When the pictures from Stephen Shore's 'Velvet Years' arrived on our desk, it was clear there were many stories to be told about the very famous people in the very famous setting. And in time-honoured, Wallpaper* tradition, we were granted exclusive access to Mr. Shore, to hear them first hand...
You famously started taking pictures at a very young age. How did you first become aware of photography?
My interest started following my love for chemistry. A forward-thinking uncle gave me a starter developing kit by Kodak for my sixth birthday and I fell in love with the process of developing and printing family snaps in my bathroom. Soon after I started spending time in a local dark room in New York, where I grew up.
And by the age of 14 you'd sold three of your photographs to Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art, not an average career trajectory for aspiring photographers these days.
To be honest I didn't know any better. I called him up and he had a free appointment so agreed to see me. I was obviously very lucky; apart from anything there are just so many more photographers these days than there were back then, and people in museums were just too busy.
How did you then meet Andy Warhol at the age of 17?
In 1964, I became very interested in film. I'd stopped going to school and totally immersed myself in teaching myself the history of film instead. I was fortunate because there were three main theatres that were revival houses close to me, showing films in repertory, old American as well as European art house films and underground films. In 1965 I'd made a short film and happened to be showing it at the Filmmakers' Cinematech as Andy was showing 'The Life of Juanita Castro'. Afterwards, I went up to him and asked him if I could take some pictures of his Factory, to which he agreed.
He said yes without having seen any of your work? That's quite extraordinary. Presumably he was very approachable then?
We had an interesting relationship, probably quite unique at that time because he didn't want anything from me. I wasn't one of his actors and there was really no need for him to be manipulative with me like he was with some of the big names from that era. I was only 17 and he gave me advice, more on etiquette than my photography. He'd tell me, 'don't say that kind of thing to someone, say this', it was quite a fascinating relationship. Of all the people at the factory, I was the only one who lived Uptown and so did Andy. So sometimes we'd be out in Little Italy or Chinatown late at night and he'd drive me home, and we often would have completely unguarded conversations, where he wasn't doing 'the Andy thing'.
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So you actually had total access to him, to the factory persona and to the real man as well. I imagine that put you in a very good position to record his life in the Factory. What strikes me about the set of photographs in the exhibition is that you've captured the characters behind the facades. At first glance, a lot of them look like film stills, simply because we're so accustomed to the characters and imagery, but looking at them closely it's very easy to spot the fragility in many of their eyes, both as individuals and as a group. Would you agree Andy was a fragile character?
I remember one night he dropped me off after a night out in town, and I stayed up to watch a terrible, 1930s tearjerker on television. The next day I got to the Factory and Andy asked if I'd happened to see the film, which of course I had. He said he'd been in floods of tears and then fallen asleep so had missed the ending, but when he'd woken up his television had been switched-off. He guessed his mother had come in and tucked him up before turning off his television. I guess he was a fragile character underneath it all. Other people can tell stories of him being very manipulative, but it just didn't come up with me at all.
Well manipulative people often manipulate to make-up for a lacking of some other emotion, don't they?
I agree. Remember also that Andy was shooting films constantly. The producer, Chuck Wine, would set-up the situations, then Andy would film and everyone would improvise. There was no script. So he needed people who were constantly entertaining. He had to surround himself with people who he could aim a camera at and could be spontaneous and amusing. Also there are some artists who like to work alone, and other artists who draw energy from the people around him. Andy was one of the latter, so he always wanted a swirl of energy around him. He worked every day. People think there was a lot of partying, but he worked very hard and would rely on everyone around him to keep him focused too, drawing from their energy.
Despite the fact you'd already been working for many years, this presumably had a considerable impact, shaping your own work ethic?
It was a very valuable time for me. The bottom line was that it was fun. It was a lot more interesting than my life had been before, and a lot more interesting than most apprenticeships. That was what attracted me to it; these people became my friends, it was fun and exciting. At the same time I was exposed to an artist working for the first time, and saw the decisions that were made everyday and saw someone thinking aesthetically, which again I hadn't been exposed to before.
You're perhaps best known for pioneering the use of colour in photography, yet the pictures from this episode are in black and white. Is there anything you see as a nascent style in these pictures, that you recognize in your future work?
I think I've always had a strong sense of structure. I've always been interested in a visually poised image and I think you can definitely detect that from these pictures.
If you had the chance would you go back and shoot the same pictures in colour?
It's funny, I never wish they were in colour. Just the feel of the place, the sense of action, the rawness, everything about them feels very appropriate in black and white.
How do you reconcile the very professional interest in your subsequent photography, with the perhaps more mainstream interest, largely due to the subject matter, of your Factory photographs?
I rejected my Factory period for a long time. For so many of the others involved, it was the pinnacle of their lives. For me it just wasn't. It was the beginning. I don't think I could have gone on to do what I've done without having experienced that period, but at the time there was no way of understanding what a huge and important figure Andy would become, and still continue to be. I didn't think much about the pictures I took back then until the early 1990s when a British publisher approached me to do a book, 'The Velvet Years', and it was only then I revisited them and grew to love them all over again.
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