The photographer who was at the beating heart of Warhol's Factory opens up about his latest exhibition and all yesterday's parties
Gerard Malanga occupies a very interesting place in the history of pop culture. Along with Andy Warhol and Billy Linich, he was responsible for creating the legendary Factory. He was at the centre of that bohemian vortex, but Malanga was the polar opposite of Warhol's ghostly nonchalance. He was the cool one, the one you actually wanted to hang out with, not just be seen with. Together the trio produced a number of classic pop works of art, including the 'Death And Disaster' series and the now ubiquitous Marilyns. After the Factory years, Gerard continued on the path of radical self-expression: he's directed films such as 'Mary For Mary', 'Donovan Meets Gerard', 'Pre-Raphelite Dream' and 'The Recording Zone Operator'; he's published several books of poetry and photography; and has lived the heart of New York City for most of his life. Here the king of cool talks about the changing face of New York City, 'Citizen Kane', the essence of photography and the tragedy of Edie Sedgwick.
Dazed Digital: How are you these days? What have you been up to? How do you like living in New York?
Gerard Malanga: There's a line in Orson Welles's Citizen Kane: "From before the beginning... and after the end..." Well, it's not the end yet, but sometimes I feel like it's before the beginning for me.... The beginning is always where I am, I suppose. I've been up to work: lots of projects of one sort or another. I contribute portfolios regularly to Lid magazine and the new issue coming out now contains a collection of my movie-stills struck directly from the actual film. I don't live in New York City any more but in a small town in upstate New York. I haven't missed it, except when there's a good gallery or museum show going on. There's a statistic I remember reading somewhere where it stated we as humans tend to move seven or eight times in our lifetime. So I figure I've got one more move looking ahead but where I haven't the faintest right now.
DD: What can you tell us about your Souls exhibition at the Pierre Menard Gallery?
Gerard Malanga: The idea for the exhibition goes back a long way, several years, in fact. I'd always wanted to bring together a grouping of my work that would tell a lot about me, and about what my work is about. I once said somewhere, regarding a portrait I made of Bill (William Burroughs), that he gave me his portrait, and that's not only true about Bill, but about the many faces I've known and been fortunate enough to call friends and photograph. Each one has a story to tell: not just about the time we spent together while I was clicking away, but about themselves – they have revealed their souls and that's how I hit upon the idea to call the series, Souls. I thought that if I picked an arbitrary number, like, say a hundred, that it would provide me with a discriminating eye and focus in on my choices. I could've chosen 200 or 300 or more even, but I think that would've been a bit overbearing.
DD: Let's talk about your view of the world in general. What inspires you?
Gerard Malanga: As a photographer I don't really have a view of the world in general. Someone taking pictures for National Geographic might? Each of us works to our full capacity when we're in the midst of a shoot. Each of us finds our own level of intensity and that's the fun of it. My level of intensity is different from say someone shooting fashion for Vogue. I strictly work alone. Having someone other than the subject present is definitely a distraction for me. Whenever I do someone's portrait I'm trying to locate the photo in the lens while reaching into that person psychologically. There's the magic! I don't always achieve it. It's a hit or a miss! The best way to accomplish this is to maintain a level of comfort at all times with the subject. Stories are what I remember from the pictures, or what led up to a specific picture at a specific time. One of my books is called Resistance To Memory. By that I meant that the only way to resist memory is to not take the picture or to blank out on the story so that the picture stands on its own and the viewer can then make up his or her own story what already exists as a past moment. What inspires me? Partly the challenge. I made an adage for myself as a reminder: complacency is the photographer's enemy; tenacity his strength.
DD: What inspired you to leave New York two years ago? How have you seen the city change?
Gerard Malanga: It wasn't inspiration that got me out of the city; it was a prudent sense of self-survival that I'd been contemplating for quite a while. The apartment in Brooklyn with the garden out back, as big and charming as it was, was getting way overcrowded and after awhile I felt I was living in a warehouse. It was even beginning to affect my work. I'd lose track of something or something would get swallowed up by the dark corners. For the archivist I am, I was beginning to lose my bearings. I hated to leave Brooklyn; especially the friends I'd made at Fortunato Brothers Cafe, but it was time to move on. New York City has changed enormously. My gut impression of it now is that it's like being in a sci-fi novel: Blade Runner syndrome. Nothing seems real anymore; everything is pre-packaged. Almost all the intimate bookshops have been forced out by the big chains. Everything is crass and commercial. This didn't just happen on its own; consumers helped it along, uneducated consumers, mind you. They're caught up in the system. There's nothing left really but a canyon of mega-chains.
