ARTICLE: Andy Warhol's Polaroids: Instant Fame

Photography has always occupied a central place in Andy Warhol's work, as a process essential to the development of his silkscreen paintings, and as a theoretical pillar of the Pop Art movement. Initially, he appropriated images from various sources, including advertising and newspapers, introducing a collaborative element into his work. His famous Marilyn and Elvis series, among others, relied heavily on existent photographs. Later, influenced perhaps by the misappropriation lawsuit initiated by Erle Loran against Roy Lichtenstein in 1962, Warhol took his silkscreen portraits in a new direction by working from his own photographs, thereby skirting the issue of original artistic authorship which is still the subject of much debate today.(1)

The mechanical nature of photography lent itself perfectly to Warhol's Pop methodology. His work involved an ongoing preoccupation "with impersonal techniques that implicitly rejected not only traditional draftsmanship but also the importance accorded by the Abstract Expressionists to gesture and personal touch as the authentic mark of an artist's personality."(2)  Because photography could be reproduced easily it played a major role in Warhol's continuing experimentation with repeated imagery. While obscuring the lines of distinction between the unique image of high art and the serialized image of advertising and commerce, Warhol also used photography's representational qualities to reject abstraction in art and reintroduce a form of heightened realism.

In his recent collection of essays, BEYOND THE BRILLO BOX, Arthur Danto writes, "As with so many of the forces in that theatrical and tumultuous decade, the advanced art movements of the 1960's sought the obliteration of social boundaries - in the case of Pop Art, the boundary between high and low."(3)  In this regard the camera was an ideal leveling device. It was inexpensive, it was accessible, and the end product - prints - could be made quickly.

Warhol's use of photography has long been acknowledged, its significance recognized. However, his photographs, with a few notable exceptions, have not received much attention as works of art in and of themselves; they have almost always been viewed as a means to an end. In 1987 the Robert Miller Gallery mounted an exhibition of Warhol's stitched photographic constructions. In the catalogue which accompanied the exhibit, Stephen Koch discussed the work within a context of recurring motifs: "Multiplication of the image is one of his most familiar devices; he has used it for many different purposes in different phases of his work."(4)  The fact that Warhol took many of the photographs used in these pieces in 1976 and then had them sewn together ten years later gave the work a retrospective span. In addition, the work had an object quality which eludes the traditional photographic print and was more in keeping with Warhol's silkscreens. In 1989 the gallery showed Warhol's photobooth pictures from the '60's. As Gary Indiana noted in a conversation included in the publication which accompanied this exhibition, "Except for the ones where Andy's in the picture, and a few others ... he wasn't present when they were taken... [They] were done, apparently, with the idea that he needed a kind of photo morgue, that portraits could be made from. The ones that got made were the ones of people who could buy the portraits."(5) Consequently, these photos tell us little of Warhol the photographer or of his way of seeing.

The recent exhibition of Andy Warhol's Polaroids at the Pace/MacGill Gallery affords us a new look at the place photography occupied in his work. Again, the centrality of photography in Warhol's artistic process is confirmed by these pieces. The working prints from which his silkscreened portraits of the 1970's and '80's derived, they were not intended to be viewed as finished works of art. According to Vincent Freemont "These Polaroid photographs are Andy's sketches, the beginning vision of what would become final paintings."(6)  Unlike his other photographs, however, these reveal Warhol the photographer to a greater degree than we have recognized. These pieces are entirely Andy's. Warhol's Polaroids are a personal statement in a way that none of his other photographs are. They were not constructed at the Factory. Where there is no artistry in the photobooth pictures (a not undesired aspect), the Polaroids reveal Warhol behind the camera, making choices. 

Warhol acquired his first Polaroid camera around 1962. His earliest photos with it were male nudes; he took numerous images of buttocks which read as dispassionate anatomical studies.(7) While it was a subject matter he would return to later, Warhol did not elaborate on this work. When he purchased Polaroid's Big shot camera in 1970-71 Warhol found the vehicle which would generate a new form of creative expression for him.

Ideal for portraits, the Big Shot was a close-up camera with a fixed focal length of three feet. The flash was built in and the only adjustment necessary was to bring the subject into focus.

While the mechanics of taking the photos were thus extremely basic, Warhol created a portrait process which transformed the sitting into an event. His subjects were usually wined and dined at the Factory, with Andy joining the proceedings after lunch had been finished. He would interview his sitter, making a tape of the conversation, and then move quickly on to the shoot. If the sitter were a woman white makeup was applied to her face and she frequently wrapped a cloth around her chest, establishing a simple, almost classicalframework for the portrait. Freemont recollects "Making the face unnaturally white compensated for the effect of the flash cube, flattened and softened the surface of the woman's face, and hid unwanted wrinkles. This softening effect also helped with the high contrast which developed when the Polaroid was transferred to the acetates that were used to make the silkscreens and eventually, the paintings. It would take about half an hour for the sitter to be transformed into what often looked like some strange cast member of a western Kabuki theater."(8) Hands were an important compositional element in a portrait of a man; they would be posed to hide a wrinkle or a double chin. The way a man held a cigarette or a cigar would also be used to project some aspect of his personality. "Andy tried to make the men look like handsome movie stars," concludes Freemont.(9)

