News, entertainment and advertising are so completely merged in the cultural hash that it’s not always easy to distinguish a commercial break from an arts programme. Just what Andy would have loved, Bob Colacello tells us in “Andy Warhol: the complete picture”. Just what the public love, too, to judge by the number of photographic exhibitions and last month’s exceptional media coverage. The question has shifted from: Is it art? to What is the dividing line between one form of visual expression and another? And in a dominantly popular culture how well does television serve photography and its audience? At their best, whether in hour-long or five-minute slots, TV documentaries offer an experience in themselves.
BBC Omnibus’s “Mario Testino, Diana’s favourite photographer” was a heightened and beautiful film about a man whose work Kirsty Wark introduced as “a heightened, more beautiful version of reality”. This imaginative, highly paced documentary, skilfully assembled from a thousand cuts, caught the effect of the uninhibited, up-beat Latin American temperament on the staid Anglo-Saxon personality. In Testino’s company no one is afraid “to be a little bit excessive”. Most smile relentlessly. All, mostly female, look at their radiant best—younger, sexier, more vibrant. “Occasionally I fuck up,” Testino admits. His session with the grave-faced Keanu Reeves was one of the few that gave less than 100% satisfaction to his editor.
Diana, Princess of Wales, was the shoot that rocketed sitter and photographer to international stardom. And Testino, lounging in a first-class airline cabin, tells us about it:
“I said to her, ‘Would you please sit down’, ’cos I wanted to create something relaxed and I thought the sofa is a thing that you slouch on, rather than sit upright. And she went and sat properly with the idea that you have of a princess, with her knees together and her hands on her lap. And I said ‘My God, you sit like that as the normal thing ’cos I usually sit like this.’ And I just threw myself on the sofa and from that moment on, you know, we could just relate. My original idea to do her was to do her with a tiara and the classic images that you’ve seen, but in the end really I think, ‘What am I interested in? Am I interested in seeing another picture of her as a royal person, or am I interested in knowing her and what she’s about?’ And that’s why I decided to do her without jewels, without shoes, without all the trimmings.”
The programme trod a well judged path between glossy magazine glamour and intelligent insight from shrewd appraisers in the field, among them Tom Ford, creative director of Gucci, Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair, Philippe Garner, head of photographs at Sotheby’s, Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of US Vogue, and Patrick Kinmonth, exhibition designer. The programme raised fundamental questions about the difference between photography for advertising and photography hung in an art gallery. They threw snippets of professional wisdom and opinion to us, not answers: “Photography is this uneasy mix between art and commerce.” Mario understands it. (Anne Wintour)
Patrick Kinmonth argues the case in the first room of the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition, “Mario Testino: portraits” (until 4 June): “There are fashion pictures which are done in the studio for a fashion magazine. Yet there’s something about the way the person is looking at Mario that expresses something more than a fashion statement. It becomes about that person, and therefore the fashion picture becomes something of a portrait.’
“Andy Warhol: the complete picture” on Channel 4 continued the theme of commerce, fame and fashion at three times the length. “The leader of the brand”, the first documentary, covered Warhol’s childhood and startup days in New York as a commercial artist and creator of the Factory; “Shooting stars” followed his diversification into film-making; and “The 16th minute” described how, after surviving an attempted assassination in 1968, he was reborn as editor of a movie magazine, Interview, set up a new Factory, died in 1987, but is far from erased. The contents of this final chapter may surprise fans familiar only with Warhol’s Pop phase: his challenge to Abstract Expressionism with his piss paintings, exhibited as “Oxidation paintings”, his attempt to do “real art” and go abstract with shadow-play, the “Body parts” and “Torso” series taken from male models and transvestites, and the numerous and little known religious paintings. Does the later Warhol enhance or diminish the one that came to fame? If in doubt at any point a distinguished, well-deployed, cast of interpreters was on hand: Arthur Danto, professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, author and critic Stephen Koch, Peggy Phelan, professor of performance studies in New York University, John Richardson, friend and art historian, Tom Sokolovski, director of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, artists Julian Schnabel, Vitali Kolmar, photographer Duane Michals, and a host of key Factory personnel. With such articulate support what need had the dyslexic and famously monosyllabic Warhol for words? What he really needed, he said, was a boss. So much easier if the decisions are made for you.
This detailed, over-indulgent, yet continually diverting, memorial to the Warhol phenomenon was an excellent appetizer for the definitive retrospective at Tate Modern (until 1 April). Nothing prepares you for the sheer scale and surface fascination of notoriously superficial work. But the series indicates depths and leaves us with a choice. Do not take him at face value, cautions Mr Richardson. You have to approach him as a strange and ignorant person, insists Paul Morrissey, film director and collaborator: “Everybody liked him because they thought there was something wrong there.” Danto: “The closest thing to a philosophical genius the art world has produced.
Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s remarkable street portraits prove that anyone can be given celebrity status in a fraction of a second. He spent two years photographing whomever passed in front of a camera set up at a pre-focused point in New York’s Times Square. Although working in broad daylight, the use of a powerful flash with a high shutter speed isolates the figures in what appears to be darkness. At a distance of 20 feet away they were snapped unawares. The results, a combination of accident and daring, are impressive. A five-minute presentation of his work on Channel 4 as one of the five short-listed entrants for the £15,000 Citibank Private Bank Photography Prize 2002 was simple and telling: street context, stills and diCorcia’s words.
o “Omnibus: Mario Testino, Diana’s Favourite Photographer”, BBC2, 30 January. Presenter Kirsty Wark. Producer/Director Louise Hooper. Omnibus Series Editor Basil Comely.
o “Andy Warhol: the Complete Picture”, Channel 4 in association with Bravo Network. 27 January, 3 and 10 February. Narrator Julian Rhind-Tutt. Series Producers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato. Series Director Chris Rodley.
o Citibank Private Bank Photography Prize 2002, a Fulmar West Production for Channel 4, 4 –7 February. Editor/Director Aled Smith.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'More or less artless images'