Art, J. Paul Getty Museum, Photographs, Film, and Video

Masterpiece of the Week: Andy Warhol’s Polaroid, a Self-Portrait for the Facebook Age

Self-Portrait / Andy Warhol

Self-Portrait, Andy Warhol, 1979. Polaroid Polacolor print, 32 1/4 x 22 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 98.XM.5.1. © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

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?

Polaroid portrait of Jennifer S. Li

Polaroid portrait of me by Katherine Ahn

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.

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2 Comments

  1. William
    Posted January 21, 2012 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    At nearly two feet by two feet in size, experiencing this photograph in the flesh is phenomenal. Warhol, like much of his art, IS truly larger-than-life here — “warts and all.”
    One has to wonder if it was instant gratification for him when seeing this developed immediately following the snap of the shutter. The almost rawness of his flesh appears to declare just how unglamorously he approached this luxurious media.
    The effect of the photograph to me seems to capture a rather natural moment in front of the camera, if not a contemplative one.
    His celebrity really allowed him to experiment and to experience himself in truly remarkable ways. What fun!

  2. Jennifer S. Li
    Posted January 24, 2012 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    The huge size of this Polaroid photo is definitely something worth experiencing in person. I sheepishly admit I love having my photo taken, but the huge size of this format is definitely intimidating. It took a certain kind of confidence to capture himself in this way–again, yet another contradiction to his purported shyness and self-consciousness. Thanks for your thoughts, William!

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      ULTRAMARINE

      The vibrant blue in the above image of Saint George and the Dragon (Master of Buillebert de Mets, about 1450-55) still looks remarkably vivid to modern eyes, but to medieval readers it wouldn’t have just looked eye-catching—it would have looked expensive. Why? Because this particular blue pigment (ultramarine) required lapis lazuli, like the carved stone above (Roman, second century AD). For centuries all lapis was sourced from a single mountain range in Afghanistan, meaning that a French medieval manuscript with the color required a lot of financial resources! 

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      Both objects are from the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

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