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The blue lenses through which Basquiat viewed the world

Celebrities’ belongings — including Andy Warhol’s paintbrush, Donald Judd’s credit cards — are the subject of a poignant series of photographs by Henry Leutwyler being shown in New York

‘Objects do speak,’ says Henry Leutwyler, ‘and I photograph them as I would photograph people.’ For more than a decade, Leutwyler, a specialist in celebrity portraiture, has been seeking out objects that have a personal connection to the famous and the notorious. ‘It’s been a treasure hunt,’ he says, ‘a kind of archaeology.’

That set of images has now become a book and an exhibition, both entitled Document. Many of the pictured artefacts are the tools of someone’s trade: Warhol’s paintbrush, Buster Keaton’s pork-pie hat, Bert Stern’s Roliflex camera, Franz Beckenbauer’s football boot, and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s sunglasses, the blue lenses through which he viewed the world.

Bert Stern’s (1929-2013) Rolleiflex camera. Stern’s images of Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando and the Pyramids of Giza made him famous. In 1987, after spending a summer together cataloguing thousands of his photographs, Stern gave the camera to his son Bret. Photography Henry Leutwyler

Bert Stern’s (1929-2013) Rolleiflex camera. Stern’s images of Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando and the Pyramids of Giza made him famous. In 1987, after spending a summer together cataloguing thousands of his photographs, Stern gave the camera to his son Bret. Photography Henry Leutwyler

Andy Warhol’s (1928-1987) paintbrush. Photography Henry Leutwyler
Andy Warhol’s (1928-1987) paintbrush. Photography Henry Leutwyler

Other pictured pieces are the grim stage props in real-life dramas, such as the .38 Special that killed John Lennon, or a Rodin fragment found in the rubble of the Twin Towers after 9/11. The fragment photographed by Leutwyler was the only remaining piece of a Rodin sculpture from the Cantor Fitzgerald Collection, which included more than 300 works by the artist, all of which were destroyed in the terrorist attacks on New York.

The only remaining piece of an Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) sculpture from the Cantor Fitzgerald collection. Photography Henry Leutwyler

The only remaining piece of an Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) sculpture from the Cantor Fitzgerald collection. Photography Henry Leutwyler

This surviving fragment, recovered from the ruins of the World Trade Center, now sits on a credenza near the desk of Howard Lutnick, Chairman and CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald, at the firm’s new home.

Other objects are entirely workaday, incidental to the subject’s achievement: James Dean’s door key, Frank Sinatra’s address book. Donald Judd’s Amex cards seem to fit this category, but there is something about the way they are arranged — the quadrilateral repetitiveness of them — that puts you in mind of Judd’s minimal sculptures. 

Donald Judd’s (1928-1994) tri-colour American Express credit cards, 1991 and 1992. Photography Henry Leutwyler

Donald Judd’s (1928-1994) tri-colour American Express credit cards, 1991 and 1992. Photography Henry Leutwyler

‘The point may not be in what you first see or in the first picture you make,’ says Leutwyler. ‘The story of Michael Jackson’s shoe is not the upper with all the bling; it’s the worn sole — because that’s what shows the life.’

The objects themselves, if gathered together, would make for a rather peculiar exhibition, a diverse and idiosyncratic kunstkammer. But as a collection of still lifes they have a unity, a cohesiveness that comes from having been subjected to one sensibility and the same forensic eye. ‘These are things that belong with each other,’ says Leutwyler. ‘They make a sort of family.’

Document: Photographs by Henry Leutwyler  is at the Foley Gallery, New York, 3 November–8 January.