Stephen Shore was just 17 when he began lensing Andy Warhol’s inner circle – as a new book is released, the influential photographer reflects on his time there
Stephen Shore, who quietly documented the glittering figures of Andy Warhol’s Factory between 1965 and 1967, has to go down in history as the least fazed 17-year-old boy to have ever come into contact with extremely cool people. As the influential photographer recalls in Factory: Andy Warhol, the just-published treatise by Phaidon, he was granted permission to take photographs of Warhol and his inner circle by simply walking up to the artist and asking if he could. Their collaboration began around a month later, in 1965, with a phonecall from Warhol to Shore: “We’re filming at a restaurant called L’Avventura; do you want to come and take pictures?”
For the next three years, Shore would regularly visit the Factory and take candid photographs of the faces that, much like himself, were drawn to what was going on there. In the photos, this means a diverse cast of subjects: Edie Sedgwick, Gerard Malanga, Susan ‘International Velvet’ Bottomly, Paul Morrissey, Billy Name, Lou Reed, Nico, John Cale and Warhol himself. Contrary to the pop-culture mythmaking around the art studio that has prevailed in the years since, the world the photographs depict isn’t one of glamorous parties and anarchic debauchery. Instead, we see Edie Sedgwick using the Factory’s only payphone, Lou Reed splayed on a couch like a gangly teenage boy, and even Nico sitting at Shore’s parents’ kitchen table, being fed matzohs by his mother. These are photos of quiet, bored moments, as well as the hard work of Warhol’s constant processes of making: silk-screening, shooting films, installing exhibitions, and only the occasional party.
For Shore, speaking over the phone as Phaidon’s tome is released, these are simply events that happened over 50 years ago. But for any observer looking at these photos with fresh eyes, they are an essential record of both the world’s most infamous artist’s studio, and the birth of Shore’s own ways of seeing through photography.
What do you think the photographs say about that time in New York?
Stephen Shore: I think the situation is really unique. There has never been anything quite like this place. We knew that Andy was an important artist, but I don’t think anyone knew how he would be viewed 50 years later, in the second half of the 20th century. I feel very lucky that I was able to discover it.
Looking back now, what do you think you were working out in terms of technique during that time?
Stephen Shore: Even though I was young, I had been developing since I was six, so I had already been going for 11 years. For instance, by the time I was 12, I was doing something called ‘developing by inspection’, which is where, under a very dark green lamp, you look in the film for a second and you determine if it's developed or not. So technically I was pretty advanced. I don’t think I was ever a naive artist, I was always culturally aware, I followed the art world, photography, classical music, and all the art from a very early age... and I was aware that some of the greatest photographers and authors around had made their mark at a young age.
“There has never been anything quite like this place. We knew that Andy was an important artist, but I don’t think anyone knew how he would be viewed 50 years later” – Stephen Shore
In what we might imagine to be a world of wild parties and constant activity, what surprises about the photos is their relative quietude.
Stephen Shore: I was there on-and-off for three years, and there were a couple of parties, by which I mean a couple – a handful! It was a studio, and we were there working every day. There were a lot of people who sat around waiting for something to happen in the evening, but there really were not many parties. For some (of these) people this was the centre of their life, (and) they were living vicariously through Andy. I think I just had more ambition than some, and I wanted to move on with my life. I think I’ve written in the book that I couldn’t be there (any more), and I wanted to do stuff outside of that umbrella.
Later, you become known for your uncanny and unfamiliar takes on the more banal aspects of American life. Do you think what you did later was a deliberate turn away from the Factory – from being around people who courted fame?
Stephen Shore: No, I think that there is a connection, and that is that Andy had a fascination with American culture. I think I tuned into that. There was that fascination and amazement, at somewhat of a distance. So I see more of a progression from some of the cultural attitudes, perhaps, that he expressed to (what I did). I was influenced by that, and it was how I saw things, too. Also, I think that some of the moments I’m photographing at the Factory are not the most dramatic moments, they’re everyday, and that’s almost similar in that I’m not interested in a filtered view of what things are, but more, really, how I see what things are.
Warhol was so often criticised for mixing high and lowbrow, and commercial culture with the art world. Did you ever receive similar criticism?
Stephen Shore: Some people in the 70s were just confused as to why I would photograph such everyday things, whereas I now know some people look at those pictures and feel nostalgic about them. (But) I don’t want to make it sound like people disregarded my work, (because) I was showing my work regularly in galleries all over the world and there were people who liked that.
What do you hope people take away from the photos?
Stephen Shore: I hope they take away what the place felt like. It was a place where something really exciting was going on, and over the years it became a part of the art world. Like I said, it was a really unique place.
Factory: Andy Warhol by Stephen Shore is out now via Phaidon