Andy Warhol (1928 – 1987) took a lot of photographs, making an obsessive’s visual diary of what and who we saw. Now we can see 130,000 of Warhol’s photos on 3,600 contact sheets and corresponding negatives at the Andy Warhol Photography Archive, a project run by Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center and Stanford Libraries. “He snapped photos at discos, dinner parties, flea markets, and wrestling matches,” say notes on the archive acquired from The Andy Warhol Foundation in 2014. “Friends, boyfriends, business associates, socialites, celebrities, passers by: all captured Warhol’s attention – at least for the moment he looked through the lens.”
There are pictures of starry names of their era, like Keith Haring, Michel Jackson, Victor Hugo, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Bianca Jagger, Debbie Harry, Grace Jones, Jackie Kennedy (who appears in 300 Warhol paintings), Liza Minnelli, Nancy Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Truman Capote. “My idea of a good picture is one of a famous person doing something unfamous,” said Warhol. And if you film enough people for enough time, you can catch the real self behind the famous face. This is reality TV in stills.
But as you sneer at what might be a simple vanity project, a life defined by Warhol’s relationship to other artists, you also see his photos of trash cans, buildings, hallways, people having sex in hallways, empty streets, dreary rooms, people having sex in dreary rooms, rubbish, and, well anything you can get in a click had you only been there. “Warhol took his camera with him and snapped images from the time he left his apartment, through midtown Manhattan, to work at his offices overlooking Union Square, to nights at uptown galas or downtown nightclubs,” says Amy DiPasquale, who led Cantor’s digitization project. “The images range from the mundane to the glamorous.”
Only about 17% of the photos Warhol took got printed. It’s still a huge number of images. If today’s iPhone snapping teenager lives as long as Warhol, 130,000 photos will be surpassed with minimal effort. But what might be banal and less engrossing than a Kardashian selfie, that apogee of hollow celebrity culture Warhol prefigured, has warmth and flavor. We get an isight into Warhol and hints at what coherent vision powered his artistic eye. The regret is in there being far more Andy Warhol photos than there are Andy Warhol’s paintings.