Your Andy Warhol Specialists

Negative Warhol: What Cannot Be Said About His Photographs

What’s in a photograph? A whole lot, and maybe even more than that. Warhol was an ardent documentarian; Andy not only relied on the camera to create the images for his screen prints but also he used the camera as a way to mediate his social experience, to take visual notes in a fraction of second. As the case with many artists, one art form leads to another. For Warhol the camera was a natural extension of his being–a tool to foster relationships–but considering the Pop art axioms often touted around Warhol, perhaps it was also part of the perpetual search glancing from one moment to the next trying to find that especially serendipitous second. Pop art, after all, is about liking things.

Andy being the documentarian he was gives us, the contemporary viewer, an interesting problem with which to contend. How much of Andy’s reality can be explained with the photographic records he kept. If you’ve read Susan Sontag, you may know where this is going. For those that have not, Susan Sontag wrote a series of essays from 1973 to 1977 which eventually were published into a book titled On Photography in 1977. To cut to the long and short of it, no these photos do not give us that reality despite how seemingly immediate and accessible it was to be in Warhol’s world. Susan Sontag writes in the premiere essay In Plato’s Cave “The knowledge gained through still photographs will always be some kind of sentimentalism, whether cynical or humanist. It will be a knowledge at bargain prices—a semblance of knowledge, a semblance of wisdom.” Following this logic, the photo does not give us access to the sound or the smell of the photographed scene. Perhaps one day that technology will exist, and what an exciting time it will be to read Susan Sontag then, but until that day Sontag’s argument is already correct. Let’s posit that day comes, then perhaps the argument would then fall to whether or not phenomenology can be expressed via photography but that’s neither here nor there at this time. But analyzing the photos makes you feel like you’re at the heart of Warhol’s wild world. In one contact sheet, one that was recently exhibited at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, Warhol goes from displaying a few people at The Factory, including Warhol superstar and Dali’s muse Ultra Violet to a far more private, even scandalous scene of Warhol’s friend Victor Hugo, not the 19th century French poet, doing cocaine in the bathroom with another unnamed figure before a formal dinner with Martha Graham, who stars in her own fantastic series of prints, and Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev. Coming back around to it, while the scene on this contact sheet might be so familiar to you, dear reader, that you’d say that you know exactly what was going on but ask yourself a few questions: what happened in between these photos? In the strictest sense, can you even say that you know all these photos happened on the same night? The fact that all these photos appear on a contact sheet together imply a narrative that is not necessarily there, the connection between them is only the fact that they are from the same roll of film.

One could probably expand upon this by delving into some exploration of objective and subjective truths, to even debating whether or not the viewer has access to such an objectivity. I Kant make this argument effectively, the point here is this: there is always an implied narrative when looking at imagery, one should be mindful to not assume too much from something which gives only “a semblance of knowledge, a semblance of wisdom.”

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