This week sees the launch of In and Out of Warhol’s Orbit: Photographs by Nat Finkelstein at Proud Galleries in London. The compelling and intimate exhibition reveals the complex characters behind the well-documented tensions and hedonism of Andy Warhol’s studio.

Photojournalist Nat Finkelstein spent three years as the house photographer at the Silver Factory, documenting this fascinating and pivotal moment of cultural history in 1960s America. Finkelstein captured the many artists, producers and musicians who frequented the infamous Factory at the height of its prominence.

Having interned for legendary Harper’s Bazaar Art Director, Alexey Brodovitch, in the 1950s, Nat Finkelstein went on to supply photography for publications such as LIFE magazine and Sports Illustrated. A commission from Pagaent magazine in 1962, with a request to photograph the Pop Art scene, allowed Nat Finkelstein to meet Andy Warhol, and, stunned by the apparent decadence of life at the Factory, Finkelstein resolved to capture this environment teeming with the underground bourgeoisie. His fascination with the countercultures of the era led him to stay on as photographer at the Factory for three years, resulting in a collection that has the glamour, energy and edge of a 1960s film set.

“These unposed images were made when Andy Warhol et al were people, not products; young artists, not celebrities. Enjoy, but don’t venerate.”

Velvet Underground at Paraphernalia, NYC, 1966 (The Velvet Underground performs at opening reception for Paraphernalia boutique in New York City, 1966. Launch party for designer Betsey Johnson’s first fashion line. Image features John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Lou Reed, with onlookers outside in background.) | Images courtesy of: Proud Galleries © Nat Finkelstein Estate

Regular faces included The Velvet Underground, who formed in 1964 and began their own collaboration with Andy Warhol in 1965. They used Warhol’s Factory for rehearsals with Nat Finkelstein being there to photograph the Velvet Underground’s earliest sessions. Founding member John Cale described the artist’s studio as being “a real eye-opener,” going on to explain, “it wasn’t called the Factory for nothing. It was where the assembly-line for the silkscreens happened. While one person was making a silkscreen, somebody else would be filming a screen test. Every day something new. I think he was dipping into anything he fancied.”

Although the Factory was very much a creative place there were still rules. Those who worked showed up every day, or they would be fired. Warhol was said to walk around being very vague about what he wanted from his assistants, but they had to remain enthusiastic. There was a seriousness about the place, a decorum and deportment.

Andy Warhol with Spray Paint and Moped, The Factory, c. 1965 (Color image of Andy Warhol at work at the Factory, New York City, circa 1965) | Images courtesy of: Proud Galleries © Nat Finkelstein Estate

Andy Warhol acquired a 16mm Bolex film camera in 1963 (main picture) and made his first short film that summer entitled Sleep, a five hour long voyeuristic portrait of his naked lover sleeping. Warhol used a Bolex to shoot his infamous ‘screen tests’, in which he captured his subject against a plain background at the Factory, centring them in front of the camera and telling them not to blink. He would run the camera for two to three minutes at 24 frames per second, but the finished products were longer, slowed to 16 frames per second to give them a ghostly stillness.

In 1965 Bob Dylan was brought to Andy Warhol’s Silver Factory by Barbara Rubin, a filmmaker and a mutual acquaintance of Dylan and Warhol’s. Dylan was to be the subject of one of Warhol’s screen tests, which were two-minute silent movie portraits starring Factory regulars and outside celebrities.

Beside Andy Warhol (below) stands guitarist and founding member of the Rolling Stones, Brian Jones. Jones was one of the musicians who gathered at the Factory during the ‘60s, due to his fascination with the underground art scene in New York. Jones was the first person to bring singer Nico to the Factory, where she would meet John Cale and later join the Velvet Underground.

Brian Jones and Andy Warhol at Paraphernalia launch, New York City, 1966 (Brian Jones, founding member of the Rolling Stones, and Andy Warhol at launch party for Paraphernlia boutique, New York City, 1966.) | Images courtesy of: Proud Galleries © Nat Finkelstein Estate

Through his documentary style photography, Finkelstein discreetly recorded the milieu of creatives and socialites who were regulars at the Factory including Edie Sedgwick, The Velvet Underground, Nico, Brian Jones and Betsey Johnson. Finkelstein had constant access to this unique mix of characters and focused on their idiosyncrasies as artists, rather than their emerging celebrity status. “I am a situational photographer,” he once explained; “These unposed images were made when Andy Warhol et al were people, not products; young artists, not celebrities. Enjoy, but don’t venerate.”

Upon falling out with Warhol and his turbulent circle, Finkelstein left the Factory in order to pursue a more politically engaged lifestyle and, in 1969, he fled the United States due to a federal drug charge. The allegations were ultimately dropped and Finkelstein returned to the U.S. a decade later to continue documenting artists, musicians, and subcultures including the international rave scene of the 1990s.

Following his death in 2009, Nat Finkelstein’s wife Elizabeth established the Estate of Nat Finkelstein to continue the work he left behind and preserve his creative legacy. In and Out of Warhol’s Orbit: Photographs by Nat Finkelstein presents highlights of this three-year period in Finkelstein’s career, where he had extraordinary access to a cultural revolution that shook the very foundations of society. Through his time at the Factory, Finkelstein’s photographic style evolved from photojournalism to fine art; though he often positioned himself too close to the story, it was this intimacy which led to a creative liberation and desire for freedom of expression.

The exhibition includes rare vintage and unique signed prints of Andy Warhol and ‘the Factory Girl’ Edie Sedgwick, along with screen tests of a young Bob Dylan. With a casual and frank, yet thrilling insight into the era, Finkelstein’s work has a distinctive, candid style. His determination and ingenuity allowed him to capture private moments within an exclusive circle, one which was constantly on display to the outside world.

In and Out of Warhol’s Orbit: Photographs by Nat Finkelstein runs 11th April – 9th June, 2019, at Proud Central, 32 John Adam Street, London WC2N 6BP. See website for more details.

Main picture: Andy with Bolex, 1965 (Profile Andy Warhol with Bolex camera, at work filming Lupe Velez film in the Dakota apartment building, New York City, 1965) | Images courtesy of: Proud Galleries © Nat Finkelstein Estate

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