Once he had finished taking the Polaroids, Warhol would listen to input from the sitter and whoever else was on hand before selecting the images he was going to work from. The Polaroids were then rephotographed in 35mm, printed as 8x10 inch acetates, and eventually enlarged to 40x40 inches as preparation for making a silkscreen. During each subsequent step, Warhol frequently instructed his assistants to alter the image. "Now I'm trying to put style back into them," he said.(10) Adapting the Polaroid photograph to the painted silkscreen is an example of the way in which Warhol questioned the assumptions underlying fine art as distinguished from low art. It can also be argued that, like the magician injecting an element of mystique into an otherwise routine trick, this transfer process allowed Warhol to make his work more commercial. Financial considerations should never be underestimated in discussing Warhol's motives. His diaries and the recollections of those who knew him make it abundantly clear that Warhol was always concerned with making money.

When photographing people Warhol concentrated on their faces. These pieces have a strong, singular composition which is typical of all of Warhol's work. The image is pared down to one essential element. One Warhol biographer, David Bourdon, maintains that "One of the characteristics that distinguishes Warhol's portraits from those of most other artists is the larger-than-lifesize face that fills most of the canvas, an aggrandizement that evidently suited the egos of his sitters."(11)

Warhol's well known dictum - in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes - reveals his preoccupation with celebrity. With his Polaroids of the famous he found a means of bringing those celebrities into his work. David Bourdon has called Warhol "the court painter to the international jet set."(12)  So many of those he depicted - Halston, Truman Capote, Jean Michel Basquiat, John Lennon, Georgia O'Keefe, Martha Graham - are now dead. Many have seen their prominence diminish. Ironically, two - Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver - eventually married each other. According to Stephen Koch, Warhol "shoots his subjects with the eye of an accomplished gossip: a stargazer whose shy mute presence in the salons of at least three continents is something of a legend."(13)

In the late seventies Warhol did a series of portraits of sports figures which are particularly curious. The project was suggested by Richard Weisman, an art collector who knew many of the athletes and coordinated the sittings for Warhol. While their fame was based on differing individual athletic accomplishments, Warhol treated them categorically. It is apparent that he never quite understood the substance behind the surface of their fame. Unlike his other celebrity subjects, the sports figures are all depicted in uniform and with equipment which identified their sport. There is the sense that Warhol needed these visual reminders to inform him who he was photographing, and why. Nor are these portraits which examine the idolatry of professional sports in modern society. While Warhol elevated so many of his subjects to iconographical status, he failed to grasp the idealized proportions that the likes of Tom Seaver, Pele, Willie Shoemaker, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar have attained. Interestingly, as a group, the athletes seem the most comfortable in the camera's regard, having experienced its scrutiny much more than even the celebrities whom Warhol photographed. Many of Warhol's subjects appear to be victims of their celebrity, but in the case of Muhammed Ali, the fighter seems to command the camera.

The technique of depicting his sitter in tight close-up but flattened relief magnified the sitter's presence while simultaneously distancing Warhol from his subject. Andy Grundberg claims that "these pictures oscillate between adoration and desecration of their celebrated subjects."(14) One of his subjects, Brooke Hayward, recalled that "Andy conceived portraits as idealized versions of his sitters. In my case, he always had this conceit that I should have been a movie star, which, no doubt, is why he chose, of all the Polaroids, the most glamorous pose ... all reality is swept away."(15) Traditionally portraiture has strived to capture both a likeness and a sense of the sitter's inner self. We view a portrait as a character study and frequently project content onto the form that the artist presents us with. Because photographic portraits document so accurately a likeness it is assumed they must also convey a metaphor. Warhol rejected this convention by turning his portraits into designs. It may be, as has been suggested by David Rimanelli, that these portraits are talismans of someone's existence, but if so then they are strangely impersonal ones.(16) Unlike religious icons, Warhol's celebrities carry with them no message, no moral.

The remaining subjects of Warhol's Polaroids represent a cross section of his career. Pictures of high heeled shoes done in 1981 show Warhol returning to his origins as a graphic designer creating advertisements for women's footwear. The fascination with male nudes reveal an aspect of Warhol's personality which he occasionally brought into the light of public world. Brillo boxes and a hammer and sickle are all references to earlier creations he made famous in other mediums. Likewise, the American Icons, a series of photos taken in 1980-81 of Aunt Jemima, Uncle Sam, Howdy Doody, Dracula, and the Wicked Witch of the West, are a reexamination of a theme central to Warhol's Pop philosophy. Danto explains that "The Pop artist reproduced as high art what everybody knew - the familiar things of the ordinary person's life-world: comic strips, soup cans, shipping cartons, cheeseburgers. It was a transfiguration of the commonplace and, at the same time, an aesthetization of worlds and ways of life heretofore thought irredeemable by a cultivated taste."(17) The fact that a Polaroid camera was a key ingredient in this transformation process only reinforced the theoretical argument underlying the work.

