At the new gallery Site/109 on Norfolk Street recently, the photographer William John Kennedy and his lovely wife Marie, now advanced in age, walked me through an extraordinary collection of Mr. Kennedy’s prints on view for the exhibit Before They Were Famous: Behind The Lens of William John Kennedy running through May 29. They were telling me the story of how they met and came to photograph Andy Warhol and Robert Indiana as emerging American artists. I started to wish they were my grandparents pretty early on.
“I had an assignment from Pratt Institute, I had an assignment to shoot four famous artists – up and coming American artists – so I’m going, ‘Who the hell am I going to shoot? I don’t know anybody,’” Mr. Kennedy told me as we took in the images around us. “I had just opened my own studio in New York City, and all of the sudden” – SNAP – “I went to a show and Warhol’s work was there.”
“But it was Robert Indiana who introduced Bill to Andy,” Mrs. Kennedy chimed. “Bill was very friendly with Robert and was photographing him for months prior to meeting Andy; and then at an exhibition Robert introduced Bill to Andy, and told him that Bill had been coming to his studio to photograph him and Andy was so impressed with Bill’s work – I mean Andy knew when he was in the presence of somebody who had creativity and he must have felt that way about Bill.”
The fact that these early images of iconic American artists happened isn’t the exciting part, necessarily. It’s that the stars aligned – literally – to create these amazingly early, naïve portraits of the artists with their own work before they were famous. “That would be like us going to the Lower East Side and finding, out of the hundreds of artists, the two rising stars, with their work, choosing it, and then all of the sudden in the future becoming something so,” said Michael Huter, founder of Kiwi Arts Group who produced the show, “allowing them to sit in a box for fifty years, and then showing them to the world. It’s so off the charts crazy!
Indeed these early images sat untouched for over 50 years, until the photographer uncovered them within his archives and decided it was time to finally print this project.
“At the time, [Warhol] was looking for every possible way he could seek fame. Indiana had a show at the MoMA,” Huter continued. “Warhol was invited, he had just had his first one man show at Eleanor Ward's Stable Gallery. So Bill had photographed Indiana, and of course there was jealousy in getting introduced – he wanted Bill to photograph him so that he could get his face and images out there and Bill is one of the first photographers to capture that and so [Warhol] was the ultimate fame whore.”
Or at least he was one of the first. The negatives were processed at Duggal – a printer in New York City, which is still there – at the time the film was shot. Mr. Huter contacted Duggal upon finding out about the photographs in 2006 and said, “How would you like to print the work that you processed in 1963 and 1964 and Baldev Duggal, still being there, excitedly, said ‘Oh my God this is crazy!’”
Today Site/109 will host Telling Tales: Warhol’s Friends Tell it Like it Was moderated by Eric Shiner, Director of The Andy Warhol Museumand featuring a lively discussion with the photographer, Warhol muse Ultra Violet, and Taylor Mead. On Sunday they'll host a panel called 99% Art in the Public Realm: A Tool for Social Change. To RSVP and learn more visit Kiwi Arts Group.
Here are some of the images Duggal produced from the sets of William John Kennedy. Stay tuned for more Warhol all month.