Before there was Instagram and Snapchat, there was Andy Warhol.
He anticipated the way we would come to openly acknowledge and then celebrate our fascination with pop culture and, really, ourselves.
The visual documentation of that life, 1976-1987, is now on view at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University with Contact Warhol: Photography Without End, celebrating the digitization of a huge collection of Warhol’s photographs, the vast majority of which have never been available to the public before.
It's part of a deal with The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts in New York. To land this prize, Stanford digitized the images that expose Warhol’s artistic process.
Reared on the flat, iconic paintings of the Byzantine Catholic church he grew up in, Warhol was quick to identify what and how we worship in the modern era — and then capitalize on that.
By the late 1970s, the nation's premier pop artist was a celebrity himself, cashing in on the appetite he created for iconic portraits of the rich and famous. By night, he was also holding court with his posse, a coterie of hot young men and artists in pre-AIDS Manhattan.
"The big revelation for me was how good Warhol was as a director, and indeed, as a performer. What matters isn't actually the end result, but rather the act of shooting," says co-curator Peggy Phelan, who directs Stanford’s Arts Institute.
Her co-curator is Richard Meyer of Stanford's School of Humanities and Sciences. "This is an exhibition based on an extraordinary collection of 3,600 contact sheets. Not the Polaroids, but every other single photograph that Warhol took from 1976, the year he bought a Minox — his first camera he had that wasn't a Polaroid — to his unexpected death in 1987," Meyer says.
Phelan says Warhol understood that the back story to his public paintings was something interesting in itself. That's something we can appreciate in 2018 in way we might not have fully grasped in 1978. "He is anticipating our own habit with our cell phone photographs," she says.
In one gallery suite, you can see the process that went into Warhol's silkscreen of Liza Minnelli.
"Warhol is photographing Liza with a Polaroid camera because Polaroids were the sources of the big paintings that we have," Phelan explains. "But he made sure that someone with a 35 millimeter camera — his 35 millimeter camera — was photographing him. And in this case, he made sure that there was someone filming both the 35 millimeter camera photographing him and him photographing Liza."
Hinting at the size of the collection, blow-ups of the contact sheets ring the rooms on the walls at knee level. Tables waist-high feature samples of the actual contact sheets under plexiglas.
Then, mirroring the kind of work done at the David Rumsey Map Center at Stanford, there's an interactive table, allowing you to look at anything in the archive digitized over two-and-a-half years by Cantor archivists.
"You can zoom in on one contact sheet, and then one frame within that contact sheet, and that zooming in will then be projected on the screen in the middle of the gallery," Phelan says.
So, a warning here to think about who else is in the gallery with you before you zoom in on any of the sexually explicit photos of Warhol's friends.
These photographs document a now lost world of gay culture in the 1970s and '80s. We see, for example, many shots of Victor Hugo, the window dresser and boyfriend of fashion designer Roy Halston Frowicknot, having sex with different men. Warhol used those images for a series called Sex Parts.
In a nod to modern sensitivities about sexual exploitation, Phelan says she and Meyer chose to crop the heads off of explicit images. "We were quite conscious of the risks of showing the faces of men who were engaged in sex acts 35 years ago who may or may not want to be identified now," Phelan says.
Those, she means, who are still alive today. "Looking at it in 2018, you can't but see the kind of sexual freedom and almost jubilation," Meyer says, before adding "Not Warhol. He's not jubilant. He very rarely smiles!"
Meyer adds something that might not seem obvious in this age: "These were not selfies," Meyers says. "He was not holding the camera out in front of him. He passed the camera to assistants to other people at the dinner parties, at Studio 54, at the discotheque. But every photograph taken by his camera is considered a Warhol.
"Warhol is the most pictured person in the contact sheets, and his boyfriend, John Gould, who was his last boyfriend, [was] the second most photographed."
Gould died of HIV/AIDS-related complications in 1986, a year before Warhol’s death after gallbladder surgery.
"He took his tape recorder and his pocket-sized camera with him every night when he went out, and he was very proud of going out every night," Meyer says.
Altogether, the exhibition documents a point in time when superstars of that era wanted to be photographed by Warhol, or with him: Debbie Harry, Michael Jackson, John Lennon, Dolly Parton, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Nancy Reagan, Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger, to name a few.
They understood instinctively what Warhol was doing, and they wanted to bask in the refracted light of his vision.
Contact Warhol: Photography Without End runs September 29, 2018 through January 6, 2019 at the Cantor Arts Center on the Stanford campus in Palo Alto. For more information, click here.