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David McCabe, Andy Warhol & Robert Rauschenberg
Andy Warhol & Robert Rauschenberg, “At Rauschenberg’s Studio”, New York, USA, 1965© David McCabe

How David McCabe’s intimate photos of Andy Warhol shaped the artist’s image

David McCabe, Andy Warhol & Robert Rauschenberg

At 24-years-old, David McCabe had no clue what he was getting himself into when he walked into the now-famous Silver Factory. Here, he speaks in detail about a year spent following an artist on the verge of great fame

In 1964, David McCabe landed the commission of a lifetime, he just didn’t know it yet. A then-relatively unknown artist and illustrator named Andy Warhol was looking for a photographer he felt comfortable with to follow him for a year. After trialling several potentials, the job fell to 24-year-old McCabe, an ex-arts student and photographer from Leicester, England. McCabe had recently moved to New York City at the encouragement – and funding – of his employer back home, who asked him to cross the Atlantic, pick up the tricks of the printing trade, and bring them back to run the first commercial photo studio outside of London.

McCabe’s own studio was a short walk from the now-infamous Silver Factory at 231 E 47th Street. Warhol, who had possibly seen the amateur’s images in magazines such as LIFE and Mademoiselle, liked his style – but McCabe was asking: “Who is Andy Warhol?”

The answer in 1964 was that Andy Warhol was “a window dresser, illustrator, and wannabe artist”. Speaking over the phone from his home in Aiken, South Carolina, McCabe reveals: “I had no idea who he was.”

In 1964, Warhol was just a flicker of the star he would later become. Having made a name for himself in advertising, he was trying to gain a footing in the art world. Warhol’s brief to McCabe was simple: follow him to parties and exhibitions, and take pictures. The assignment lasted a year, and by 1965, Warhol had cemented himself in the social scene, was working extensively with film, and created several flower paintings and celebrity silkscreens.

While it was never clear what Warhol planned to do with the images, he ultimately did nothing. Instead, McCabe put more than 2,500 into a file cabinet and forgot about them for almost four decades. According to the photographer, this was due to a public lack of interest in Warhol. He and David Dalton, one of the artist’s first assistants, also believe that Warhol himself was reluctant to release them.

“I wasn’t that impressed by him as a person. I wasn’t intimidated by him at all. I got things out of him that people who were intimidated by him wouldn’t have got. Plus, he trusted me” – David McCabe

Originally published in the Phaidon book, A Year In The Life Of Andy Warhol, Dalton, who writes the book’s text, revealed: “By the time the project was over, Andy had begun to have doubts about this revealing serial portrait of himself.”

“Andy Warhol (at the beginning 1964) was not the iconic character that he would (later) become.”

By 1965, Warhol had shed ‘shy’ Andrew Warhola and introduced the elusive Andy Warhol – a man and artist who was on track to become one of the most recognisable names in history.

“Andy used to look at my photographs and contact sheets with a magnifying glass, and inspect every detail of how he looked and how he best looked,” recalls McCabe. “David (Dalton) said, ‘At the end of that year, in a way, you created Warhol.’ He ended up being the silent guy with his finger to his lips, his sunglasses.”

“David said, ‘He definitely used your photographs to come to the classic image of how he wanted to be seen from then on.’ David (Dalton) thought Andy was a little embarrassed about how open he had been during that year, that he wanted to be more mysterious than just a regular guy.”

Remembering their relationship as “almost nonverbal communication”, McCabe’s images possess an incredible intimacy and trust rarely granted by the King of Pop Art. Warhol, topless and lying in bed at the Philip Johnson’s guest house; drinking wine with Salvadore Dalí in a hotel room; grinning while playing the drums alongside promoter Chuck Wein and poet Gerard Malanga, are just some of the highlights of McCabe’s brilliant archive.

In the foreword of A Year In The Life of Andy Warhol, Dalton observes: “(McCabe’s images are) an artifact of a bygone age: the days and nights of Ur-Andy, an invaluable record of an Andy in transition.”

“Looking back, I didn't realise what a fantastic opportunity I'd been given,” muses McCabe. “I was 24, I was just an aspiring photographer, and all of these people were pretty strange to me. I’m a lad from Leicester, and here I get thrown into this incredible, crazy bunch of people.”

