Artists and photographers are the ultimate voyeurs, focusing on their subjects with a laser-like intensity. But what happens when the observers become the observed? That’s the basis of the exhibition In the Company of Artists: Photographs from the DIA’s Collection, opening Nov. 19 at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
The show, which runs through Feb. 15, showcases more than 90 works by such august photographers as André Kertész, Yousuf Karsh, Man Ray, and Ari Marcopoulos, and such artists as Georgia O’Keeffe, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Alexander Calder, and Andy Warhol. The photos range in time from the 19th century to the present day. The earliest is a salt print from 1853 of French realist painter Gustave Courbet.
They all come from the DIA’s rich trove of photos. “I’m constantly looking at the permanent collection of photographs, trying to think of themes that can develop from them,” says curator Nancy Barr. “Initially, I just wanted to do a portrait exhibition in general, but I found we were very strong in artists’ portraits, so I thought that would be interesting for an exhibition.”
The word “artist” in the exhibit’s title is used in the broad sense, referring not only to fine artists, but to writers, actors, photographers, and musicians. Some are posed portraits, while others are spontaneous shots of artists and their friends captured in their bohemian milieu.
“I really want people to get a sense of what these artists looked like, a sense of their lifestyle and environment, and the muses who inspired them, so they can step into the shoes of being in the company of these artists,” Barr says.
One particularly inviting photo is of a heavy-lidded Whistler sitting in his cluttered Paris studio, shot by Paul Cardon (aka “Dornac”) in 1892. Whistler’s sleepy countenance can probably be attributed to the slow exposure time, Barr says.
“That photograph was probably made on a collodion negative, and they were very slow, meaning Whistler would have to sit for a long time for the exposure, so that’s probably why he looks like that,” she says. “It’s strange, because he was such a vibrant, flamboyant man.”
On the other hand, a photo from around the same period by Daniel Downey of actress Sarah Bernhardt, clad in a bejeweled dress, looks radiant. “Her eyes are very clear and sharp as she looks into the lens of the camera,” Barr says. “It’s a gem, one of my favorites in the collection.”
American writer James Agee, who penned the lyrical novel A Death in the Family, is included in a photograph by Walker Evans, with whom he collaborated on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a trailblazing book of photos and prose centering on the plight of grindingly poor Alabama tenant farmers during the Great Depression.
For sheer beauty of lighting and mood, the portraits of Georgia O’Keeffe and Pablo Picasso by Armenian-Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh cannot be looked at fleetingly.
There are also photos of famous photographers capturing their colleagues on film, such as Garry Winogrand’s 1969 shot of Diane Arbus in Central Park, or John Cohen’s photo of photographer/filmmaker Robert Frank during the creation of the Beat classic film Pull My Daisy, from 1959.
Detroit photographers are also represented in the show. While the exhibit was being assembled, the DIA received a stash of photographs from Bill Rauhauser, who opened Detroit’s fabled Group Four Gallery in 1964. “He gave us a nice body of work representative of his life’s work as a photographer in Detroit,” Barr says. “He had a number of artists’ portraits, so I had to make room for them.”
Museum visitors will undoubtedly be fixated on a portrait of Andy Warhol, not just because of his celebrity, but because of the instantly recognizable Renaissance Center in the background. It was taken in 1985 by Detroit photographer Michelle Andonian, who at the time was on assignment from The Detroit News to shoot the iconic Pop artist, who was on tour promoting his book Andy Warhol’s America. Andonian remembers the artist fondly, if not his retinue of hangers-on. “He was wonderful, very kind, and quiet, but he surrounded himself with this entourage of what was quite possibly some of the most obnoxious people I’ve ever encountered,” she says from her Detroit loft. “He would just sit around and look at them. It was as if he traveled with his own performance art.”
Andonian photographed the artist from the top floor of the Hotel Pontchartrain (now called the Detroit Riverside Hotel) after having breakfast with him there, along with The News’ then art critic, Joy Hakanson Colby. “I remember he had oatmeal, which he said he ate every morning,” Andonian says.
When it came time to photograph Warhol, Andonian requested his input. “I asked him, ‘How do you see yourself here in Detroit?’ He said, ‘I see myself with that interesting piece of sculpture in the background,’ and he was pointing to the Renaissance Center.”
Warhol died two years later, which makes the experience all that more precious to Andonian.
“That’s the amazing thing about photography. We are able to record things that will no longer be around, whether they’re places or people,” she says. “It’s one of my most cherished moments as a photographer — not only to have met Andy Warhol, but to photograph him in an intimate setting, spend some time with him, and get a feeling of what he was like. It was one of those highlight moments.”
The exhibit In the Company of Artists runs Nov. 19-Feb. 15 at the Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward, Detroit; 313-833-7900, dia.org. The show is included with regular museum admission; the DIA is open Wed.-Sun.