Collection of ninety-nine Polaroids, ca. 1975-85
Polacolor, 3 ¼ x 4 ¼ inches
Among Public Art’s collection is a set of ninety-nine Polaroids by Andy Warhol. The Polaroid camera provided Andy Warhol with one more technology that placed distance between him and the subject. By the 1980s, Warhol was churning out painted commissioned portraits of celebrities, socialites and wealthy businessmen. Yet the initial step in the portrait process was a studio visit to be photographed by Warhol with one of his Polaroid cameras. He referred to this initial photography session as his “pen and pencil,” similar to traditional sketches that would begin his artistic process. Typically, Warhol would shoot multiple portraits, a series of staged, similar yet slightly different images. Ultimately, these studio shots would result in finished silkscreens or painted portraits of his sitters, seen here in the likes of artist Julian Schnabel—a University of Houston alumnus—, actress Pia Zadora and model Apollonia.
The Polaroid camera encapsulated exactly what Warhol was seeking to achieve: factory-like efficiency, hands-off mass-production, and with an unusually bright and unreliable flash, a bleached tone, rendering the sitter a blank canvas. Warhol used two Polaroid cameras: the large, cumbersome Big Shot and the popular, origami-esque SX-70. The Big Shot was designed especially for portrait-taking at close range, while the highly portable SX-70 comfortably hid in his jacket pocket and accompanied him to every social engagement. Both camera’s speed and efficiency enabled him to become the machine he wanted to be.
With this body of well-known Polaroid portraits we are able to witness Warhol’s “sketches” as a vital step in his artistic process. However, we are also able to view them as remarkable objects unto themselves. Unique specimens such as still lifes of houseplants and shoes complement the Polaroids and provide a more prismatic view of Warhol’s artistic production. This intermingling of genres, cameras, and inspirations provide a fresh way in which to view the artist’s work.
Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries
(July 2021) Read about the man and the machine, Andy Warhol photography and everyday life.