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!