Los Angeles

“Nadar/Warhol: Paris/New York”

Warhol and Nadar each preferred blank backgrounds for their portraits, a blankness Warhol often found reflected in his sitter’s eyes. Both trafficked in portraits of performers, artistic peers, and other objects of affection. Handsomely hung in two adjacent galleries and represented by about forty works each—Warhol’s taken from his entire career, Nadar’s mostly from the late 1850s and ’60s—the photographers’ pictures were seen together only in a small antechamber. Because of the graphic power of the images, many correspondences could be found among the sitters, despite their being largely kept apart in the show. The similarities were highlighted in the elegant catalogue: Inside the front and back covers are pages juxtaposing and revealing the eerie transhistorical likenesses between Rolling Stone Mick Jagger and nineteenth-century singer and actor Jean-François-Philibert Berthelier, among others. The most provocative question raised by the pairing of Nadar and Warhol, however, involves the radical dissimilarity of their investigations of fame/celebrity.

Unlike celebrity, fame has no need of photography, even if it consents to sit for a portrait. For example, we know who Maurice Blanchot and Thomas Pynchon are, not what they look like. Celebrity depends on, and at times becomes, a kind of photography—an advertisement (proliferation) of the self. It is not only the glare of the immediate that makes Nadar’s consideration of celebrity pale beside Warhol’s; it is also the brute accident of the time of his birth. Celebrity may have been, in part, created by early photography and by Nadar as one of its savviest proponents, but it became an entirely different thing because of movies and television. Nadar’s look was learned in the hot sweating presence of theater, its living breathing actors. Warhol’s lessons were learned by studying the stills of Photoplay and Hollywood scandal rags; by mediation.

It is strange that the curators nowhere discuss the extent of Warhol’s knowledge of the history of photography. What was Warhol’s interest in Nadar? Were there any Nadars in his endless collection? Warhol was not an idiot. His college training must have granted him a familiarity with photography—books like Albert Renger-Patzsch’s Die Welt ist schön (The world is beautiful; 1928), which may have had a formative influence on Warhol by demonstrating what he wanted his photographs not to do. Walter Benjamin’s indictment of Renger-Patzsch’s work—“In it is unmasked the posture of a photography that can endow any soup can with cosmic significance but cannot grasp a single one of the human connections in which it exists”—anticipates Warhol, who deployed photographs to show a basic human disconnect, the glamour of the cold, haunted surface separating everything from everyone. The white makeup and bright flash he was fond of highlight celebrity’s nightmare—obsolescence (a kind of death). Warhol’s pictures plug the bright light of fame and celebrity into the alternating current of no one/someone.

Curator Gordon Baldwin writes that “the clear mark of [Nadar’s presence] at any sitting is the engagement of the subject with the camera, with Nadar,” championing the way his images “transcend the temporal celebrity of specific accomplishments and achieve iconic fame.” Warhol’s photographs show nothing whatsoever like this, although by juxtaposing them with Nadar’s they may seem to. His shooting by Valerie Solanas allowed Warhol to discern in every snapshot only the stupefying referential impact of flesh that conveys (like the real) nothing but its distance from you. He shows the living-dead silence of celebrity, existing only as long as the distorting lens of desire gazes at it (what Lacan might have called the petit objet andy). Not Nadar’s intimacy at all, but intimacy’s nadir, the something becoming nothing in memory’s unforgiving optics.

Bruce Hainley