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There is a kind of photography that tilts toward the documentary, but that still retains a foothold in art; think of Nan Goldin and her frank, tender photographs of her friends and fellow dwellers of various demimondes. It's documentary that builds an idea about what it means to document in the first place, so that the images add up to more than single moments, to the relationship of the photographer to the world being photographed.
It's an idea that doesn't always work, and has been so relentlessly appropriated by commercial photography that we hardly know the difference between art and advertisement; nevertheless, it has roots in Billy Name's black-and-white photographs of what's known as the Factory era of Andy Warhol's career. The Factory was at least in part Name's creation--he created the signature silver insides, the sense of constant performance and persona that was part of everyday life--and his photographs are a kind of anti-documentation of this life, seeming to be concerned with nothing so tedious as making a record (although they have become the record, and it may have been that Warhol, who put the camera in Name's hands, knew this perfectly well). The images--some grainy and diffuse, others as sharp-toned as fashion photography--have an insouciance rooted in absolute ease around the camera, and in an interview with Collier Schorr, Name noted, "Cameras were as natural to us as mirrors." And so you have images that are as indifferent to momentousness as family snapshots, but paradoxically as steeped in self-consciousness and vanity as anything by Goldin, or Larry Clark, or Ryan McGinley: Warhol, with his famously ambiguous narcissism, collapsed on a table in among piles of his artwork (a few Jackies, a heap of Brillo boxes), or sitting, not quite relaxed, in a folding chair, doing nothing.
The photographs loom up out of the nocturnal past like casual icons, which in fact they are. They are both quaintly outdated (in style and subject) and startlingly contemporary (in their attitude toward style and subject). Many of them seem to take place at night, or at least in a constant underground twilight, and the ones that are most stunning are of the women Warhol gathered around himself. There's Edie Sedgwick, retroactively tragic, pale and fragile with astonishing dark eyes, spotlit and ladylike in a chair. There's International Velvet, bony and ethereal, all campy, glamorous fake eyelashes and enormous beaded earrings. There's Ivy Nicholson, dramatically posing in a drapy dress, Brigid Berlin, in a fuzzy still from The Chelsea Girls, giving someone a "poke" in the ass (her nickname was Brigid Polk, in honor of her fondness for the needle).
The Factory era, of course, is an era with so much mythology attached that it's difficult to get at the truth of it; for those of us who devoured Jean Stein's Edie as teenage girls, that book's fractured, contradictory narrative (gathered from interviews with Factory presences, both key and ancillary) seems the truest form of truth. Different episodes are remembered quite differently from one narrator to another, and at times the book's photographs provide further conflicting evidence--but none of this matters.
What was not constructed in those days, in that place? In their staginess and artlessness, these photographs are as much art as documentary. There is an art to the remembering, as there was to the living. It doesn't do to overly romanticize that era, but in contemporary art you can't get away from its legacy, one of many that Warhol left to the art world. With his Brillo boxes, he gave us art you had to approach with your mind (rather than just your eyes) in order to know why it was art (and conceptual art would have been nothing without it); in the Factory he institutionalized (for it was a factory, an endless drama of production) what began with surrealist and Dada nonsense performances, and continues in the performance art of now.
In Edie, Roy Lichtenstein said, "Andy does exactly what I don't do. He was his art. His studio was his art. Edie was part of his art, and a lot of other people. I was an old-fashioned artist compared to him." Name's photographs, then, are art about the art of being an artist.