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By Elena Sarni

Despite my Maine-based starting point, and rather heavy, highway driving foot, it was still a two-hour trip to Waterville, Maine, home to Colby College. But, it’s Warhol!

“Andy Warhol Screen Tests and Photographs” consists of a group of Polaroids and black-and-white prints that were selected from 150 photographs given to Colby in 2007. The gift was part of the twentieth anniversary celebration of the Andy Warhol Foundation’s Photographic Legacy Program, which distributed 28,543 Polaroids and gelatin prints among 183 college and university museums.

The gallery was quiet, clean, and white, almost hospital-like, in contrast to the subjects of Warhol’s larger, black-and-white photographs, and the reality of Warhol’s nightlife --- sweaty, smoke-filled, darkened rooms, dangling cigarette ashes, spilled liquor, laughter and music filled clubs and dinner parties. Warhol’s photographs are impromptu snapshots taken with a simple Minolta 35 mm, SLR camera, with no pretense of fiddling with apertures or light meters.

In contrast, Warhol’s Polaroids are stylized portraits taken between the years of 1970 and 1987, using a 1970s Polaroid Big Shot camera, which resembled a boxier version of a children’s viewfinder. Polaroids offered an instant media form, but Warhol used them to capture posed portraits, while his carefree snapshots required time consuming developing. The Polaroids were often used as trials for what would become his renowned silkscreen paintings.

The Big Shot required the photographer to shoot within a few feet of the subject, creating an intimate setting. Not only are the portraits a time capsule of Warhol’s life, and the people in it, but many serve as records of American culture. Some Polaroid subjects are high-profile, like Bianca Jagger, with a collar bone to die for, and scarlet lips, while others are listed as “unidentified.” Dorothy Hamel’s portrait features the curve of her skate framing her youthful face, and wise beyond her years’ eyes. The 1977 portrait was taken one year after Hamel won the Olympic gold medal, during the peak of her infamous wedge haircut’s popularity; a phenomenon like the popularity of Jennifer Anniston’s Friends’ haircut. But, the name Carolina Herrara has become a brand. Her 1978 photo predates her fashion line’s launch, but she was already dressed for the part in a classic halter dress, accessorized by dangling earrings.

As I walked through the exhibit, filled with a balanced number of male and female portraits, I pondered whom Warhol found more beautiful --- men or women? I decided both, which was confirmed by the artist’s quote on the Warhol Foundation’s website, “I’ve never met a person I couldn’t call a beauty.”

Colby curator Elizabeth Finch made an ingenious decision to borrow one silent reel of 16 mm black-and-white film with 10 riveting Screen Tests taken between 1964 and 1966 from the Andy Warhol Museum to project in an adjoining room. The Screen Tests were just that --- a test of will, where subjects were asked to hold poses for 4.5 minutes. “I was just inspired by the Screen Tests themselves. They are important artworks that ask a lot of the viewer and the individuals who participated in making them. No one had made anything like them before, and of course they relate to Warhol’s later still photos,” Finch explained. While some of Warhol’s subjects took this exercise seriously and did not blink until their eyes began to water and tears dripped off their chins like the stoic Ann Buchanan, others made no attempt at stillness.

The text-light exhibit compelled me to go home and research more on Warhol, his subjects and methods. Speckled throughout 25 other New England institutions are more Warhol photographs, making me wonder what else is out there. Colby has generously put their collection on display for the public to see and I hope that people will make the drive to Waterville, despite the lengthy trip. The exhibition’s fifteen minutes of fame have been extended and it will remain open through June 7.

Colby Museum of Art

"Andy Warhol: Screen Tests & Photographs" is on view at the Colby Museum of Art from February 12th, 2009 - June 7th, 2009.

All images are courtesy of the Colby Museum of Art.

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