Most revealing are Warhol's self-portraits. Andy Grundberg believes that "Warhol's presence within his Polaroid pantheon suggests that his interest in the manufacture of celebrity was inspired by a need to manufacture his own identity."(18) he never appears relaxed in front of the camera. His use of props like a particularly wild blond wig or a skull perched atop his head is contrived and self-conscious. Whereas much of Warhol's work derived it's power from it's ability to reject the conventions of traditional painting, the skull is a vanitas motif which is so historically referential that it seems out of place.

The ambivalence that is prevalent in all his portraits is taken to an extreme in the self-portraits in drag. While glorifying the artist, they also mask his identity. Furthermore, he seems poignantly uncertain before the camera in these photographs. Arthur Danto writes that "Warhol's thought that anything could be art was a model, in a way, for the hope that human beings could be anything that they chose, once the divisions that had defined the culture were overthrown."(19) Nowhere do these aspirations seem to be laid out so boldly as in these photos.

Having defined the centrality of the Polaroids to the manufacturing of Warhol's work and examined their content in relation to the dominant themes of Pop art, it is necessary to acknowledge that while they were not intended to be viewed as art themselves, the Polaroids do take on a meaning independent of his other work. According to the critic and art historian Vicki Goldberg, "he consciously turned himself into a wholly neutral, tape-recording observer, an artist who worked so mechanically he could give instructions for art on the phone."(20) Warhol himself seemed to confirm this, saying "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it."(21)  Yet the Polaroids are a contradiction of this. Here we see Warhol operating behind the surface. Vincent Freemont recalled "Andy loved taking pictures and was able to control the look he wanted from his subjects better when he was the photographer than when he had to work from photographs taken by others. Often he would work for hours to get what he wanted. It was fun for Andy, who was intensely involved in the process of photography...His unique eye is directly involved [in the Polaroids], something we all took for granted. He took photography seriously and loved doing it. During the mid-eighties, Andy spent a lot of time making pictures. It was even a way he related to people."(22) It has been asserted that Warhol's use of photography challenged all the aesthetic bases of fine art photography, that his photos were "metaphors of facile consumption and voyeuristic distance."(23) To a degree this is true. However, the self-portraits in drag, in particular, go beyond this. Here we see Warhol using the medium to speak out in an unadorned, and, considering that he is in a woman's clothes, make-up and wig, paradoxically revealing manner. The Polaroid catches Warhol in a way that his technically and artistically more elaborate paintings can not. Warhol is caught without artifice, like a deer in the headlights of an oncoming car; the distance, which he worked so hard to create, is closed. 


(1) Marco Livingstone, "Do It Yourself: Notes On Warhol's Techniques," in ANDY WARHOL, A RETROSPECTIVE, ed. Kynaston McShine, (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1989), p. 67.

Art Rogers' suit against Jeff Koons, Robert Yarber's discussions of infringements of his copyrights in the movie Grand Canyon, and numerous legal actions concerning "borrowing" by rap musicians which remain unresolved are all examples of the continuing debate regarding artistic authorship.

(2) Ibid., p. 65.

(3) Arthur C. Danto, BEYOND THE BRILLO BOX, (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1992), p. 3.

(4) Stephen Koch, ANDY WARHOL, PHOTOGRAPHS, (New York, Robert Miller Gallery, 1987), n. pag.

(5) Gary Indiana, ANDY WARHOL, PHOTOBOOTH PICTURES, (New York: Robert Miller Gallery, 1989), n. pag.

(6) Vincent Freemont, "Introduction," in ANDY WARHOL, POLAROIDS, 1971-1986, (New York, Pace/MacGill Gallery and Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, 1992), p. 7.

(7) David Bourdon, WARHOL, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989), p. 134.

(8) Freemont, p. 6.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Livingstone, p. 75.

(11) Bourdon, p. 338.

(12) Ibid., p. 376.

(13) Koch, n. pag.

(14) Andy Grundberg, "Andy Warhol's Polaroid Pantheon," in ANDY WARHOL, POLAROIDS, 1971-1986, pp. 50-51.

(15) Brooke Hayward, quoted in Bourdon, p. 324.

(16) David Raminelli, quoted in Indiana, n. pag.

(17) Danto, pp. 3-4.

(18) Grundberg, pp. 49-50.

(19) Danto, p. 4.

(20) Vicki Goldberg, "Seven Thousand Pictures Are Better Than One," THE NEW YORK TIMES, 23 August 1992, Arts and Leisure Section, p. 25, col. 1.

(21) Quoted in Andy Warhol, Kasper Konig, Pontus Hulten, and Olle Granath, eds. ANDY WARHOL, (Stockholm, Moderna Museet, 1968), n. pag.

(22) Freemont, p. 7.

(23) Grundberg, p. 48.

The Photo Review, Fall 1992