What do you get when you take three legendary American artists, give them three floors of a gallery and show exclusively to black and white work? Hipster Instagrammed bearded heaven, that’s what. Which is exactly what I got when I turned up to The Photographer’s Gallery last week for their exhibition featuring three 20th Century American heavyweights: artist Andy Warhol, novelist William S. Burroughs and filmmaker David Lynch.
I say heaven, but not all three artists were equally suited to monochromatic photography. The most intriguing collection came from William S. Burroughs, who looked at the underdogs of the 1970s version of the American Dream. His sepia-toned images of cars, dogs and bedraggled men looked more tea-stained than Instagrammed, giving them an earthiness and reality rarely seen in reference to glorious American idealism. Indeed like Instagram, Burroughs seemed to take a less-than-artistic approach to his photographs, instead picturing whatever he saw, whenever he felt like taking an image.
David Lynch’s photos are equally intriguing, as he takes an architectural look at the America around him. Even if derelict old buildings don’t whip you into an artistic frenzy, the complete desolation of the ruined structures touch a nerve, an unexpected emptiness in arguably the world’s greatest superpower. The small pictures dotted around the room certainly made for a bleak portrayal of major cities in Germany, England, Poland and New York, with chains and broken windows making the exact locations of the buildings undistinguishable.
…You would be forgiven for thinking it was another artist entirely…
The odd-one-out, then, was Andy Warhol. Infamous for his Campbell Soup and Marilyn Monroe prints, seeing his work in dull black and white simply wasn’t vibrant to do him justice. You would be forgiven for thinking it was another artist entirely: the images weren’t of unusual subjects, or even normal subjects presented in an unusual way, they were purely there. Presenting life as he saw it, with no added colour or artistic flair, is not something we associate Warhol with, but it’s refreshing to see a different side of his art.
Colour was sparse but present: a particular piece by Burroughs that stood out in its yellow vibrancy, prompting a fellow gallery-goer to start a discussion with me about its place in the exhibition. Such spontaneous conversation doesn’t happen often at London galleries, so that just shows how unexpected it was.
…taking photos on a whim is really an art…
While I left the gallery a little underwhelmed by the exhibit, I later realised it wasn’t disappointment but a disturbance that affected me. The images were unsettling, almost jarring, in their casual portrayal of desolation, emptiness and carelessness. Warhol, Lynch and Burroughs argue today’s snap-happy culture may not be so bad, that taking photos on a whim is really an art and every image really does tell a story. And with that, back to rediscover Instagram.
Andy Warhol, David Lynch and William S. Burroughs are at The Photographer’s Gallery until 30 March.