Art of Photography

Rob Townsend

Exhibition: Andy Warhol, William S. Burroughs and David Lynch

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At the Photographers’ Gallery in London until 30th March is a linked set of three exhibitions, with the common thread of celebrating the photographic output of counter-cultural American icons famous for their work in other fields: pop artist Andy Warhol, author William S. Burroughs and film director David Lynch. It’s hard to go in without preconceptions of the artists based on their ‘day jobs’.

I held two questions at the back of my mind throughout each exhibition:

  1. What are the connections between their photography and the art that they’re already known for?
  2. Would this be an interesting collection of images if the photographer was an unknown?

Andy Warhol: Photographs 1976-1987

Photographers’ Gallery overview

Although Warhol was interested in photography all his life, for much of his career photographs were the raw materials for his more famous screen-print works, rather than being the art in themselves. In his last decade Warhol took to using a 35mm compact camera to record his daily life and reconnected with photography at a more direct, but not necessarily less artistic, level. This collection is divided into two quite distinct halves: the large artworks he created out of photographic prints, and the simpler snapshots of his daily life.

In the specific works of photo-art he riffed on his own iconic technique of repetition of image, in this variation stitching together (or rather, hiring someone else to stitch together, of course) large prints into grids, sometimes with almost imperceptible differences between the frames, sometimes with noticeably different exposures of the same image. As in his screen-print work, his most eye-catching works are multiple images of American icons, but this time contemporary celebrities (Jerry Hall, Liza Minnelli) and with photos he took himself, not the already-iconic images he modified for his 1960s work (Monroe, Presley, Taylor etc).

He mines the same seam of identity and iconography in a way that is so ‘Warholian’ that only he could have got away with it. Some may say that he was repeating himself with these works, but I’m glad he did it and I’m glad I saw them; it made me look at his work and ideas with fresh eyes; his famous 1960s work has become so ubiquitous that it’s lost something now. But they do reinforce my opinion of Warhol as a creator-of-art rather than an artist. Not necessarily an inferior designation, but I do see a difference.

By contrast the daily life shots were very uninspiring; I got the feeling that anyone with a camera in late 70s / early 80s New York could have got a collection of images much like this; his personal vision or ideas don’t come through. As an insight into the trivia of the life of Andy Warhol The Famous Artist they hold some curiosity value, but without that context they are little more than intermittently interesting snapshots.

So to my two questions:

  1. Half of it was unmistakably Warhol; the other half was unexceptional street photography
  2. Half yes (although I’d be accusing the mystery photographer of ripping off Andy Warhol!); half not a chance

Taking Shots: the Photography of William S. Burroughs

Photographers’ Gallery overview

I didn’t think I knew much about Burroughs til I remembered that I’d read The Naked Lunch at university and found it as bewildering and fragmented as most readers. The only other thing I knew about him was his predilection for drugs and guns, hence the triple-meaning title I presume.

This is a hugely eclectic collection: portraits, self-portraits, picture essays, domestic still lifes, collages. Some were reproduced so small as to be difficult to engage with. He seems to have enjoyed experimenting with photography in a similar way to he did with writing. The most interesting images by far were the ‘assemblages’, where he cut up photos to make collages, and in some cases photographed, printed and re-assembled those collages to make further collages, in an ad-infinitum, kaleidoscopic way. He was truly trying to do new things with photography as art, but using the principles that had served him as a writer: cutting up, fragmenting, re-arranging, jumping around, eschewing the expected linear narrative.

In a similar way to Warhol – but deeper, more complex and to me anyway, more satisfying – he used photographs as a raw material for constructing visual works of art. They’re almost closer to two-dimensional sculpture than photography. Burroughs spoke of photography as being able to “disrupt the space-time continuum and expand the viewers perception of the physical world” – and you can almost understand what he’s getting at when you see some of the assemblages. But to be fair, he was on very strong drugs a lot of the time…

In answer to my two nagging questions above:

  1. As with Warhol, the most successful works here contain strong echoes of what he’s most famous for; what’s admirable about Burroughs is that he’s crossed from literature to visual arts yet carried over techniques
  2. The collages, absolutely; the other works, less so – again the interest inherent in those is the man behind the camera, not the resultant images

David Lynch: the Factory Photographs

Photographers’ Gallery overview

Between 1980 and 2000 Lynch took photos of industrial structures in Germany, Poland, USA and England. Initially the purpose was scouting potential film locations but it seems to have developed into a general hobby for a while.

The collected images maintain a consistently dark mood: tense, full of foreboding. He is drawn not just to industry, but specifically to industrial decay; the factories here tend to be derelict structures, being reclaimed by nature. These underlying themes and the gloomy, monochromatic imagery do reflect his film work, especially earlier works such as Eraserhead and The Elephant Man.

He chooses a range of viewpoints, getting closer and closer to the subjects as you move around the gallery: there are long, wide shots of whole factory structures and cooling towers; there are crumbing interiors, often with a window onto the outside environment; there are close-ups of left-behind heavy machinery, pipes, ducting etc; there are very close, almost macro shots of walls, surfaces, broken windows, showing textures and veering towards abstract. I found these last images the most engaging: heavy industry reduced to shapes, lines, blocks of light and shade.

Of the three, his is by far the most coherent and accomplished body of work. Thematically it is extremely focused, and this really helps the viewer immerse themselves in the artist’s world (and this may have been helped by Lynch providing one of his own industrial sound installations to accompany the visuals).

To answer the two opening questions for Lynch:

  1. The trademark sinister edge of his film work is present here; most specifically it brought to mind Eraserhead more than any other of his films
  2. Yes, absolutely; I’d have paid money to see this whoever had been behind the lens – there is genuine talent on show here and he is not merely trading on his name

Summary

The David Lynch exhibition stood well apart from the other two to this viewer. It stands on its own as a cohesive, self-contained series, and this really helps to reinforce and intensify the message and mood. The Warhol and Burroughs shows both suffer by casting their net slightly too wide, trying to cover a disparate set of works per artist, and this diluted the effect for me. If the Warhol gallery just had the stitched multiple images, and the Burroughs gallery just had the assemblages, they would have been much more potent.

Is this because Lynch is still with us, and exerted some influence on the subject matter (although it is curated by a third party), and by comparison the temptation with deceased artists is to anthologise rather than specialise?

Anyway – Lynch impressed me most, Burroughs surprised me most, Warhol reinforced my existing opinion most!

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