New York

Stephen Shore

The Velvet Underground has been aboveground for decades, and all tomorrow’s parties have become all yesterday’s parties, yet the Warholian milieu of the mid-1960s continuously resurfaces as the eternally hip subaltern. The Factory has been fetishized, romanticized, historicized, and analyzed as an incubator for the cross-pollination of art, experimental film, fashion, music, performance, parties, glamour, sexual/identity transgression, a new sub-pop culture, and more. So it’s a rather quaint experience to revisit that environment through the eyes of Stephen Shore, who was a mere seventeen years old in 1965 when he began to shoot the modestly scaled, charmingly ordinary black-and-white pictures exhibited here. That some of these images have accrued an almost archetypal resonance probably owes less to their intrinsic pictorial strengths than to the fact that they constitute one of the primary visual records of this scene (assembled in Shore’s 1995 publication The Velvet Years: Warhol’s Factory 1965–67). These photographs undeniably helped confer iconic status on characters such as Edie Sedgwick and Nico, and engendered a cross-generational infatuation with the glamour of these “superstars” in the worlds of art, fashion, and film. If the iconic is the imprinted trace of immortalized subjectivity within the (real) unreality of the picture, Shore’s photos might be thought of as interlocutors between that historicized scene and our desire for recuperating underground hipness. But is their iconicity indistinguishable from—or conflated with—the signifying conditions of the photographs? And isn’t the iconicity here ultimately a product of institutionalized cultural history?

There’s Edie, poor little rich girl, infamous victim of ’60s drug culture, appearing model/drug skinny in her black tights and sleeveless undershirt against the background of those silver walls in Edie Sedgwick using the only phone in The Factory, NYC (all works ca. 1965–67); and there’s the classic Edie image in which she appears waiflike, bemused, at once beautiful and glamorous, with a blur of studio-like activity in the background (Edie Sedgwick). Nico returns in all her Teutonic allure in two shots (both titled Nico) that seem to capture her posing, in coolly unself-conscious, camera-ready style, for some- thing or someone else, and indeed Shore has recently speculated that, given the qualities of filmic lighting, these images might have been shot during Warhol’s “screen tests.” Nico’s one further appearance, in the group portrait titled Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, Nico, Ari, Moe Tucker, John Cale, The Factory, NYC, reconfirms her cult status as she transmits an icy hipness of consummate self-presentation.

In the odd and pictorially arresting image Diana Hall pointing a gun at Andy’s head, Warhol is seated in a chair, head turned away from the revolver’s barrel. The implied violence is provocative, but the ambiguity of the scene is more curious: Did Warhol realize what was happening? Was it a real gun? Was there danger? It is also one of the only images here wherein Warhol may have been unaware of Shore’s camera. Usually he is posing, allowing Shore to help facilitate his meticulously crafted self-image: reclining on the couch (likely the one from Warhol’s films Couch and Blow Job), wearing sunglasses, with a disco ball lying on the floor nearby (Andy with Mirrored Disco Ball), or looking cool, again with sunglasses, on a couch with Lou Reed (Andy Warhol, Lou Reed), or framed by the glittery aluminum walls of the Factory (Andy Warhol, The Factory, NYC). Andy is almost there, a subject/subjectivity on the fringe of presence, ready for objectification, or, rather, commodification into sheer image. In one unusual picture, Andy Warhol, Sam Green, Marcel Duchamp, Cordier Ekstrom Gallery, we observe Warhol behind a 16-mm film camera, appearing to look at Shore, while in the background Marcel Duchamp (who in January 1965 had a solo show at the gallery in which the photo was taken) sits in conversation with art dealer Sam Green, then director of the Institute for Contemporary Arts in Philadelphia.

As for Shore himself, these unremarkable if competent pictures present him as a precocious cosmopolitan teenager (whose work had already been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York by this time) utilizing the camera as a device to document a flurry of activities beyond his experience, yet fortunate enough to be amidst mainly willing subjects, many of whom also featured in Warhol’s screen tests and movies. Warhol used people, and some used him back; the teenage Shore seems to have used the situation as a way of preparing himself for engaging with the quotidian world of America that would become the subject of his considerably more aesthetically accomplished and influential color photography of the ’70s.

Joshua Decter