With a series of McCabe’s images on sale through Proud Galleries now, we speak to the photographer to uncover the stories behind his images and the images he wishes he took.

You were commissioned by Warhol in 1964, what was the brief he gave you?

David McCabe: He actually asked several photographers to take pictures of him and then he decided which photographer he felt most comfortable with. He wanted a photographer to document his life, and it just happened to go on for a whole year.

Do you remember what your first day was like?

David McCabe: I arrived at the Factory on 49th street, the one all lined in silver foil. It was dark and strange. Andy was an unusual-looking person. I had just come over (from the UK) and didn’t really know, yet, how to deal with Americans, or simply someone as strange as Andy.

He reminded me of an alien, so I photographed him with a lens that made him look like one – it distorted his head. When I developed the photographs, I almost didn’t show them to him. I’d used a fish-eye lens – a lens not really used to photograph people – so I thought they were very unflattering photographs. But he loved them! He then asked me, ‘Would you be available if I call you and we go to various gallery openings and parties?’ I was like, ‘Sure! Sounds interesting to me.’ That’s how it started out. I got one hell of a ride for a year, for a 24-year-old Brit. 

Are you referring to the image where he’s sat in a spotlight?

David McCabe: With the paintings on the ground, right? 

Yes!

David McCabe: That’s the shot that got me the assignment.

“His greatest creation was himself. He was a piece of work” – David McCabe

So you would just follow him around?

David McCabe: Most of Andy’s activities occurred after five o’clock in the afternoon, so I was able to do my magazine and commercial work during the day, then I would walk a few blocks up 5th Avenue and across to 47th Street, and we’d all jump into a limousine and go to these crazy parties (laughs). The only stipulation Andy had of me was, ‘Please, don’t use the flash’. He didn’t want it to be obvious that he had his own photographer – that wasn’t cool at that time. Artists didn’t self promote that way, and Andy was way ahead of Madonna and all the others who did end up doing it. He wanted me to seem like one of his group. I looked the part – a skinny English guy – so I blended in with the group.

I’m a sharpshooter, so I would get my camera set, ready with the right exposure, keep it hidden behind my leg, then whip it out, and take a shot before anybody even realised that they were being photographed. Quite often after whatever the situation was, Andy would come over and say, ‘Did you get any shots?’ He had no idea how I managed to do it without anyone realising.

Why weren’t your images used at the time?

David McCabe: At one point, Andy attempted to have a book published of my photographs, but in 1965, he wasn’t really that famous. This was the real beginning of his career, where he was doing the Campbell’s soup cans, and silkscreening Marilyn and Elvis, and a lot of people thought it was rubbish. He didn’t get very good reviews and, consequently, the publisher he went to told him that there would be no interest in a book of photographs of Andy Warhol. He was really only appreciated by a very few people at that time, so they thought it wouldn’t sell.

After a year, he started to get into making movies, and my career was also taking off to the point where I was travelling all over the world doing commercial assignments so (the assignment) stopped. Fortunately, I filed away all of the negatives – but I almost threw them out on occasion.

Years later, a writer contacted me and wanted to do a book about Dalí. She went to the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and found some photographs of Andy and Dalí that (Warhol) had given to them. I got a call the next day from John Smith, the curator at the Warhol (Museum), he was like, ‘I’ve been told that you have two thousand photographs of Andy Warhol that we don’t know about.’ And I’m like ‘Yeah.’ And he’s like, ‘What years did you shoot them?" I said ‘1965’, and he went, ‘Oh my God, can I see them?’ He came the next day.

He spent all day looking through my contact sheets, and he said, ‘Thank God you’ve got these photographs of him doing the silkscreens and the flowers. We had no idea these existed!’ He bought like 50 of my images for the museum. So Phaidon had spoken to the Museum and then they called me and said ‘Wow! We wanted to do a book about Warhol, but now we want to do a book about you and Warhol, because this is such a special event.’

Warhol had photographers hanging around the Factory that would take shots but they were almost like snapshots. I think I was the first photographer who took it as an assignment. I was really professional about it, I think, in a way, because I wasn’t that impressed by him as a person. I wasn’t intimidated by him at all. I got things out of him that people who were intimidated by him wouldn’t have got. Plus, he trusted me.

It’s such a big block of time as well to spend with somebody, an entire year.

