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Andy Warhol: Documentarian

By: Sydney Contreras

Wherever Andy Warhol went, his camera and recorder were sure to follow. Whether it was a social call or a search for material for his art, Warhol was sure to document it in some way or another. Although he once described the Polaroid Big Shot camera as the “pen and pencil” of his artistic practice, in reality, Warhol carried around tape recorders and cameras constantly. The act of documenting with cameras and recorders was integral to Warhol’s art, but—perhaps even more notably—it was ingrained in his everyday life. For Warhol, life and art were one and the same, and his meticulous records of the day-to-day are often reflected in his work.

Warhol began documenting his life most seriously in the early 1960s when he started to carry around a tape recorder. In his book, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, Warhol describes how he came into the habit of carrying around the recorder. “I did my first tape recording in 1964,” Warhol said, “I think it all started because I was trying to do a book… So I bought that tape recorder and I taped the most interesting person I knew at the time, Ondine, for a whole day.”

In actuality, Warhol recorded Ondine and several other members of his Factory clique over the span of three separate days between 1965 and 1967—not quite the true 24 hour marathon he had sought out to capture. These conversations took up a total of 20 cassette tapes front and back. In order to transcribe the enormous quantity of audio, Warhol had to hire four separate typists, and the task took over a year to complete. The typists were instructed to record each word and sound to maintain the purity of the transcription and capture every last detail picked up by the tape recorder. The resulting novel, a, consists of 24 chapters of these transcriptions. The editor, Billy Name—another member of Warhol’s inner circle—left all transcriptions verbatim including all typos, formatting errors, and inconsistencies between typists.

Indeed, all of Warhol’s writing—The Philosophy of Andy Warholincluded—shared this unvarnished quality. In addition to a, A Novel, and The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, Warhol wrote POPism: The Warhol Sixties, and The Andy Warhol Diaries. Each of these four works of prose is almost entirely composed of transcriptions and dictations, which Warhol rarely typed out himself. Friend Pat Hackett collaborated with Warhol on all but his novel, a, often transcribing Warhol’s recordings or dictations and editing material to complete his books.

Though in these cases Warhol’s tape recordings were used for his books, Warhol recorded thousands of hours of audio, and much of it was not used for any specific projects. Warhol explained his impulse to record as something personal—not an artistic technique, but an attempt to document and remember everything around him. “I have no memory,” Warhol said, “Every day is a new day because I don’t remember the day before. Every minute is like the first minute of my life. I try to remember but I can’t. That’s why I got married—to my tape recorder.”

However, Warhol was not satisfied with only tape-recording the world around him. Around the same time that he began carrying his tape-recorder everywhere, Warhol was also beginning to experiment with film. In film, Warhol found another medium through which he could capture the world and people around him. Between 1963 and 1968, Warhol shot almost 650 films. He began to do so on a 16mm Bolex camera: a model that shot just four minutes of footage at a time. Though he experimented with cameras, Warhol’s work with the Bolex camera forced him to splice footage together and become creative with his film editing practices. It is often these creative film techniques that make Warhol’s films so fascinating.

Some of Warhol’s most famous films were his longer avant-garde movies; these full-length films were experimental in both content and form, eschewing common practices in film at the time at every turn. Though Warhol sometimes had collaborators from his clique at the Factory help him write scripts for his films, he would often urge his actors to improvise instead. Many of his films are close studies of just a few subjects with little in the way of traditional plot or action.

Warhol’s first film, Sleep (1963), is one such film. With a runtime of over five hours, the film consists solely of looped footage of a sleeping John Giorno, Warhol’s lover at the time. Warhol claimed that he never understood all of the people “who never slept [and] were always announcing, ‘Oh I’m hitting my ninth day and it’s glorious!’” He decided it was time “to do a movie about somebody who sleeps all night.”

In Sleep, Warhol explores the act of resting from an almost scientific remove. The film is documentary-like: a voyeuristic observation with nothing on the screen but looped footage of a man resting. In Warhol’s world, everyone was always “on,” —the action never-ending. Warhol’s decision to capture this rare moment of inaction was powerful, and the seemingly endless runtime forces the audience, too, to hit “pause.” In his films Kiss (1963), Blow Job (1964), and Eat (1964), Warhol approaches each of the titular human mechanisms from the same position of fascination and detachment.

Warhol was deeply interested in effecting this analytical mood in his work. He often praised the potential of utilizing film as a means of shedding light on the mechanics of human life and interaction. Of this scientific aim, Warhol said, “But I always thought that movies could show you so much more about how it really is between people… What I was actually trying to do in my early movies was show how people can meet other people and what they can do and what they can say to each other… They were like actual sociological “For instance”s. They were like documentaries…”

This sociological aim landed many of Warhol’s films in an avant-garde genre that was far away from the general public. But in 1966, his film, Chelsea Girls, became the first of these experimental films to actually achieve some mainstream notoriety. This came as quite the surprise to Warhol; he had not expected his work to be received by a “commercial” market. In The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, he claimed that “It was enough that the art had gone into the stream of commerce, out into the real world.” But Warhol was intoxicated by the unexpected success. He was amazed by the “heady” sensation of seeing his film “out there in the real world on a marquee instead of in there in the art world.”

Warhol’s budding desire to widen his audience influenced all facets of his art, but the effects were particularly profound on his urges to record everything around him. The bulk of Warhol’s impressive portfolio consists of hundreds of silent portrait films; each so-called “Screen Test” was a single reel of one of Warhol’s friends or colleagues who frequented The Factory. Each film portrait recorded both the sitter’s likeness and the ambiance of the moment shared between Warhol and his subject.

In the 1970s, Warhol switched out Screen Tests for Polaroid photos. Following a copyright lawsuit over the use of appropriated images in his art, Warhol started taking Polaroid photos to use as source images for screenprints. He began to take his Polaroid camera nearly everywhere (in addition to his “wife,” the tape recorder, of course).

As with his audio recordings, many of Warhol’s Polaroid photos were not necessarily intended to be used for art. With his Polaroid camera, Warhol documented his life and the lives of those around him. After his passing, there were over 50,000 photographs left in his estate, most of which were Polaroid snapshots.

Warhol’s proclivity to record the world he walked through informed his art and allowed him to capture the period in which he lived with remarkable attention to detail. The minute details he noticed in everything from the mundane to the glamorous are what solidified his legacy as both an artist and documentarian.

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