Celebrity Portraitist Gerard Malanga | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
Gerard Malanga, c. 1970s. (Gerard Malanga)

Celebrity Portraitist Gerard Malanga

An associate of Andy Warhol, Gerard Malanga reflects on his subjects and his career as a photographer

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While researching photographs for “Four for a Quarter” (September 2008) about old photobooths, Smithsonian’s Jeff Campagna came across a captivating 1966 photostrip image of socialite Gerard Malanga, a photographer whom the New York Times called “Warhol’s most important associate.” Malanga discussed his career--chronicling the famous and non-famous, bohemian and non-bohemian--with Campagna via e-mail.

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What was your first impression of Andy Warhol when you began working with him as a silkscreener in 1963?

Andy was pretty much open to any ideas or suggestions I would contribute. I think part of the whole reason he hired me was because of my expertise in silkscreening. He had just a few months earlier begun incorporating photographic imagery directly into the silkscreen, like newspaper and magazine photos. So when I arrived I knew exactly how to handle the screens, especially the larger ones.

You eventually got a chance to work with a variety of mediums, including film, while at The Factory [Warhol’s studio]. How do you think your early filmmaking projects and your Screen Tests collaboration with Andy influenced your photographic style?

Friends have noticed a photographic style in my work but I think this has more to do with aura--the aura a picture gives out--than with anything else. I wouldn't even know how to begin approaching "style" when I take a picture. I work intuitively mostly. It's a hit and miss. You know, the funny thing is Andy was never an influence on my work, at least not consciously. August Sander and Walker Evans were more the role models for me when I first started and mostly for different reasons, but there was a confluence here of sorts. But then just looking at photographs in books and newspapers at an early age may have prepared me for what came later. I know I was fascinated by transformation--how the same view or subject changes with time.

I've read that you almost exclusively photograph people that you know. What does that shared comfort level and trust between the photographer and subject mean to you, and what do you think it adds to that instant?

Well, that's not exactly accurate. Sometimes, a great friendship ensues as a result of a photo session. Last year while researching my exhibit of cat portraits I was pouring over pages of cat photos mostly from the 1950s here in my library, and felt a spiritual kinship with one photographer's cat pictures because they reminded me of my own shots. His name is Wolf Suschitzky. So I Google him and discover he's living in London, and I rang him up--something I rarely do anymore!--and introduced myself. We had an instant rapport, and as I was planning to attend a show of my work in Paris, I arranged with my art dealer to give me a stopover in London on the way. I sent him a copy of one of my books in advance and it was pre-arranged I would visit him the day after my arrival. We had the greatest of times, and I discovered that his cat pictures were really only one part to his vast body of work which included documenting London through the 30s right up to the present! The surprise was that during this time he had already distinguished himself as one of England's most renowned cinematographers.…What an honor to meet this man and photograph him, and now we write to each other regularly or talk on the phone. There's something about his photos and about him that touched me in a way that makes this kind of working experience all the more worthwhile.

Do you find that you crave outside inspiration, say for photography and poetry, versus being creative in a more isolated environment?

I never crave anything and I never know when the wand of inspiration will touch me. Poetry and photography are different by nature and approach. Poetry is an introspective medium that requires lots of solitude or at least knowing it exists for me, even if I'm on the subway taking notes; whereas photography is definitely extroverted. The kinds of pictures I take demand a bit of tenacity and always making contact with people.The photographer's enemy is complacency; tenacity his strength. I've become complacent at times. I admit it. So obviously I've missed out on making a number of portraits. As Cartier-Bresson once said, "You can't photograph a memory." But I've reached a point in my life where sometimes it's best to give it a rest or take other kinds of pictures. My last show was my pictures of cats...

Because of your social circles during the sixties and seventies, you ended up associating with and taking portraits of some notable young musicians. As an artist, were you very much into the music, or more so into the imagery and potential ideas behind it?

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