Saturday, October 27, 2007

Bob Colacello's Out

Interview Magazine, when still published by Andy Warhol, as Andy Warhol's Interview, to be specific, circulated a very curious "picture" of society, from the 1970s, through the early 1980s. Done on a shoe-string budget, it presented a kaleidescope of the rich, the famous, and/or the infamous, on cheap acidic newsprint, which as a mass market publication circulated into odd, less-than-chic corners of America. Seemingly done for a niche market of insiders, with a bit of humor & put-on, like all media it managed to travel some, even if not seen at a supermarket check-out.

Like all tabloids it transmitted the virtual world of publicity: images relating to the entertainment & fashion industries, images of stars, models, the successful - the rich, the chic. On yellowing newsprint images were printed full page, fully styled, lit, composed, with all-important credits, like a signature, which mentioned the photographer & also, curiously, the make of the camera used. As a teenager this is where I learned the important words "Hasselblad" & "Rolleiflex." While itself a bit of a parody of the extensive credits in the back of any Conde Nast publication, one could argue that the parody is also somewhat disingenuous. The signature/credit functioned as an imprimatur of status, similar to the use of Warhol's signatures on his silkscreens, which accorded these works as "Warhols" as opposed to mass-produced items. Likewise one could argue that if a mock-magazine in ways, it also was genuinely an early, somewhat eccentric form of a lifestyle/glamor magazine, nonetheless. It's form was certainly much more minimal than a commercial magazine, but I wonder how different was the ethos?

For those of us somewhat familiar with Warhol's work from the 1960s, which was a bit scruffier, bohemian - a Factory of loose-cannons & misfits & the ambiguous - Interview presented a much fiercer vision of a society driven by money, power & status, much more corporate, conservative, exclusive. Looking through old issues one can see that Warhol had a predilection (an attraction?) to power. When Jimmy Carter was president, we saw photos of Miz Lillian, his mother, at Studio 54. When Reagan became president, Nancy Reagan & her girlfriends, all in their couture collections, forerunners of the concept of "retail therapy," appeared (also Ron Reagan Jr worked at Interview). & of course there was that playboy of the western world, Henry Kissinger, former escort of Jill St. John, in evidence as well. Outside the art world, one could look at Warhol's snaps, his Polaroids, his portraits as a truly epic portrait of American society, in its time, with Interview as a kind of local newsletter. Curiously, if Interview seemed an in-house circular of High Society, it was still a bit decadent, compared to any more "serious" magazine such as Vogue or Town & Country: the sort of publication it most resembled, despite the highfalutin credits, is a zine. The stars were "real" & they were invented. A buff waiter could be as notable as Bianca Jagger, perpetually on her white horse in Studio 54. The risque element of Interview, its apparent homoeroticism, its cultivation of physical pleasures, its stand-offish attitude to median values, as circulated in middle-America, are the radical aspects to what seems primarily a panorama of the repugnantly rich, chic & stupid. Like all media it had a propagandistic function & with its glamorous parties, movie stars & boys, empowered pockets of glamor otherwise hidden in the coarse social fabric of what had been a crude, warring country, a tough AmeriKKKa of binary gender differentiations. Mini-Halstons of the Midwest had a printed point of reference.

Going through the various catalogs & memoirs that have been published about Warhol & his Factory, it is clear that the early Factory, while dirty & weird, w/ stranger characters given easy access, was otherwise not that dissimilar, socially. Heiresses were still prioritized over the poor - Warhol was not experimenting with new social orders so much as amplifying hierarchies & castes & later in his career, making that the subject of his art/business, although one can see echoes of this in the great films he made, & in his books. Warhol's diaries are fascinating reading for their systematic accounts of socializing & also for his attention to the costs of things. I recall the diaries receiving criticism for this endless penny-counting, but I can't help but think that there is some documentary value in this, & also, in terms of understanding Warhol as an artist - he makes the costs of things apparent, too. & this is a radical act too in that in "polite society" one is not supposed to speak of money or allude to it. & I must admit I find this more interesting than estimations of the characters of various members of the Iranian royal family, or pretty Upper East Side wives, or oil tycoons, or whomever - although his clever, sarcastic analyses are usually very entertaining. Reading the diaries it becomes clear that snobbery aside, Warhol is still a middle-class boy, & like the poorer classes, is always aware of the value of the rich. This is a case wherein "how the other half lives" is from the perspective of the middle-class looking at the rich.

