Bob Colacello

The woman who invented selfies

In this edited extract from a new book of Polaroids by Brigid Berlin, Bob Colacello, former editor of Interview magazine, remembers the rebel at the heart of the Factory

The woman who invented selfies
Text settings

It took a while for Brigid and I to get to know each other, not to mention like each other. But then it was total lifelong devotion. At first, when I started out at Interview, in 1970, Brigid would give me The Glare, which was the negative equivalent of Nancy Reagan’s The Gaze. One or two seconds of that killing look were enough to put across Brigid’s message: stay away. But a few years later, she gave up speed, moved to a proper apartment on East 22nd Street, and took a steady job as receptionist and transcriber of Andy Warhol’s tapes at the new Factory at 860 Broadway. That was when we bonded.

Our newfound friendship was partly based on our shared Republican roots —her Dad was a close friend of Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller; my Mom had been a Republican party precinct captain in Plainview, Long Island. We also shared the highly developed appreciation of absurdity that you needed to survive at Andy Warhol Enterprises, to get what was going on and go along with it. Not that Brigid worshipped Andy or his art — quite the contrary. I think she felt because she had given him two of his best ideas — Polaroids and tape-recording — she had the right to call him ridiculous and his art a big nothing. She certainly was the only Factory worker to spurn a Christmas gift of one of his paintings, saying she’d rather have a washer-dryer. By then, she had given up taking Polaroids, and was stitching needlepoint slippers, at $1,200 a pair, for Andy’s dealers and clients. She’d also lost a lot of weight, and once a week had her hair teased and sprayed into a grand bouffant, just like her mother.

Brigid’s mother, Muriel ‘Honey’ Berlin, was a popular New York society hostess. Her father, Richard E. Berlin, was the president of the Hearst Corporation from 1943 to 1973. Hearst owned a dozen or so magazines, including Harper’s Bazaar, Town & Country and Cosmopolitan, several radio and TV stations, and a chain of right-wing newspapers. Before Brigid became her mother’s mirror image, however, she was her mother’s worst nightmare. Brigid was Generation Gap. Whatever her mother did, Brigid did the opposite. Honey was thin. Brigid was fat. Honey had tea with the Duchess of Windsor and Diana Vreeland. Brigid had sex with John Chamberlain and Larry Rivers — and got them to draw their penises in her infamous Cock Books. Honey adored Bill Blass. Brigid told her he was gay.

Of course, millions of children of the rich and upper middle class were rebelling against their boring, bourgeois parents in the 1960s. But Brigid took her rebellion to extremes: blowing her trust fund on a quickie marriage to a ‘staple gun queen’ (i.e., window dresser); lolling about naked in underground movies; tweezing the gemstones out of a silver box the Shah of Iran had given her parents so she could score more speed. And she was surely the only alumna of the Convent of the Sacred Heart to record her fights on the phone with her mother and turn over the tapes to Andy Warhol to turn into an off-Broadway play.

The key word is record. Brigid’s need to rebel has always been matched by her need to document her rebelliousness, and the overlapping of these two compulsions is what gives her work meaning beyond its curiosity value. In recording life, she captured our times. By myopically depicting her own transgressions and self-indulgences, she has prophetically reflected the narcissism and exhibitionism, the craving for fame and confusing of fame and infamy that have become the staples of American popular culture. ‘I invented selfies,’ she says proudly. ‘I did. I’d put in a roll of film. And then I would suck in my cheeks to look like a model. And then snap, snap, snap. I’d use six of the eight pictures on the roll. I couldn’t think of what else to take, so I’d just take two pictures of the floor.’

Brigid bought her Polaroid 360, with Diffuser Portrait and Close-Up lenses, in 1968. ‘It was the only camera I ever used,’ she says. Taking pictures with it quickly became her newest addiction. As she puts it, ‘Running out of film was worse than running out of speed.’ The recently invented camera was the perfect toy for the great big spoiled child she was and the perfect tool for someone enamored of disrobing whenever she felt like it. With its in-camera, 60-second development process, this wondrous portable machine not only provided instant gratification, but also eliminated the threat of censorship at the photo lab. Brigid’s artistic approach was somewhere between opportunistic and nihilistic, addict-style: ‘No picture ever mattered. There was never any subject that I was after. It was clicking it and pulling it out that I loved.’

Actually, she was quite definite about her favourite subjects: herself and Andy, in that order. Brigid and Andy made the perfect couple: the outcast heiress and the nerd desperate to get in; the self-destructive exhibitionist and the ambitious voyeur; the high-camp nun and the Pope of Pop (never underestimate the Catholic influence on the Factory mentality). I found it telling that in Brigid’s portraits of Andy he frequently had his eyes closed, as if he couldn’t be bothered to look at her. ‘Oh, Brigid,’ one can hear him saying. ‘You’re never going to do anything with these pictures anyway.’ On the other hand, maybe he thought he was prettier with his lids downcast — and pretty was something he always wanted to be.

A remarkable aspect of this new book of Brigid’s Polaroids is the large number of important artists who had Brigid take their picture. Or perhaps I should refer to painters and sculptors as ‘other artists’, whose names she would drop to make Warhol jealous. Some had been her lovers, and they all seemed to adore her, probably because she was at least as crazed as they were in those days. It’s quite an assembly: from De Kooning to Donald Judd, Cy Twombly, and Roy Lichtenstein. One of the best photos is of the poet Joe Brainard, Bill Katz, John Cage and Jasper Johns huddled together against a white brick wall.

One also finds Brigid’s fellow superstars, the wayward debs, poets and drag queens who appeared in Andy’s movies. Nico, Baby Jane Holzer, Ultra Violet, Candy Darling and Joe Dallesandro are all here — looking not glamorous but ordinary. This is the opposite of fashion photography or studio portraiture. Brigid was a realist. What she saw is what you got. Moreover, she was a master of the expressionless, the almost empty, the deader than deadpan. In that regard, she outdid even Andy. Yet for all her aching to be shocking and perverse, her work remains tinged with the innocence of a sheltered Catholic schoolgirl.

This is an edited extract from Brigid Berlin Polaroids, £29.95. Deluxe Limited Edition, £650, published by Reel Art Press,
Bob Colacello edited Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine for 12 years, despite his father having threatened to break his legs if he went to work for Warhol.