Brigid Berlin unearthed a veritable treasure trove of intimate snapshots from her time with the titans of the 1960s New York art scene
Last summer archivist, editor and curator Dagon James was finishing up a book he was working on about Billy Name’s black and white photographs of Warhol’s Factory. Brigid Berlin, Warhol’s best friend and staunch member of The Factory, was contributing some text to the book when Dagon asked her about her famous collection of Polaroids, and whether or not she would ever consider publishing them. She agreed, and a short while later Dagon found himself sitting at a large table in her apartment sorting through nearly 4000 previously unseen snaps that had been crammed into boxes in her house and in storage for decades.
“They were just scattered around her life, so we had to pull them all together and organise them and figure out what was there. That was kind of the adventure,” recalls Dagon. “She hadn’t even looked at them in years. We would pass Polaroids around and talk about them, figure out what should be in the book and why. It was very collaborative.”
The Polaroids themselves are more artefacts than photographs. Brigid and Warhol bought Polaroid cameras around the same time and began documenting the wild, unpredictable friendships of The Factory era together: images of Jim Carroll sitting in a bathtub eating a hamburger, Andy Warhol sitting for his famous Alice Neel portrait.
“This was when they were at the Factory at 33 Union Square West,” says Dagon. “Whenever Brigid would need money for lunch or amphetamine or whatever she needed she would take polaroids of Andy’s scars, run down to Union Square Park and sell them to people walking by for five dollars.”
For a book that was to be 200 pages of Polaroids interspersed with anecdotal quotes from Brigid (and a wonderful foreword from her old pal John Waters and introduction by Bob Colacello) whittling down her mammoth collection of images was incredibly difficult. “You start by looking at the visual strength of each image and looking for sequences and maybe some of the key people in her life,” said Dagon.
The collection shows personalities of the stars that were never otherwise revealed to the public. “There were Polaroids of Dennis Hopper, Bobby Neuwirth. There are photos of Willem de Kooning laughing or hamming it up and you never really see him or think about him in that way,” Dagon says.
“There’s some great shots of Lou Reed, Mickey Ruskin who owned Max’s Kansas City, You have Richard Hamilton, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Bryce Marden, Peter Beard, Rauschenberg: it’s really an interesting snapshot of the artists who were working in New York at that time.
“And you realise how much they all really knew each other and were around one another which is so different to today where artists tend to be a lot more insular. Back then they were all truly friends, they worked together and drank and hung out together. You really see that in this book.
A lot of the books Dagon has published over his career seem entrenched in a bygone era, exploring the magic of Woodstock, the long-gone spirit of San Francisco, The Factory or the nature of music in the 1960s and 70s. Dagon’s fascination with the people and stories of that era began during the ten years he spent publishing photography magazine Lid.
“For me those people became familiar. It was an important time in our culture, especially in the world of art and music, it seemed like such an authentic period. It was before the age of social media, people just seemed like they were more truly themselves. That’s how it feels for me and I suppose that’s why I’m drawn to that period.”
Why we keep on talking about that era is constantly debated. Whether or not we will ever see something like The Factory happen again is unknown, but Dagon doesn’t hold much hope. “Now we live in a period where people want to be like Andy Warhol, but when Andy Warhol was alive he wasn’t trying to be like anyone. He was just himself. I think that goes for just about any artist or musician from that era.”
Brigid Berlin Polaroids, published 23 November 2015, is available for pre-order now from Reel Art Press (RRP £29.95).