that none of even the most predictable photo-theory suspects—Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Rosalind Krauss, Douglas Crimp—are brought in to help. The rather underwhelming insights of Susan Sontag are the only ones cited here.

One of the essayists, Ludger Derenthal, makes an aside that may touch upon one of the origins of the problem. He notes that it remains a focus of contestation whether the Polaroids and photobooth pictures are to be regarded only as source materials for silkscreen prints or as autonomous works of art. (Indeed, he notes that whether the 66,000 photographs in his estate are worth 4 or 64 million dollars has become a legal issue to be decided in court, 33.) This points to a broader problem with Warhol’s photos: their art status is completely unclear. Are they models for the work, or the documents of a hobby; or are they of a primarily documentary or biographical interest; or are they works of art? For the most part, the essays avoid tackling this problem, and instead presume that their task is to provide a framework for understanding the photos as works of art. In this endeavor, many of the essays rely on one of the more unfortunate art historical essay genres—the thematic approach: Warhol and food, Warhol and fame, repetition in Warhol. Few artists are more boring when treated thematically. There were only a couple of essays that seem to me to help us start to think about the whole range of problems raised by Warhol’s photographs, the way they actively resist being treated as art in a coherent way.

Mark Francis makes a suggestive case for the specificity of Warhol’s everyday photography. He argues that from the photobooths to the Minox, Warhol’s interest was strongly indexical, participating in a modernist tradition the terms of which were articulated by Rodchenko, who identified the casual snapshot, accumulated in a documentary photofile, as the necessary form of the contemporary subject. This model can account for the mutability and internal contradictions incurred with the passage of time and the multiple external pressures inflicted by modern life (23). This impulse toward the creation of a complete archival record, Francis suggests, is most clearly allegorized in the many contact sheets Warhol left behind. For this reason, Francis wants to claim that the contact sheets are his most potent and unexplored legacy. That might be overstating the case a little, but inasmuch as the contact sheets reference both the everydayness and the serial quality of Warhol’s photography, they give us some insight, much more than individual photos, into Warhol’s structure of feeling, his mode of perception, of why and how photography was so attractive to him.

What Francis’s reliance on the Rodchenko model tends to obscure is the emotional investment inscribed in Warhol’s machinelike desire to experience a photographically mediated world. (I think everybody should be a machine. I think everybody should like everybody. . . . The reason I’m painting this way is that I want to be a machine, and I feel whatever I do and do machinelike is what I want to do. ) While Warhol’s desire to be a machine has usually been taken to mean not only a certain systematic mechanicity and an absence of choice-making in the work, but also the evacuation of emotions, I suspect that it is precisely in and around mechanicity that we will find Warhol’s emotions and desires. Photography is paradigmatic here. For example, take one of my favorite Warhol anecdotes from POPism: “During this period (1969) I took thousands of Polaroids of genitals. Whenever somebody came up to the Factory, no matter how straight looking he was, I’d ask him to take his pants off so I could photograph his cock and balls. It was surprising who’d let me and who wouldn’t” (294). This has always seemed to me a perfect example of Walter Benjamin’s idea that a different nature speaks to the camera than to the human eye. When you bring a camera into a situation it changes things, categories shift, new possibilities open up. The point of the machine-mediated world is not detachment or emotionlessness for Warhol, but sexiness. Warhol wanted to make as manifest as possible the world in which Benjamin’s different nature was at work. One is tempted to see a bit of a utopian worldmaking at work here—as if through photography Warhol could bring another world into existence. In any event, being a machine meant for Warhol accessing other natures, other logics to get lost in; Warhol spent his life looking for these other natures not in order to escape emotions or desire, but in order to have them.

The face and the commodity are two of the different logics in which Warhol was interested. In The Warhol Portrait: From Art to Business and Back Again, Candice Breitz argues that we have not understood the specificity of the Warhol portrait if we fail to acknowledge the extent to which its mechanical reproduction interferes with the capacity of the genre to signify transparently and thus to affirm the presence of its sitter (195). Breitz links this lack of affirmation to the process of commodificiation, making the case that Warhol’s portraits mimic the destruction of independent subjectivity created by commodity capitalism. I am persuaded that the tension between recognizability and erasure is central to Warhol’s portraits, and that this tension is also basic to the structure of the commodity, in part because I once made a similar argument (in “Warhol Gives Good Face: Publicity and the Politics of Prosopopoeia,” in Pop Out: Queer Warhol, Durham: Duke University Press, 1996). I am less persuaded that this tension is new to the mechanically reproduced portrait; people have been noticing for a long time that portraits tend to efface their sitters even as they make them recognizable. Think of Dorian Grey, for example, who in refusing to sit for more portraits said: “There is something fatal about a portrait. It has a life of its own.” It is what Warhol has to say about the something fatal that the portrait and the commodity share, about the logic of recognition that they both participate in, that makes Warhol’s work interesting and specific.

Nadar/Warhol has less to offer in the way of concepts or theories than Warhol—Photography. There are three essays, and none of them even attempt to make anything more than the most glancing connection between Nadar and Warhol. Again, there is a reliance on a theme—fame—which was, to be sure, in some way important to both Warhol and Nadar. But that seems to me to be something that we all already knew. The connections appear to be the following: 1) they both took lots of photographs of famous people, photographs that helped to create the fame of the sitter and the photographer alike; 2) their photography careers were dependent upon and related to their situatedness in metropolitan centers, Paris and New York; and 3) they both created an experimental bohemian social scene around them. The essays do not tell us much more than this. Richard Brilliant has written an introductory essay in which he provides a brief art historical account of representations of fame. I could not see how it helps make either Warhol or Nadar more intelligible or compelling. Then there are essays on Nadar and Warhol each. The history of Nadar’s and Warhol’s engagement with photography is worth knowing, but there is nothing new here. Once one realizes that most of the photos in the catalogue are owned by the Getty, it becomes clear that this is basically a coffee-table book designed to publicize the Getty’s photography collection.

The fact that the function of photography seems to have been entirely different for Nadar and Warhol (for Nadar, the photos were the work whereas for Warhol, as I mentioned above, the situation is more complicated) is not even mentioned, let alone theorized. Potential ways to connect Nadar and Warhol are overlooked as well. For example, both Warhol and Nadar did seem to share a Benjaminian interest in the different nature that is captured by the photograph. Nadar was an early explorer of the particularity and weirdness of visions that exposed themselves to cameras. For example, like Warhol, he was interested in what Deleuze and Guatarri called faciality, the particular mode of seeing we shift into when we recognize something (a set of markings, the play of light and dark, a cloud, or, in a forthcoming book by Wayne Koestenbaum—Taylor Mead’s ass) as a face. He was also fascinated by aerial photographs, deathbed photos, photos in the sewers. In making the connection between Warhol and Nadar one might start with a photograph of the Paris sewers that appears as an illustration to the Nadar essay. It is mentioned in a passage from Nadar’s writings that is present in Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project: “With each new camera setup, we had to test our exposure time empirically; certain of the plates were found to require up to eighteen minutes—remember we were still at that time using collodion emulsion on glass negatives. . . . I had judged it advisable to animate some of the scenes by the use of a human figure—less from considerations of picturesqueness than in order to give a sense of scale, a precaution too often neglected by explorers in this medium and with sometimes disconcerting consequences. For these eighteen minutes of exposure time, I found it difficult to obtain from a human being the absolute inorganic immobility I required. I tried to get round this difficulty by means of mannequins, which I dressed in workman’s clothes and positioned in the scene with as little awkwardness as possible.” Nadar here has discovered that the different nature that reveals itself to the camera is sometimes one that cannot sustain human life. The nonhuman mannequin is necessary to give a sense of human scale to the photograph, to make it recognizable to human eyes. In part it would seem to be this connection between recognizability and death that interested Nadar. This connection, to return to the discussion above, was also, of course, of great interest to Warhol. It is the link that brings together his portraits of Marilyn Monroe with the Death in America silkscreens of car crashes and other accidental, anonymous deaths. It was a connection that was not overlooked—nor lamented—by his sitters. Jasper Johns is reported to have said to Holly Solomon upon seeing Warhol’s portrait of her; “Hi Holly (kiss), how does it feel to be dead?”

Jonathan Flatley
University of Virginia