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July 19, 1973: Warhol photographs British author and actor Tessa Dahl with his Polaroid during a Mother's Day party at the Four Seasons, NYC. (Photo by Tim Boxer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This Is Why Andy Warhol's Polaroids Are His Most Influential Works

Blake Gopnik

The artist's instant photos continue to affect the aesthetics of art and fashion photography—and the way we view celebrity.

July 19, 1973: Warhol photographs British author and actor Tessa Dahl with his Polaroid during a Mother's Day party at the Four Seasons, NYC. (Photo by Tim Boxer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Andy Warhol was at the after-party for his first solo show of pop art in New York, in November 1962—his night to shine. But as guests danced the Twist and gorged on the cold cuts he’d splurged on ("20lb ham 19lb beef $40.00," reads his datebook), the artist floated around more like a ghost than a host, capturing their every move on Polaroid. "He always carried this stupid camera," recalled his collector friend Hanford Yang. "Everyone wanted to talk to Andy, but Andy was busy taking photographs." This was Warhol’s MO for the next quarter-century, as though contact through a lens might be better, truer—safer, certainly—than contact in the flesh.

People tend to forget that almost all of Warhol’s works, whether drawings or paintings or prints, were based on photos. This began during his college years in Pittsburgh and continued through his decade as a commercial artist in New York in the 1950s, to his pop art works in the 1960s, and his celebrity portraits in the 1970s and 1980s. "Andy was a good artist, but he could never draw, you know. He would never draw realistically, he would never force himself to search," complained an art-director friend. But the camera let Warhol answer, "Who cares?"

On his very first visit to MoMA, in 1949, Warhol toured The Exact Instant, a pioneering survey of news photographs. It sank in. The fine art he went on to make was always as much about simply pointing out things in the world—soup cans and movie stars, guns and knives—as it was about finding fresh and fascinating ways to portray them. And what better to point with than a camera that could spit out the image of a thing just minutes after the thing itself had been seen? "Ostension" is the word that philosophers use for the bare act of indication; with his Polaroid camera in hand, Warhol became the king of ostenders.

As usual with Warhol, the idea didn’t begin with him. In the late 1950s, a New York artist named Alfred Leslie had taken Polaroids of just about everyone he knew and pinned them up in a vast wall of "mug shots." These were lost in a studio fire, and it fell to Warhol, art history’s greatest sponge, to run with Leslie’s idea. In the tens of thousands of from-the-hip shots he snapped over subsequent decades, Warhol, the great hoarder of art and antiques and random crap, became a hoarder of people and memories. His Polaroids let him "collect" all the friends, rivals, lovers, celebrities, clients, treasures, baubles (and dicks) that crossed his path. When a boyfriend went ballistic over Warhol’s stack of penis Polaroids—"landscapes," Warhol called them—the artist didn’t seem to understand the objection.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Warhol famously paid the bills by painting vast numbers of celebrity and society portraits. These always started with Warhol shooting dozens of Polaroids of his sitter, as though he were trying to find the perfect, flattering image to work up. But I think he may have taken so many shots for the opposite reason: to come away with a record of his subject in never-ending, overwhelming, true-to-life detail. It’s worth remembering that, however hard some sitters pleaded for them, the Polaroids almost always stayed in Warhol’s hands.

If Warhol the portraitist was also a kind of recording angel, he got away with it because of the sheer goofiness of his approach. Who could feel threatened by the weird guy in the pale wig who talked like a child and took photos that looked like your six-year-old might have snapped them? But there’s a tough edge to what Warhol got up to, since anything that’s catalogued is ultimately brought down to the same level as all the other objects in the inventory. Multiplicity reduces distinctiveness, so that, seen in their hundreds—as Warhol had always intended—his portraits of tycoons and stars and doyennes turn those sitters into something close to canned soups. Distinctions in flavor (pea soup versus tomato; Liza Minnelli versus Wayne Gretzky) become less important than the sheer mass of interchangeable, inescapable, saleable soupiness. A cousin of Warhol’s who visited in the 1980s remembers him packing up portraits of Dolly Parton, which had been rejected by the singer, and the grim mood it put him in. I wonder if Parton, as smart as they come, had realized there was more to those portraits than met the eye—and also less.

Warhol’s photographic aesthetic may turn out to be his most important gift to posterity. Even when they had less than no interest in soup cans or Brillo boxes, the artists who came after him cottoned onto the special directness of his photos. It’s hard, for instance, to think of anyone who had a bigger influence on fashion shots than he did. In the 1990s, as the leading magazines turned away from the stylishness of Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, they turned toward the near stylelessness of Warhol’s Polaroids. Without their example, it’s hard to imagine that the unvarnished imagery of Wolfgang Tillmans, Juergen Teller, or Bill Cunningham could have received the reception it did.

Toward the end of Warhol’s life, when all his success was coming from the paintings he’d done and was doing, he gave a little speech before a crowd of visitors to his studio. "I told them I didn’t believe in art," Warhol later wrote. "I believed in photography." You could say that, from the beginning, even his paintings had proved this was true.

A version of this story appears in GARAGE No. 14, available to buy here.