The images of Interview would begin with the air-brushed cover, inside with full-page studio portraits by other photographers - all black-&-white, & ending with a page of party snaps by Bob Colacello, the editor, with the column heading, "Bob Colacello's Out" which has just been published as a photo book, Bob Colacello: Out.

Given the laborious efforts put into the covers, which began with polaroids of whomever, with stylist & make-up people, & then it being transposed to a much more plastic image, with a very recognizable style - stylish but never unique, let's say. I like to show my students slides of some of Warhols polaroids - & there is also a sequence of Jane Fonda being made up for a cover, which involved extensive use of white pancake & monumentally "big" hair, which provokes a great deal of incredulity & laughter. Beauty Knows No Pain, let's say.

The portraits inside were "retro" in that they were made in studios & lit in ways that alluded to past Hollywood glamor images by the likes of George Hurrell & Clarence Sinclair Bull (& I believe the elder George Hurrell photographed Duran Duran for Interview in the 1980s). After the rough & cinema verite styles of late 1960s, early 1970s film & photography this was an almost reactionary sensibility in this - the mask of glamor, the hothouse studio illusions as ciphers of desire. In this as well I remember portraits by Robert Mapplethorpe, & also a series of images of young Richard Gere, styled as a grease monkey at a service station, in faded jeans & wife-beater, by young Herb Ritts - dreams of trade for us all. This was a very prescient understanding of the illusionism of periodicals, the power of images to be so unreal as to become collective fantasies. In lieu of the innovative magazine work done in previous years, such as by Diane Arbus, this seems aesthetically a step back, per se, but a powerful such step. I can't help but think that the plethora of lifestyle magazines, of whatever level of sophistication or targeted audience, as being cloddish echoes of the inspired small staff of Warhol & company.

Colacello's images were done on the fly at various clubs & parties. Using a point&shoot camera, with flash, they are artless in their execution. Warhol used a similar point&shoot camera & it's not all that easy to distinguish the work of either from the other. Still, in retrospect, looking at the images, now decades later, they are remarkably vivacious & fascinating - unlike the way the covers (which resemble prototypes for the graphics of Patrick Nagel) & the portraits (Duran Duran - who dey?) seem to seem be encased in their petrified periods. The Warhol Museum has already circulated a large exhibition of Warhol's photographic work - even that seems a mere scratching of the surface of Warhol's actual photographic output. & it can be seen as independent work, as well as maquettes for further work such as silkscreens, and also on an "amateur" level in hordes of snapshots.

I am not sure whether the vivacity of the images is due to the authorial skills of Colacello, who in his writings seems very bright & witty, so much as the images being part of a snapshot culture, a larger culture of pleasures mechanically recorded. If one were to consider celebrity as a kind of pursuit, these would be great trophies from a social safari. Originally in the pages of Interview such images, accompanied by a column functioned as a kind of photo-novel of the rich & glam, a revolving cast of characters not unlike the cast of a Robert Altman film, but at a higher tax bracket, involving corporate names such as Rothschild, Agnelli, Halston, Klein, Jagger, & their minions, children of dictators & tycoons, anonymous sexual partners, drug buddies, whatever. Now, most of the names obsolete, one sees instead tableaux of glowing black-&-white bodies cavorting in a display of constant play. I can't help but think of the sardonic maxim: Play Now, Pay Later. Why does star worship seem to be tempered with potential grotesquerie? But still there is a great charm in the images. One could argue that the images are directed by the status of the subjects; on the other hand such a world seems quite perishable & really no different than the world in any collection of snaps. One sees how rather ordinary & mundane everyone really is - lives like in a romance novel, in pursuit of love, money, beauty, a little adventure, a little bitchy rivalry, & exultant hopes. As the advertising copy ran for the game Mystery Date, "Will it be a Dream, or . . . a Dud!" Now in the past tense the images can haunt the subjects with former spouses, the deceased, illusions of happiness gone. Photos can offer an illusory unity of the past, shining brighter than the chaos of the present moment - they can also remind of all that is no longer. The book is beautifully printed & designed & unlike the images in the original Interviews, some of which were printed as small thumbnails, these are a great size. I can refresh my vague memories & see a lot more.

No comments: