Although the walls of just about every room in my house are covered with artwork and books, my most treasured possessions are in my bedroom: a wooden crucifix hanging directly over the head of my bed (“Made in France” is carved on the back). A faded color print of Saint Anthony of Padua holding the baby Jesus (the antiques dealer said the bright green wooden frame came from India, though I suspect Mexico is more likely, given the particular color). Maxfield Parrish’s ubiquitous “Dinkey Bird” print (the source of my first childhood erotic experience; I must have been four at the time, maybe five). A delicate black-and-white photo appropriation hand-treated by a young artist from Nantes, Julien Mérieau (who may be France’s best-kept secret). A jazzy oil canvas reminiscent of the Ash Can School by an outsider artist, Allen Street.
And my prize possession: a large gilt-framed landscape in oils signed “Miland” or “Milano” (I could never make out that last letter and haven’t been able to find either version of an artist’s name online). I was ten when I convinced my mom to buy the painting to hang over the couch in our living room. She spent thirty-five dollars, which was a hell of a lot of money for a family of our means in the early 1950s, particularly for a presumed work of art (though to my surprise, the painting has aged well–or perhaps my eyes haven’t!).
The impetus for this acquisition was to preserve two memories–one of my childhood Shangri-La summers spent at the Anella Farm in Highland, New York, and the other of my discovery a few years later of a series of five paintings called The Course of Empire, which the Hudson River School artist Thomas Cole had created in the mid-1830s. I had encountered the works by chance on a visit with my dad to the New-York Historical Society (we’d gone to see their collection of ocean liner postcards, which I’d just begun collecting). I was transfixed because I was fascinated by what I recognized as magical transformations.
Oh, and I nearly forgot: there’s a glass-enclosed bookcase, three shelves deep, packed with a discriminating selection of books about Marcel Duchamp.
At night my four feline friends–Sasha, Zazie, Xena, and Mishkin–become one big ball of fur curled up in bed with me. Then I dream.
What does all this have to do with anything? Well, maybe nothing. But if you put it all into some kind of fluid context, a whole lot. I believe there’s a story here of how I developed as an artist. But perhaps that’s for someone else to discern.
I read somewhere that the substance of art may be heavily influenced by nonartistic motives, and this seems about right when you look at my first snapshots, taken when I was twelve. I began by making random portraits of Gerardo, my dad, in our cramped three-room apartment in the Bronx, and then took the Kodak Brownie outdoors to photograph streetlights at oblique angles. I guess you could say I was looking up. This was way before I ever laid eyes on a Moholy-Nagy.
Even at that age, I had the sense that documenting streets and people was important. But to what end? I had no notion that I was doing this because that’s what an artist did. The motivating factor had more to do with the pleasure of just doing it and remembering what I’d done and seeing what came of it. That’s what curiosity is all about, and without it, as Ezra Pound was at pains to point out, “You’re dead.”
But I’m getting a trifle ahead of myself. I wouldn’t pick up the camera in a serious way, with any artistic intent, until years later, when Andy Warhol and I first embarked on the Screen Tests. That would’ve been in December 1963. In fact, they weren’t called Screen Tests, and we weren’t really photographers. I called them “film portraits,” because to my way of thinking the film actually moved through the camera at the rate of twenty-four frames per second. It wasn’t like clicking off one frame at a time.
I had figured that as a poet I might need a picture of myself for publicity purposes. I wanted something a bit off-beat, and I remembered seeing reproductions of filmstrips–sprocket holes and all–from Stan Brakhage movies in a few of those underground film journals. So I asked Andy if he could film a headshot for me with his Bolex. I composed the shot so my face pretty much filled the frame. After the film came back from the lab, I selected a couple of frames, had the lab make a 4 × 5–inch inter-neg, and from that blew it up to 8 × 10. That was the way to go. The resulting print looked so good that I suggested we make more of them with other people. That’s when Andy got enthusiastic.
Our choice of subjects was not based on celebrity (we hardly knew any at the time), but initially on how interesting the faces were visually, or sometimes just on who happened to show up.
(Fast-forward for a minute: In 1989, Ben Maddow, poet, photo historian, and dear friend, in his preface to my first book of photographs observed how some people who are not famous can take on the aura of fame or importance when photographed, whereas the same process can strip those famous for who they are or what they did of their fame and make them look like everyday people. The same can be said of the Screen Tests.)
When we moved to the Factory in early February 1964, we continued these efforts–first, because it was fun, and second, because I felt we were doing something that would become important later. At least, that’s how I envisioned it at the time. Charles Henri Ford, who had introduced me to Andy, joked in an interview that I had an “archival consciousness,” just like his own.
As the series took on momentum, the title Screen Tests seemed appropriate, for we were really mimicking an idea first conceived by the Hollywood studios. No one stood; everyone sat and stared directly into the camera for three minutes straight, making each one the longest screen test ever filmed, outdoing Hollywood. Since no sound was recorded, the “tests” were based solely on how the sitter looked–film portraits with the very minimum of movement. Of course this didn’t preclude star turns: they were what they were–three minutes of fame and it’s done.
We shot maybe five hundred Screen Tests, though at some point we must’ve lost count. My favorite of the early ones shot in 1964 was of my girlfriend at the time, Anne Buchanan. Although she hailed from Kansas, she was of Scots ancestry, with long, flowing black hair. At some point during the sitting a perfect tear formed just under her right eye–and then another and another.
Each one was different, with people smiling or laughing or remaining perfectly still or something else altogether. For example, Donyale Luna, in her very first film appearance–she later went on to make films for Fellini in Rome (and was the first black model to appear on the cover of Vogue)–remained pensive but fidgety throughout, as if waiting for some kind of direction.
Of course, no one was ever standing behind the camera. I’d press the button and then step to the side. Andy was off somewhere in a corner, puttering around looking for a paint can or something.
There were a few luminaries who didn’t belie their backgrounds. The actor Zachary Scott, for one, who often played the villain in movies, was gentle in his stare, his face absorbing much of the light rather than giving off any. Charles Henri Ford, his brother-in-law, refused to take off his sunglasses. And Harry Fainlight (the poet whose sister Ruth, also a poet, was married to the novelist Alan Sillitoe) played it straight with a focused intensity right out of Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty. Salvador Dalí was his own affable self in front of the lens and just soaked up all the attention.
I think the funniest of all was a series of tests, not of a face but of Taylor Mead’s ass (as these sequences came to be known). Taylor was truly auditioning his bumpkins for the part, dropping over his shoulder in a strapless gown gesture cereal boxes, clothespins and sundry other items from his grab-bag of props as he danced and wiggled his hips. Everybody present was hysterical with laughter. It was truly a tour de force. Even Andy couldn’t maintain his famous composure.
The Screen Tests came to an end abruptly sometime in January 1967, shortly before a selection of them was made into a book, with one of my poems facing each photo; publication marked the launch of Kulchur Press, founded by Lita Hornick, that April. It seemed a fitting end to a collaboration that began with my movie portrait four years earlier.
In September that year I took a leave from the Factory and ended up living in Rome, where I became involved in an avalanche of creative work, collaborating closely with the Italian painter Mario Schifano on a series of live multimedia performances. Schifano even designed a poster for a program of my movies during my stay, and I also appeared in a few of his underground flicks.
Sometime in the fall of 1968, I picked up where I left off working with Andy again, though this time at the new Factory on Union Square West. Gone were the silver ceiling and walls. We silkscreened one portrait, as I recall: the French-American art collector Dominique de Menil. At this time, Andy was more involved with overseeing the production of silkscreen portfolios of Flowers and Marilyns, which we didn’t make ourselves. They were manufactured outside somewhere.
While all this was going on, I started working closely with John Wilcock, first guest-editing an issue of his underground paper, Other Scenes, and later co-founding with him and Andy inter/VIEW magazine. This gave me direct, hands-on experience researching photos, as well as formatting them, educating my eye, you might say.
In the spring of 1969, I made my first serious photo-portrait, of the poet Charles Olson, while on assignment to interview him for The Paris Review. From then on, my work took on an entirely different look. I began shooting with a 35mm still camera, a Nikon F, so in effect nothing moved. The images were now singular, not multiple. No more cumbersome set-ups involving movie camera, tripod, and lights. No more waiting for the subject to come to you. Yet the Screen Tests represented, then as now, an important period in the evolution of my work; overall they hint at the things to come in my tenacious, dedicated pursuit, though of what I hadn’t a clue at the time.
I was always curious as a kid. Art was an early and lasting expression of that curiosity that stayed with me–as a student of art through high school and all of what came after, always helped and encouraged along the way, right up to now, by all my friends. All those years, a life in art, my own.
Birth of the Movie Still
This is how Sasha (Alexander Hammid) remembered the moment in 1943: He had spent the day filming Maya Deren, his wife and collaborator, for the movie they were making, Meshes of the Afternoon, and he was about to break down the equipment. Suddenly Maya appeared at the glass door to the sundeck. In the late-afternoon Los Angeles light, her face was enmeshed in the trees, clouds, and mist. He quickly reached for his Bolex, and in no more than five seconds Sasha captured a stilled moment that instantly became the most famous shot in underground cinema. It would also inspire my own approach to re-creating and retrieving photographs from moving pictures twenty years later.
For three years, beginning in early 1964, Andy Warhol and I collaborated on shooting the Screen Tests. It was during this time that I devised a method whereby I could loop a piece of sewing thread through the sprocket-hole of the film with instructions for the printer at Modernage Lab to convert one or two frames on either side of the thread into a 4 × 5–inch negative, thus enabling me to make 8 × 10–inch prints for publicity purposes. I used this method throughout the 1960s, even with my own work. This was not some random process, but one carefully thought out in attempting to solve a technical problem.
The only time I tried a variation on this method was when my split-screen movie, Preraphaelite Dream, had its world premiere at the Filmmakers Cinematheque in SoHo on 13 June 1968. I wanted to freeze those filmic moments as they were happening on-screen because no two projections would be alike. There was no precise synchronization in how the images were matched, but I knew instinctively that I wanted to retain the authenticity of how my movie was being viewed.
In this instance, I set up a 35mm camera on a tripod about twelve rows back from the screen and started photographing what was already recorded on movie film. Some shots failed because of underexposure–it was a hit-and-miss–but I ended up with at least four or five frames that served my purposes. These are the only recorded examples of my movie at those precise moments when the two reels were being projected side by side.
A few years back I returned to some of my old footage and selected a suite of ten images, and Asako Kitaori, an expert in color printing, enlarged them to 16 × 20 inches, each consisting of six to eight frames, sprockets and all. It was the first time I had re-created moving moments as color photographs. The experiment exceeded my initial expectation, thus providing the impetus to rediscover and re-create more film frames as photographs.
The process of making a movie still in this fashion is fraught with tension. It’s the most exacting of any photographic process that involves moving from one medium to another because it requires technical steps that were not envisioned when the movie was originally made. At any given moment, the actual footage itself can be damaged or scratched through mishandling. Fingerprints could easily adhere. It is a very tedious process. But because I’ve been patient in avoiding pitfalls along the way, the end result is always exhilarating.
So it all started sixty-seven years ago when Sasha saw something and captured it in just a few seconds on movie film; he realized after the fact that in reproducing those frames as photographs he could give a movie still a life of its own. He was the first to see that a movie still is a stilled moment, and for this I owe him a debt of gratitude.
In Memory of the Photo Booth
If I had my way I would’ve used the photo booth almost exclusively for portraiture; but the dynamic that it proposed was that it was never nearby when you wanted one. My earliest photo-booth experience was around the time I was nine, when I sat in a booth in a Playland arcade on Broadway near 48th Street. My dad was playing one of the pinball machines nearby.
I was wearing a silk tie and linen shirt, and my hair was neatly combed. I looked prim and proper, and comfortable as well. From my earliest years, I loved having my picture taken.
Looking at the photo strip now, I see that a certain confidence and pride shone on my face, so I must’ve taken pride in the occasion of visiting Playland, sitting there alone facing the unseen camera; and the photo strip itself has miraculously survived all these decades with no condition issues.
The French call their photo booth photomaton; it sounds chic with its phonetic/poetic associations. The root of maton can be found in automat, something automatic or machinelike. But the antics were pretty much the same; you hugged and kissed your girlfriend or you stuck your tongue out or you looked solemn, serious; or lots of hanky-panky may have happened for some outside the frame.
The photo booth is no longer a dying breed. It’s a dead breed; virtually extinct. At one time the photomaton was easily accessible throughout Paris. Railroad stations. The Latin Quarter. Now, no more. In New York City, there’s still one operating at a bar in the East Village; and a second one, I’ve been told, is located in a hotel basement somewhere in Greenwich Village. Yet their days may be numbered. In Berlin, they surprisingly never went out of fashion and dot the city’s streets. At one time, nearly every five-and-dime, Woolworth’s, or S. H. Kress had a black-and-white booth in operation. Wherever there was a Greyhound bus terminal, you’d find a photobooth. The St. George Hotel in Brooklyn Heights had one that took one frame and spit it out inserted in a tintype! One of the very last ones was operating through the 1980s in the basement of the Arsenal in Central Park.
The photo booth became a spontaneous event for anyone choosing to have his or her picture taken, and it’s still wet when it reaches you in three minutes flat. You’d blow on it to get it dry. But when something was as ubiquitous as the photo booth was in New York, I tended to take it for granted, unless it became a seemingly unplanned destination on my way alone or with a friend to somewhere else. “Hey, let’s have our picture taken!” This would account for the several four-for-a-quarter strips crammed with two or more faces, honoring the camera’s eye, commemorating a friendship, or simply a casual occasion as flashback years later. What was going through our minds, I wonder.
No thought was ever given that someone was behind the camera sheathed in glass. All you saw was your own dimly lit reflection until the flash went off. And you never felt uncomfortable as if someone were watching, because the booth itself concealed your presence and your pose. The stool was operated on a swivel, easily adjustable to fit your height. In composing yourself within the camera frame, you became your own self-portraiture, as it were. It was you making the picture. There was no wizard behind the lens making adjustments. There were no directions given. You did it all.
Anything could happen; any scenario played out in a matter of seconds. I think a photo strip of four frames took all of ten seconds at most from beginning to end, including the couple of seconds between each flash: you lose yourself; and when the flashes end, it’s like you’re awakened.
And the whole process was incredibly inexpensive. You got more than your money’s worth, for sure. The term “4-for-a-quarter” emblazoned on the outside of the booth was a sly sales pitch to lure you in. Four shots for twenty-five cents. By the late sixties, it was upped to a buck: 4-for-4 quarters! It didn’t have the same ring.
A city without its photo booth is a little less than a city, less reflected, less engaging; one memory a little less of what might’ve been with the girl or guy of your dreams.
Marie . . . Marie Menken
“Gerard, go out and make a movie!” Marie Menken was almost barking the command as she handed me an old 8mm Keystone she hardly ever used.
It was June 1968. I still didn’t have my own camera. The 16mm Bolex I used to shoot Preraphaelite Dream I’d borrowed from my friend Mario Anniballi, an Italian filmmaker and journalist living in Greenwich Village; and having returned his camera, I was at wit’s end: What do I do now?
To make matters worse, I was also homeless during this period, moving around friends’ flats, and beach-bumming out in the Hamptons. I was hanging out with Waldo Díaz-Balart, Fidel Castro’s ex-brother-in-law, at this time; he brought me out to his digs in the woods near Bridgehampton on several occasions. So in my 8mm notebook, which was inspired by Piero Heliczer (father of 8mm underground movies), Waldo makes a brief appearance behind the wheel.
Shooting in 8mm was an entirely new and liberating experience for me. There was no concern about keeping track of the footage I shot. I felt I could shoot as much as I wanted, and what I didn’t like I could always edit out later.
I had met Marie eight years earlier toward summer’s end, 1960. Willard Maas, her husband, made the introduction upon our return from a day out at the beach. Marie was getting ready to go to work. She was half of the two-person night shift on Time-Life’s International Cable Desk.
Over the years, I’d often meet up with her in her sprawling fluorescent-lit office that was like something out of Godard’s Alphaville; and while she was preparing the dolly packed with cable dispatches for the morning shift, I’d be perched at some reporter’s desk typing up copies of my manuscripts.
By 1:00 a.m., Marie would sign out, and we’d head out for the subway, arriving at the Penthouse in Brooklyn Heights, where she’d crash in the back room across the terrace, guarded by Blackie, her loyal Labrador retriever, and I’d curl up on the sofa. Willard was already passed out drunk on the living-room rug… .
It’s been nearly forty-five years since Marie’s death. History is the memory of time, I like to say. But memories inevitably fade, and mine no less. Where to begin?
There are just too many stories to mentally compile. My friendship with Marie got off the ground in 1961, about a year after I met Willard. And in all that time preceding I wasn’t in New York, but in God-forsaken Cincinnati enrolled as a freshman at the University of Cincinnati; within a year (one that will always be a blur for me), I had flunked out.
Upon my return to New York, my friendship with Marie blossomed. We discovered that we’d studied at the same high school, the School of Industrial Art, in midtown Manhattan, where our early education in art began. After graduation Marie evolved into a painter of magnificent imagination who introduced innovations into her work, with burnt ash, stardust and luminescent paints. By the mid-1950s, her work had evolved to embrace movie film as well.
My path was similarly circuitous. I studied advertising and graphic design, but when I reached my senior year I had an epiphany. I wanted to become a poet! How does one become anyone, or the Other, at any time, I wonder. But I couldn’t imagine becoming anything other than the poet I am now. Poetry was my life commitment.
Marie picked up on that. She was charmed by my otherworldly romance with the word. She saw something in me that needed nurturing. She may have even seen in me the son who died of pneumonia within a week of birth. Willard and Marie never talked about it; but Marie may have alluded to it once (or was it Willard?).
In fact, at one point she said she wanted to adopt me, which of course wasn’t legally possible, since my own mother, Emma, was still alive. But she was a mother to me nonetheless, and saw to my every need.
We were on similar wavelengths of creativity. When our friendship began, she was no longer painting, having embarked on her movie making. She abandoned those heavy Freudian themes characteristic of the avant-garde films of the 1940s and 1950s for a more loosely focused sense of stop-motion photography, treating movie film more like a series of still photographs. So in the film’s projection the imagery was transformed into a new kind of movement; it was a very personal approach, unlike anything I’d ever seen before. It was inspiring.
In 1963, I began working with Andy Warhol. It wasn’t such a big deal to me at the time. It was supposed to be only a summer job; my plan was to return to school–Wagner College, where Willard taught a class in English Lit. But plans have a way of changing. Life was just so much more exciting than what being stuck in a classroom offered, and so I guess my guardian angel was watching over me when I decided to take off for the fall semester. Willard was really pissed off.
But Marie knew Andy–indeed, knew everything there was to know about the early Andy. And since I was now assisting him, I was Marie’s entrée to make a movie of Andy at work in the Factory over an extended period until she felt that what she had was the first and only comprehensive portrait of him ever made. In a way the three of us had a simpatico three-way relationship with the camera and with each other.
Her movie debut in an Andy Warhol flick occurred sometime in March 1965 in the title role in The Life of Juanita Castro, with a script specially written for her by Ronnie Tavel. She was a remarkable force in front of the camera. She was a quick study with the script and went beyond it when the camera started rolling, bringing to life a totally mythic character. For the next two years, Marie would appear in a slew of Warhol flicks that included Prison and More Milk, Yvette and finally a movie with no official title that Andy would later shoot of Marie and Willard bitching away at each other in their rotunda-like living-room, circa 1969.
A year after the Juanita movie I came up with an idea based on Marie’s desire to adopt me. It became “The Gerard Malanga Story” segment for The Chelsea Girls. There was no script, just a few handwritten notes. I explained my idea to Marie, and she completely ad-libbed her part, getting totally into character as my mom, ranting left and right about my wayward ways and flogging the bedspread with my whip. Marie gave the quintessential performance of her life, I wanna say, and got inebriated along the way. I could barely keep up with her. She had the part down pat, and this from the few conversations she had with Emma on the phone.
By early 1967, Andy and I had completed our collaboration of the Screen Test portraits we started in 1964. Marie was included. You could tell it was freezing cold outside by the way she was all bundled up, like some kind of Eskimo. As I recall, it may have even been snowing when she arrived.
I’d already made a series of movie portraits of Andy which I titled Andy Warhol: Portraits of the Artist as a Young Man (1964–65) followed by Prelude to International Velvet Debutante (1966) with Susan Bottomly in her first starring role; and commenced production on In Search of the Miraculous in early 1967.
Marie and Andy were big inspirations at the time, and encouraged me to do more. I was slow getting started because I didn’t have the money to cover lab costs, let alone the raw stock. So I managed about one movie a year for a while. By 1970 I had shot a half-dozen titles.
Marie was a big-boned woman, over six feet tall with a loud, thunderous voice and squinty piercing eyes and close-cropped hair. Willard was about 5′6″, silver haired, with a gravelly voice. He had the look of a bulldog, like “Don’t mess with me.” They were an odd couple, and genuinely in love with each other; but they had their harmless weekender harangues, like who could shout the loudest.
It’s been said that they were the inspiration for the characters George and Martha in Edward Albee’s three-act play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; for anyone who knew them, it was easy to see why. But they could also be the perfect hosts, giving dinner parties for the likes of the composer Ben Weber; their former protégé from the fifties Stan Brakhage, a golden boy of the avant-garde; and Kenneth Anger, who took up residence at the Penthouse for a time. Being present for these many candlelight suppers, I was receiving an intimate education firsthand.
Willard and Marie introduced me to the poetry of Ezra Pound and W. H. Auden, the essays of Herbert Read, and the novels of Carl Van Vechten, whose photography I’d become enchanted with as well. I have a signed copy of Pound’s translation The Classic Anthology Defined by Confucius, in which Marie wrote, “Dear Jerry, Dig This & you’re in with the best making it better than before,” dated 8/29/61.
Willard had given me his second book of poetry, Concerning the Young, nominated for a Pulitzer in 1938, and copies of Oscar Williams’s compilations, Poems 1940 and The War Poets; two classic anthologies that broadened my understanding of the poetry of the 1940s and of what poetry could be and would become. It was through these compilations that I discovered the works of Ben Maddow, aka David Wolff, a poet of remarkable originality and endurance who many decades later would become a friend. (Ben’s very last piece of writing was an essay on my portrait photography. I’ll never forget him.) …
I’d been invited to this swanky opening for Salvador Dalí’s anthological exhibition at Huntington Hartford’s Gallery of Modern Art [17 December 1965], and Marie learned that I didn’t have the correct attire, so she fitted me with her own black-tie ensemble. Marie towered over me, so she had to shorten the legs quite a bit. She even handed me a pair of mother-of-pearl cufflinks and the man’s Patek Philippe right off her wrist. Everything a gift. I was set to go.
At the opening I queued up to meet Dalí, who was seated on a kind of dais. As I shook his hand, I announced, “My name is Count Gerardo Malanga.” Dalí didn’t miss a beat: “I knew your father very well.” Timothy Baum, my date for the evening, was standing directly behind me, and decades later we were still laughing about the lesson well learned: Never try conning a con. But by that time Dalí and I had become fast friends. We even did an interview once on his college classmate Federico García Lorca.
I attended several soirées at Dalí’s St. Regis suite, with Gala, his wife, pouting in the background. She was not much for socializing, and we never got on well. She seemed to be always competing with Dalí for attention, but then she’d back off, ever so remote. But between Dalí and me it was always uomo e uomo. He had a great sense of humor and a super-intelligence, bar none. He always had me in a laugh….
Shortly after my return from London in November 1970, I phoned Willard and Marie about coming out to Brooklyn Heights to make their portrait. I was just a few months seriously into my photography, and I immediately wanted to photograph them in their ambience.
In early December, I got a call from Willard saying it wasn’t a good time to come out because Marie had suddenly taken ill and was in the hospital recuperating. He barely had time to talk and was mumbling his words, and didn’t go into any details. I was in the dark.
Within days I learned Marie had passed away, and word reached me that Willard was absolutely devastated and under sedation.
When I attended the funeral mass on 31 December, at St. Charles Borromeo’s Church, just a few blocks from the Penthouse, Willard literally had to be carried down the aisle under both arms. He was definitely in a daze and didn’t even recognize me.
Three days after Marie’s burial, 3 January, I learned that Willard died in the Penthouse of congestive heart failure, which I attributed to a broken heart.
The dogs had to be put to sleep: gentle Alexis, the white Borzoi, that I so much loved being photographed with, and Blackie, the Lab, Marie’s stalwart guardian, were no more. Within a week of Willard’s death, someone broke into the Penthouse attempting to steal the most mundane possessions, and left the place in a shambles. I managed to rescue all of Willard’s poetry.
It was like all reality associated with my life with Willard and Marie came to a sudden end. The clock had stopped. It was like a storm swept in, separating me from the people I’d felt closest to and come to love. My mentors gone. Their dogs gone. No more the association of the many subway rides out to Brooklyn Heights at all hours of the day and night. No more the rides up the last of New York’s hydraulic lifts, which opened up onto a world of leafy gardens and Manhattan vistas where at eighteen I had arrived wide-eyed, ready to embrace the world of poetry and so much more.
There was no returning to the present because the past was all I had and all there was, and even that, everything felt so distant as if my living memories were now existing without me. I had their friendship and their mentorship for close to ten years, and then I lost them both so suddenly. Their deaths barely a week apart.
Marie had captured a lot of the beauty of nature through her movies, and given back that beauty to the world so that we could behold it all on seeing what she saw through the camera lens. That was the gift she gave through her art.
Archaeology of the Thermofax
In the late 1940s and for about twenty years following, there appeared in America a number of pulp fiction–type tabloids depicting all sorts of gruesome and strange events that would play on the minds of many Americans. The National Enquirer stands out as perhaps the most widely read of these weekly clones, mostly found in out-of-the-way newsstands, soda-fountain counters, the local grocery. The New York Times banner, “All the news that’s fit to print,” became the exclusionary rule for the type of local news that the Times and other high-minded papers wouldn’t permit in their pages. So what we have here is the anonymity of death raised to the level of a kind of surreptitious immortality–that’s if the event was “sensational” enough to warrant media coverage.
As an adolescent I would occasionally flip through the Enquirer’s pages. A black-and-white diptych still remains vivid in memory: a man lies motionless in the driver’s seat of his auto, having only moments before plowed into the rear of a flatbed truck carrying a stack of lead pipes. The impact of the collision sent one of the pipes flying like a missile, piercing clear through the windshield and dead-center through the forehead of the driver, killing him instantly. The image lingering in the mind after all these years seems more like a dream, vivid in the immediacy of what I remember.
A soldier points a pistol at the head of a helpless man sprawled on the ground, gripped with the fear that his life at that very moment is about to end. A woman strapped into the electric chair is in the throes of the deadly electrical current surging through every inch of her body. She is being burned alive from the inside, “fried,” as they say. She is blindfolded and therefore the darkness has already consumed her. A man is torn apart on a highway–limbs swept away by the car’s impact. Shattered glass and debris everywhere.
A certain sadness pervades the atmosphere of these pictures. We feel a sadness for the hapless victims. We feel a fright for the unpredictability of their deaths. Here one second, gone the next. Is that how it goes? A certain distancing intervenes. We say to ourselves, This can’t be us.
In attempting to “read” these press pictures in hindsight, I would guess that this is the closest approximation to what I would call “instant photography,” all of it done by unknown professionals. The photographer would have had to happen on the scene of the accident Weegee-style within a couple of minutes and way ahead of the police and emergency units to capture these still moments. And perhaps that’s what makes these photographs voyeuristic in the sense that you can’t stop looking at them, as violent and traumatic as they are, and trauma is just what suspends a photographic image of death. Roland Barthes, in his wonderfully written L’obvie et l’obtus, says, “Trauma is just what suspends language and blocks signification.” He continues, “Trauma is entirely dependent on the certainty that the scene has really occurred.”
And it has, countless times over. Death without obituary. These photographs become visual obituaries. In nearly all instances, the names of the victims are not even cited, unless, of course, one of them is already famous. Take, for instance, Jayne Mansfield, the Hollywood blonde bombshell from the mid-fifties who met her fate violently on a slippery road one dark night. While her death was reported nationwide in the mainstream press, it was the tabloids that got hold of the gory glossies of cascading tresses somewhat obscuring a nearly decapitated head hanging limply by a sliver of flesh through the shattered blank windshield. No matter how celebrated the victim in life, she suddenly became visual news that was not fit to print by the Times. Death is like that. It’s never really about us.
So in early 1964, when Andy Warhol and I were well under way with silkscreening the Death and Disaster paintings, photos equally gory from the same time-frame were their primary source, with several dozen left over, stacked in a corner, soon forgotten.
Around this time, too, Andy purchased a copy-machine, a 3M Thermo-Fax model, called “the Fourteen,” because it had the capacity of copying originals up to fourteen inches long. Legal size, they call it. It was portable enough to be carried around, moved with ease. It found its place at the Factory, and there it remained in a darkened corner, unused. At some point I decided to explore its possibilities.
Working on the Death and Disasters with Andy inspired me to write a series of poems that encapsulated much of the imagery depicted. Yet there was no way I could apply or even attach the poems to the paintings, or even reproduce them side by side, complete as they were in themselves.
I believe I was working out of my own mind a way in which I could pay homage to this series, yet stumped to come up with a solution until the idea hit me of copying face-down some of the discarded press prints with the Thermo-Fax, and then seeing how the poems could fit in.
In operating the copy machine I had the intuitive knack to rearrange, thanks to a trained eye and certain techniques that Billy Name helped me with, the tonal range of what each image would become. Andy’s participation, insofar as the “collaboration” was concerned, was limited to the fact that the copier had been purchased in the name of his company, Andy Warhol Enterprises, Inc. In actuality, he was nowhere present at any time during which this series was being selected and reproduced, nor was he ever aware of their existence.
I ran off fifty-two prints in all. Each image, as it slowly rolled out of the machine’s mouth, was a kind of pure projection, which banished into nothingness the “original” that was its source. Each copy thus became an original in itself.
These thermofax artifacts, as I like to call them, are not a “reproduction” of an original photograph, but simply a transformation of an original source into a redefined original, and so my concept was fully realized from the start: to establish a visual counterpoint in terms of juxtaposing image and poem on the mechanical surface of the reproduced image.
And so the photograph’s literal reality had been usurped. These news photos no longer transmitted what they were initially intended to document. Distance and time rendered them newsless. The transformation was complete.
The actual press prints were transformed by the very process which reproduced them, echoing a remark the French poet Paul Valéry made nearly sixty years earlier in Pièces sur l’Art that “the appearance of new technical means modifies not only art’s forms but its very concept.”
Each thermofax consisted of a black-and-white image of grisly death–mangled bodies, twisted auto parts, the scene of a crash site. In this instance, we are no longer looking at photographs of death but rather at mechanically (as opposed to chemically) reproduced images of photographs. Thus the meaning of each photo was changed or overthrown by the poem’s insertion, as I transcribed them by hand or typed them directly with my Smith Corona typewriter onto the Thermo-Fax copy paper. In so doing, the mechanics of thermofax reproductions, combined with the poem texts, subverted the originals. The result: the imagery and the poems occupied separate but contiguous spaces, but it was the texture and coloration (patina) of the finished thermofax sheets that allowed them to coalesce over the years into a (dis)integrated structure. The grain of each image became a camouflaging effect, objectified to the point of visual annihilation.
The original press prints are a testament to the fact that death becomes another image accepted into the iconography of mass culture. The photograph becomes the origin of the event; the reproduction becomes the reference to that origin. But what happens when you create an “original” from the original? It becomes a copy of a copy, a hybrid, so to speak. Each original is a copy; each copy is an original. They are mere reflections of the event represented, already once removed. It is a second original which remotely resembles the first but now stands on its own. A reversal takes place. The copy is cut off from its source by simply declaring itself an “original.”
What we have here is no longer the true photograph, but a thermofax “copy,” already removed from the reality of the site and situation which produced it, thus resisting any contextualized meaning. The photograph is now a representation of sorts. The News Wire caption no longer exists. In its place are the poems.
Walter Benjamin, the German philosopher and critic, remarked that “the presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity,” and yet in an ironic twist the Thermofax Series challenged the very idea of the “original.”
The Thermofax Series, open-ended as the images are, acts as an anonymous memory. I did not know the victims’ names. And as more time passes, it becomes increasingly more difficult to learn who any of these people were. Each one becomes an absence swallowed up by the event of his or her death.
The sounds of their violent ending have ceased and can only be imagined now–they are the lost soundtrack: the crunching and banging of metal and chrome, the shattering glass, the far-off voices fading … and suddenly a silence descends everywhere at once–the adjacent cornfield, the dusty crossroads, a warren of trees in the distance. A cloudless night sky, but no moon. In the still of the night, as they say.
It is no longer the event–which comes and goes–which is recorded as image; it is the image which becomes the event frozen in time and space long after the event itself no longer exists, and surviving in a kind of twilight of history.
These thermofaxes, therefore, are a reality enclosed within a composition of sorts, in which the components contribute to the drama, unaware that an anonymous camera had captured it all for posterity.
Marcel Duchamp’s epitaph rings true: “Besides, it is always the others who die.”
Hidden Archive, Retrieved
Robert Creeley once wrote: “We live as we can, each day another–there is no use in counting.” But back in the seventies and eighties, I was living on the razor’s edge, near destitute, in a delirium brought on by hunger, and falling behind in the rent. The only thing that kept me going was Eban, my feline companion, a black Siamese. He was eating better than I was. My constant work in poetry and photography, miraculously, also kept my spirits high.
It had gotten to the point where I sold off nearly my entire library (my mantra: “You can’t eat a book”). Exposed but undeveloped film kept piling up to such an extent that I began losing track of what I’d been shooting and where and when. At some point I had no choice but to store the rolls in the fridge, praying that fogging wouldn’t set in if I left the film undeveloped for too long.
In 1990, I finally gave up my East 14th Street top-floor flat and bought a house in the Berkshires, the financing courtesy of my close friend Jim Jacobs. The rolls of Tri-X went with me to Massachusetts, stored in a cooler for the trip north until I could get them back in the fridge.
I returned to New York in 1996. The rolls made the trip with me, as they did three years later when Asako and I found a really terrific flat in North Williamsburg with a garden out back. But by then the rolls had begun to haunt me: When was I gonna get around to dealing with this? But time and lack of money were still working against me, and other projects took priority.
Yet another move was on the horizon; this time it would be to Hudson, in upstate New York, 2008. Along with me went nearly twenty thousand pounds’ worth of archives and books–and a frost-free refrigerator, which was the safest bet for storing exposed film, or so I’d been told. I felt like the Shah of Iran dragging his icebox halfway around the world into exile.
Having settled into my new environs I now had the necessary funds (an enormous amount of photographic sales that had come my way, and prudent business practices, allowed me to invest in the purchase of a house) to move forward on the rolls, recruiting David Lee, a photographer in nearby Chatham, to start the mammoth undertaking, developing the secret film in small batches. The work was completed in the fall of 2009.
A total of eighty-eight rolls, divided up into small plastic bags, had been sealed with freezer tape. Not a roll had been lost! More than three thousand frames. I was able to put a date to the earliest roll: late 1982–photos of one of my girlfriends. And now, little by little, the images that had been sleeping in darkness for twenty-eight years began to emerge: rare portraits of Peter Hartman, the poet and composer; Henry Stern, the New York City Parks Commissioner; pictures of my cats, Eban and Romeo.
It was all so strange. I couldn’t remember taking many of these pictures or what those moments were like surrounding them. The memory of what we think we remember plays tricks on the conscious mind. Photography, in effect, is the only one of all the arts that has the ability to store memory much like what an archive does: an archival dynamic of what gets stored, what gets lost, and what gets retrieved, finally.
So the past is not always what it seems to be; it’s not static. Yet every time I click the shutter, I’m photographing the past, as it were. Time is like that, and film eats up time. And that’s the driving force that makes me want to take pictures and to try to remember.