At most opening nights for art shows, a savvy photographer weaves through the crowd toting a fancy digital camera, probably with a super expensive lens. But when visitors to the Luckman Gallery walked through its doors on a Saturday afternoon, a very different camera greeted them — a Polaroid.
For those who forgot about (or don't know of) the vintage camera, it gained its fame for printing out a glossy sheet that within minutes turned into a photo. In the hands of artist Andy Warhol, the Polaroid camera created photos that today make for intriguing portraits. “Andy Warhol: Polaroids 1974-1987, Faces and Names” contains a specific set of Polaroids revealed to the public for the first time, reminders of both Warhol's absolute coolness and the magic of the Polaroid photo.
Set in glass cases, the tiny photos showcase Warhol's knack for capturing not only the physical features of his subjects — mostly visitors to the Factory, the studio where Warhol worked — but also their personalities. Their small size forces viewers to slow down and look more closely, and there are multiple photos of some of the people. In a digital camera, the less ideal ones would probably get deleted with the push of a button but here the many shots become little clues to each subject's personality.
The snapshots also served as inspiration for Warhol's famous silkscreen pieces. Archival footage set to the tune of Lou Reed and John Cale's “Faces and Names” shows Warhol in a flurry of artistic activity. The collaged scenes also hint at Warhol's quirky, elusive persona that makes him a subject of interest today; at one point, the artist just stares at the camera for a few seconds, as if looking deeply at the person recording his actions or the viewer of the video.
In fact, a lot of the show centers on this intimate, probing semi-voyeurism. The small Polaroids allow for a close look at complete — sometimes odd-looking — strangers. Three old-school TVs also play 13 Most Beautiful… Songs for Andy Warhol's Screen Test, which features people like Edie Sedgwick and Dennis Hopper staring straight into the camera for four whole minutes. Some subjects look uncomfortable, some play up their time in the spotlight. Some end up shedding a few tears.
Not to make Warhol seem like a totally creepy dude. The subjects obviously trusted the artist and that connection comes through in their mostly uninhibited attitudes. They strike their best pose for the camera but the camera also seems to strip away their exterior image, exposing something more. The now-outdated white box framing the figures makes the portraits even more arresting and almost more engaging than today's digital ones.
Yet as the show's wall text suggests, Warhol would probably love Instagram. Today, users capture even the most fleeting moments of their lives, give them a cool filter and share with anyone from friends to a stranger browsing through a hashtag.
Warhol no doubt would put his account to good use with stunning photos of himself, his parties and his art. The Polaroids, black and white prints and footage in “Faces and Names” only add to Warhol's legacy in Pop art. As visitors walked out that day, they left behind their own Polaroid photo likenesses for the next group of visitors to admire.
“Faces and Names” is on view through March 23 at The Luckman Gallery at The Harriet and Charles Luckman Fine Arts Complex, 5151 State University Drive, (323) 343-6611, luckmanarts.org.