Andy Warhol was asked by the Polaroid Corporation in 1979 to create a series of works promoting its new product—a giant 800-pound camera that produced instant large-scale color photographs almost three feet tall and two feet wide. Warhol produced ten final images, four of them self-portraits, including the one shown here, which is featured in the exhibition Images of the Artist and is the focus of this week’s Masterpiece of the Week tours.
In Warhol’s work self-portraits are a predominant theme, a strange fact for someone who was reputed to have hated his looks, finding himself to be grotesque and constantly griping about his weight and skin.
The contradiction between the picture and its purported content puzzles me: it’s a self-portrait—an image meant to convey personality and identity—and yet, no Warhol self-portrait actually conveys who he really was.
Taking Warhol’s self-portraits together, however, we can begin to piece together some idea of what he was trying to say about himself, or at least parts of himself. There is the fascinating series of self-portraits in drag costume, glamorized with full hair and makeup. Many of his self-portraits have him grimacing or making uncomfortable faces—he even captured himself blowing his nose with a tissue in a couple of bumbling shots.
In a few images, he represents himself with a camera. There are a few with a menacing-looking skull hovering near him. In others, he dons one of his many wigs. Looking at the range of these photographs, we have a better idea of who he was: a sometimes awkward, flamboyant artist with a propensity for both the macabre and mundane, the droll and dramatic.
Perhaps the saying “a picture’s worth a thousand words” no longer holds true?
Consider this Polaroid that my friend took of me. I’m holding a little bunny toy, puckering my lips and looking away from the camera, affecting a cutesy look—is this who I am? Not really; maybe in that moment; maybe a little part of me. But certainly this portrait doesn’t speak to all of me.
Perhaps, beginning with Warhol and now even more so today in the age of Facebook, personal blogs, Flickr, Twitter, Instagram and more, the inverse of the old adage is really true: a thousand pictures are required to convey our true, multi-faceted identities.