David McCabe: I have an interesting anecdote about the guy who did the copy in the book, David Dalton. When Phaidon called me and asked if I would collaborate on this book, they asked if I had someone who could write the copy. Somehow I managed to get David Dalton’s number and reached out to him. 

We started to collaborate and he told me Andy used to look at my photographs and contact sheets with a magnifying glass, and inspect every detail of how he looked and how he best looked. He realised that he didn’t look good laughing, so David said, ‘At the end of that year, in a way, you created Warhol.’ He ended up being the silent guy with his finger to his lips, his sunglasses – he wanted to be more like the alien that I photographed when I first met him. He wanted to be sphinx-like. David said, ‘He definitely used your photographs to come to the classic image of how he wanted to be seen from then on.’ David (Dalton) thought Andy was a little embarrassed about how open he had been during that year, that he wanted to be more mysterious than just a regular guy.”.

When Phaidon collected the cover photograph of Andy smiling, I didn’t think it was a particularly great shot, and I couldn’t understand why they picked it. The very last shot on the back cover, shows him not smiling at all. The photo editor at Phaidon pointed out to me that she saw a distinct change in his appearance from the first day of shooting to the last, that never even occurred to me. I just thought he’d lost interest in the project, but he had gotten what he wanted out of it. And that was the image we have of Andy with his scary wigs and his mysterious appearance (laughs).

What was the collaboration like between you and Andy?

David McCabe: He collaborated but he didn’t direct or try to control me. He just trusted me. We would be in places like the Museum of Modern Art, and he would be talking to Richard Avedon, and I’d be looking around, milling in with the crowd. Andy would look up, give me the look, and I would shoot as I walked past. People would have no idea that they had been photographed by me. That’s the way we communicated, it was a non-verbal understanding of the situation.

I remember the shoot with Dalí. We walked into the hotel suite, and Dalí immediately took control, and plomped Andy down in a chair. Andy started wondering what the hell was going on, and Dalí grabbed this Inca headdress that he was using in one of his paintings, and planted it on Andy’s head, and pointed his walking stick at me like, ‘Take the picture’.

This was all non-verbal because there was opera music playing full blast to the point that you wouldn’t be able to hear anything. It was like a pantomime where Dalí totally controlled the situation. It freaked Andy out, because normally he was the guy who was always in control. For the first time, I saw Andy drink – he was knocking back glasses of wine. He was so nervous being under the control of someone as famous as Dalí. Finally, Andy had had enough and he gave me that look so to say, ‘Come on David, we gotta get out of here.’ (Laughs) That was a pretty memorable moment, mostly because I was also in awe of Dalí. To me, Dalí, when I was in art school in Leicester, people like Dalí and Picasso, they were artists. I really did not understand, early on, Andy’s point of view. Using film stars and soup cans – that wasn’t art to me. Dalí was art. But I think, in a way, Dalí was intentionally crowning Andy – symbolically crowning him as the new King of Art.

“I think, in a way, Dalí was symbolically crowning Andy as the new King of Art” – David McCabe

Was there anyone else that you were starstruck by?

David McCabe: I love Rauschenberg’s work. Personally, I think that Rauschenberg is a much better artist (than Andy), for want of a better word. I remember we went down to Rauschenberg’s studio – Rauschenberg had invited Andy down to play Monopoly. It was so funny to see Rauschenberg and Andy with all this fake money, and the real estate. I’m not sure who won, but, on the way back to the Factory, Andy said to me (lowers voice) ‘David, my studio is much bigger than Rauschenberg’s.’ (Laughs).

You did an interview with the Guardian in 2011, and said: ‘A lot of what happened I couldn’t photograph. There was no way you could publish those kinds of pictures.’ What pictures are you referring to?

David McCabe: At one point Andy said to me, ‘I want to be photographed with Judy Garland.’ He said she had invited us up to her apartment. We go in there and she is such a mess. She can barely stand up. She’s obviously drunk out of her mind and looks terrible. Her assistant stands her up and supports her while Andy goes over and puts his arm around her, and gives me the nod. I just shook my head and said, ‘No. I can’t do it.’ 