DD: What advice would you give to the young visual artists out there today? The photographers, the painters, the young and hungry kids trying to make their way?
Gerard Malanga: I am not a guru nor do I presume to be one. I'm from the old school. Show me respect and you get to hang out a while. The second part of your question is easier to answer. Back in 1970, when I started reading the Don Juan/Castenada books, the one lesson to be had is "follow your nature to be happy". That can apply to anything you do in life – whether it's cultivating a garden or yarning a sweater. Your nature is what helps you recognise your potential, and then you'll find your proper footing on the journey through life. Be happy in what you do. Be respectful of yourself. Do good works for others and the goodness will come back to you and make you a better person, I think that's what happiness is all about.
DD: What was Edie Sedgwick like?
Gerard Malanga: I've written about Edie extensively in my book, Archiving Warhol, so I'll try and come at it from a different angle not to repeat myself. Edie was a dichotomy of sorts. Her persona belied a certain simplicity not apparent at first. Funny how the media tends to gloss over the reality of someone, and Edie was no exception to that. I was close enough to her to know the real person behind the persona. She was really fun to be with. We went to the bar on a number of occasions; just the two of us. She didn't have a pretentious bone in her body. She also took her work in Andy's movies seriously. She was naive enough to take Andy seriously until she got financially cut off by her parents, only to discover Andy wasn't going to be there with the safety net. He was incapable of making decisions. He just didn't know how to handle it. So she started drifting away from the Factory and got involved with the wrong crowd and her life started on a slippery slope and she didn't even see it coming. She made a few undisciplined mistakes, you might say. She got involved with drugs in a heavy way. You're young only once. Edie never had a chance to move on with her life.
DD: Who were some of your favourite portraits to shoot?
Gerard Malanga: My favorite portraits have been the ones that no other photographer made. It makes me feel that I've done something unique. Those images within my body of work take on an extra-special meaning, like the portraits I've made of Bernard Heidsieck, France's pre-eminent sound poet, or of Mimmo Rotella, the founder of decollage art, sighting two recent examples. I've been lucky to photograph friends and strangers alike who hadn't yet reached the cusp of their fame; so at the time they came across quite naturally and still do. But time has a way of transforming the original occasion into something more archival and magical. I don't mean that in a negative way. So that's an added benefit. The moment is fixed in time and nothing can change it and no one else can duplicate it! These pictures have taken on that certain aura with age. What's fun for me, though, is photographing someone who's not famous at all. Those faces are not at all self-conscious, and so reveal so much more than what a famous face might try to hide or disguise. In that instance, the viewer's mind blocks out all else and only leaves the residue of fame. A truly successful picture, I hope, would go beyond that. I think I've achieved this in my naked Iggy Pop portrait. In the end, they all have stories to tell. And no one can accuse me of photographing only famous people. That's not what my work is about.
DD: What were some of the best parties you've ever gone to? On the flip side of that, what were some of the best art exhibits you've ever seen?
Gerard Malanga: There are just too many parties to try and remember here and they all become one blur after awhile. One party still stays in the memory for me. It was the party celebrating the New York premiere of Antonioni's Blow-Up, December 66. The party was held in the main ballroom of the Plaza Hotel and the creme-de-la-creme were invited. I was wearing a navy-blue military-style longcoat with gold buttons all the way down the middle and my dad's Italian military cross medal from the First World War. My ex-girlfriend, Benedetta Barzini was with a partner there on the dance-floor and I cut in on them and took over and all flashbulbs were on us for the remainder of the night. Let me tell you, I was in Seventh Heaven! But it's all long past now and many of the witnesses are long gone and surely there's a picture history worth being uncovered. Not by me, at any rate.
DD: What are your plans for the future?
Gerard Malanga: Bob Creeley, a dear friend and poet once wrote, "...we live as we can, each day another – there is no use in counting." So that's pretty much it. Each day, I get up to feed the cats at six in the morning, read the New York Times over a cup of tea and then continue on with my day. Where I am affords me the luxury and comfort to focus in on whatever it is I might be working on, whether it's writing poetry or planning a show or whatever. I try to bring forth the best work that is in me to do; work that I enjoy and hopefully others will also. That's all I can ever hope to achieve during the time I still have ahead.
OLYVIA FINE ART PRESENTS
SOLD OUT: AMERICAN POP ART from the 1970s to the 1980s
ANDY WARHOL, ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG, TOM WESSELMANN, KEITH HARING, ROBERT LONGO and FRANK STELLA22 September - 20 November 2010
Private View: 21st September, 2010
Olyvia Fine Art, 17 Ryder Street, London, SW1Y 6PY