Point and shoot: Warhol and his Polaroid


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Was there ever an artist and a technology better suited to each other than Andy Warhol and the Polaroid camera?

After all, Warhol reveled in mass-produced art as well as the fabulosity of instant (and instantly disposable) celebrity. The Polaroid camera allowed him to put those beliefs into point-and-shoot practice, and he enthusiastically churned out images by the thousands.


Most of Warhol’s Polaroids were never formally exhibited during his lifetime, but now the USC Fisher Museum of Art is offering an opportunity to view this little-seen body of work in ‘Looking Into Andy Warhol’s Photographic Practice’ (through April 18).

The show features selections from 100 original Polaroids as well as 50 gelatin silver black-and-white prints donated to the museum last year by the Andy Warhol Photographic Legacy Program, a division of the Andy Warhol Foundation in New York.

The donation was part of a larger gift to 185 institutions nationwide: The program gave away about 28,000 photographs worth more than $28 million in recognition of the foundation’s 20th anniversary in 2007.

‘Usually you see his Polaroids in single status, not as a large group. But now you can see his process and how he would bring out his subjects’ personalities through repetition,’ says Jenny Moore, project curator at the Warhol Legacy Program.

The museum has paired photographs with thematically relevant quotes from Warhol’s personal diary and his book ‘Exposures.’ On one wall, next to a Polaroid series of Bianca Jagger (who, like Warhol, was a Studio 54 regular), he writes: ‘I’ve never seen her take drugs. That’s her real beauty secret.’

Beside a black-and-white image of an inflatable raft floating in a swimming pool reads Warhol’s famous view of Los Angeles: ‘I love L.A. I love Hollywood. They’re beautiful. Everybody’s plastic -- but I love plastic. I want to be plastic.’


Richard Meyer, associate professor of art history at USC and co-curator of the exhibition, says Warhol’s Polaroids acted as his visual diary and a personal buffer against reality. ‘He couldn’t conceptualize everyday life until it became an image,’ he explains. ‘He always had a camera with him so that he didn’t have to deal directly with people.’

In 1970, Warhol purchased a Polaroid Big Shot camera, a clunky piece of machinery that had a fixed focal length of just three feet. With his characteristic voracity, he turned his new toy on everyone, from the famous (Muhammad Ali, Georgia O’Keeffe and Andre Leon Talley are represented in the exhibition) to the completely anonymous.

Most of Warhol’s Polaroids were used as studies for eventual silk-screen portraits. The artist would cover his subjects’ faces in white kabuki-like makeup to conceal wrinkles and blemishes.

The artist intended his Polaroids to serve as time-capsule glimpses of a specific era -- namely, the ‘70s and early ‘80s when he was at the height of his fame. The fact that Polaroid recently discontinued its line of signature cameras renders these photographs doubly historic -- a long-gone era as captured by a dead technology.

Among Warhol’s favorite subjects to photograph were handsome young men whom he found hanging out at New York clubs and bars. One series of black-and-white images in the exhibition shows a chiseled youth with movie-star looks sporting a USC T-shirt. Identified only as ‘Chuck Nixon,’ he sits in relaxed repose, his gaze fixed on an object in the distance. (Curators tried to track down ‘Chuck Nixon’ but as yet have been unable to find him.)

-- David Ng

USC Fisher Museum of Art, 823 Exposition Blvd., Los Angeles; noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. Ends April 18. Free. (213) 740-4561