I found Andy in bed with David Whitney (American art curator) at Philip Johnson’s house. I was invited up there to shoot Andy and Philip. It was early in the morning, and I was walking around looking for a way into the glasshouse because there’s no obvious front door. I couldn’t see anyone in the house, and so I walked past this little building that I thought was the garage, but it was the guest house. There was a huge porthole window into the bedroom, and I saw Andy in bed. He was startled by my appearance and he grabbed his sunglasses and put them on. I took the shot. Then these fingers came over the window sill, there was obviously someone else in the room with him. It was David Whitney. I was like, ‘Oh my God. Should I shoot this or not? This is an invasion of privacy.’ But I did anyway – I took a shot and then went off.

There’s a point at which you have to decide whether to shoot or not. In a way, I wish I’d taken the shot with Judy Garland, because you should never not take the shot. I could have kept it private and not shown anybody, but at least I’d have had the shot. 

When you left the Factory after a year, did you learn anything from Andy or from that experience?

David McCabe: Yeah. I learned that doing heroin, speed or LSD wasn’t a good idea.

Did you keep in touch?

David McCabe: About 20 years after that, in the building where my studio was at, there was a famous artist that Andy was friendly with, so he would visit them. One day I came down in the elevator, the doors open, and there’s Andy, waiting to get into the elevator. I think this has after he’d been shot – he was in really bad physical shape, he looked really drawn. I almost didn’t recognise him.

I didn’t know what to say, I was just shocked. He said (mimicing Andy’s voice), ‘Hi David’.” (Laughs). This was after 20 years! I had completely changed. I was no longer a skinny Englishman with hair, I was beginning to be a fat American with no hair, but he still recognised me. I was really surprised by that, and impressed. Of all the people in the world that Andy knew, I didn’t realise I actually meant anything to him. When I was shooting him, I saw it as an assignment. It wasn’t a friendship-type thing, it was just that I’d been asked to do a job and I’d do it the best I could. It never was that personal when I was photographing him, so I was impressed that he remembered my name.

It’s interesting to speak about the different sides of Warhol. People that were close to him do tend to say that he was a caring person, that he wasn’t a cold person that he’s often portrayed. That he was quite nurturing...

David McCabe: The whole unapproachable thing that he developed was a defensive mechanism. He was a caring person and an incredibly creative individual. I know that he could also be gossipy and vicious, but deep down, I think he was just a regular guy. It’s terrible to think that he ended up the way he did. He was misunderstood by a lot of people. People want to think of him whatever they want to think of him. His greatest creation was himself – Andy Warhol himself. He was a piece of work.

I went to the huge exhibition at the Whitney. For the first time, I really started to understand what he was up to, and the fact that, like a lot of other people, I had misinterpreted his ability. I was stunned when I saw the extent of his work. From the soup cans to ‘The Last Supper’.

Why did you move to New York back then?

David McCabe: I’d won an international photo competition when I was at art school in Leicester. Part of the deal was that the person who won the competition got a position in a studio in London. The owner said, ‘If I send you to America to learn how to run a photo studio the way the Americans do, would you go and come back and be the head of our studio in Leicester?’ all of the work at that time was going down to London, and this would have been the first provincial professional studio. So after I spent a year in London, I finally accepted that offer (to go to New York). 

Before that, I wanted to work for Vogue in London, so I went and got an interview with David Bailey – I wanted to be an assistant. He looked at my photographs and he was interested in hiring me, but when I said that I had the opportunity to go to America, he was like, ‘Don’t stay here – just go to America.’ And I did. I I landed in New York with about $17 and stayed at the YMCA. I got to work in the darkroom of this studio and started photographing the streets of New York. It all just started to happen quite quickly. I think I was in the right place at the right time. Suddenly everybody was interested in the ‘English Invasion’, as it were.

Mademoiselle, Glamour, 17, all these magazines wanted a different point of view, like an English point of view. I guess that where Andy saw the photographs that I was taking, which were different to the stilted, 50s, fashion that was appearing in magazines. I was using a 35mm camera and getting action photographs, it really changed everything.

Did you ever go back to that studio in Leicester?

David McCabe: I did come back after two years, but, at that point, I was already shooting for Mademoiselle, and I was making money. I flew back and went to see Mr. G, walked into his office wearing a suit and I had a Rolex on my wrist. I put an envelope on the desk with the airfare that he’d paid for me to go over. He was a wonderful man. I said, ‘Mr. G, I’m really sorry but I’m doing really good in America,’ and he said, ‘Yeah. I know. I figured that might happen.’