Last summer, the Northern Illinois University Art Museum adopted more than 150 personal photographs taken by Andy Warhol in his mission to document the times in which he lived.
The photos are among nearly 30,000 distributed since 2007 to more than 180 college and university museums, galleries and art collections throughout the nation by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Peter Olson, assistant director of NIU’s Art Museum, said he and director Jo Burke heard about the program when it was starting and applied on behalf of NIU.
The photographs and prints were bestowed on NIU in perpetuity, and part of the deal requires NIU to display a selection of the photographs at least once every 10 years. NIU also was asked to produce and provide for the foundation high-resolution scans of the photographs and prints, something the foundation previously didn’t have for all the thousands of pieces it had in its possession.
The photos themselves are simply done and bound in a large photo album. They show their subjects – whether celebrities, nude models, animals, scenery or anything else – in very basic, unglorified terms. Olson thinks this is a major part of what attracted Warhol to the practice of photographing the people and things around him.
“One of the reasons he liked it was that it was this cheap, accessible way for people to make images really easily and to capture things without having to have a whole big pretentious set-up that was going to make people very self-concious,” he said.
Olson explained how it’s common for artists to keep files of categorized images from which to later draw inspiration. He sees elements of this in the photographs sent to NIU by the foundation.
“My reading of it is ... an artist likes to gather a lot of information and then have it all at their disposal to get inspiration from and to use later,” Olson said. “And he just had images of what fascinated him, which was the people all around him.”
While some photos show celebrities of the day, like Diana Ross, Mel Gibson and The Cars’ Ric Ocasek, others show seemingly random people the artist happened to have the chance to photograph. Others still depict such seemingly mundane images as a shoe rack in a department store window, animals and building facades.
“The other thing that’s great about these Polaroids is everybody is kind of the same,” Olson said. “This Diana Ross picture ... it’s absolutely no different than any of these others. So it has no inherent properties or value that distinguish it from anything else, except for the celebrity.”
Olson doesn’t believe this aspect of the photographs is a coincidence.
“Of any artist who you think might be involved with the whole cult of celebrity and personality, it’s certainly Andy Warhol,” he said. “So part of this was celebrating peoples’ celebrity and part of it to me is sort of like, everybody’s a celebrity. I mean everybody could be.”
Jo Burke, director of the NIU Art Museum, said she was glad to be able to bring the work of a big name like Andy Warhol to NIU, and to use the materials to incorporate into and also guide their programming in the museum’s exhibition space.
There is no set date for displaying the photographs, but Olson said they hope to get a selection of them on display in the next couple years.