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Exploring the Relationship Between Keith Haring and Photography

Artist Cey Adams remembers Keith Haring as he was – a friend, colleague, and pivotal figure on the New York art scene in the 1980s – and explains how photography was a precious tool to record their lives.

Keith Haring first made his name under the streets of New York in the early 1980s when he hit the train stations with a piece of white chalk in hand, crafting luminous love letters to the city in the space where advertising traditionally went. Using the subway platforms as a “laboratory,” Haring developed a simple yet evocative iconography replete with flying saucers, barking dogs, and most famously the “Radiant Baby.” In a landscape filled with graffiti masterpieces, Haring’s work caught the eye of the citizenry and art world alike.

Haring, who understood branding long before it became de rigueur, quickly shot to the top with projects including the Public Art Fund’s One Times Square Spectacolor billboard series, collaborations with choreographer Bill T. Jones, as well as fashion designers Willi Smith and Vivienne Westwood. His work was also shown at the Whitney Biennial and the Venice Biennale. Through it all Haring maintained his commitment to making art for the people, creating the first major work at the now-famed Houston Bowery Wall and the Crack is Wack mural in Harlem — for which he was arrested on charges of vandalism in 1986.

© Keith Haring Foundation. Licensed by Artestar, New York
© Keith Haring Foundation. Licensed by Artestar, New York
© Keith Haring Foundation. Licensed by Artestar, New York
© Keith Haring Foundation. Licensed by Artestar, New York

A true egalitarian who believed in the power of art, Haring made sure his work was accessible to all — employing the very ethos of photography by creating an object that could be reproduced infinite times and therefore rendered affordable. In April 1986, he opened the Pop Shop in the heart of Soho, making t-shirts, posters, stickers, buttons, and other ephemera featuring his work — a move for which he was first criticized then later copied en masse.

“I could earn more money if I just painted a few things and jacked up the price,” Haring explained. “My shop is an extension of what I was doing in the subway stations, breaking down the barriers between high and low art.”

Demolition Man

Although Keith Haring died in 1991 at just 31 years old — a victim of the AIDS epidemic — his legacy continues to inspire generations of artists and activists alike. In his brief but luminous life, the prolific artist had 42 solo exhibitions, painted on the Berlin Wall, created posters to support the anti-apartheid movement and AIDS-related causes, and painted the diva herself, Grace Jones.

© Keith Haring Foundation.Licensed by Artestar, New York

Throughout his career, photography has played a pivotal role in the preservation and dissemination of his work — most recently with a story reported by The Guardian that a mural he created in a Barcelona nightclub in 1989 may be destroyed. “Haring didn’t paint it for money, he did it as a mark of friendship, and out of love for the club and for Barcelona,” Cesar de Melero told the British newspaper, sharing a Polaroid he made of Keith Haring painting a flower-headed man on the wall of the Ars Studio club. Haring signed and dated the Polaroid, then added an “A” to the back of his shirt, an elegant flourish that underscores the populist nature of the Polaroid itself.

Long before digital photography made images readily available, the Polaroid was the preferred camera for artists, photographers, and amateurs alike who reveled in its ability to render the moment instantaneously. In celebration of his contributions to photography and art, the Keith Haring Foundation has teamed up with Polaroid to release the Polaroid x Keith Haring Now Camera and i-Type film. Recently, New York-based photographer, Andrew Tess photographed some of Haring’s closest friends for the project including artist Cey Adams, photographer Christopher Makos, as well as artists & Pyramid club-goers Dany Johnson and Ande Whyland.

Cey Adams © Andrew Tess

Love is the Drug

“Being a graffiti artist, you notice other markings,” Cey Adams recalls of his first encounter with Keith Haring’s work in the early 1980s. “Then one day I got invited to his studio and we hit it off immediately. Keith knew how to create an environment. He surrounded himself with his art and his friends — and he loved dance music so his studio always had a lot of energy. Whenever I went over there, it was always fun because he would have multiple pieces on the wall and he was always working, but he would stop to show me something new he had done or take a look at what I had been doing. We had this artistic camaraderie.”

While Haring’s star shot into the stratosphere, he remained humble and connected to the streets. “If you know who you are and where you come from, success doesn’t change you,” Adams says. “I don’t think any of it fazed him. In fact, I think having the opportunity gave him more resources to do more for people that had less. I remember Keith was constantly giving product away. We would trade artwork but he would also buy artwork because he wanted to share the money he made not only with his community but with his fellow artists.”

© Keith Haring Foundation. Licensed by Artestar, New York
© Keith Haring Foundation. Licensed by Artestar, New York
© Keith Haring Foundation. Licensed by Artestar, New York
© Keith Haring Foundation. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Possessed with countless gifts, one of Haring’s greatest feats was his ability, like Warhol, to understand the role of artist as icon and successfully integrate branding into every aspects of his practice. “Keith created the blueprint,” Adams says. “You see it replicated by so many artists today. He had t-shirts and posters, things that were readily available and inexpensive. He work lent itself to being out on anything — and that’s a rare thing because not everybody’s work fits that way.”

Historical Documents

For Keith Haring and Cey Adams, documentary photography has played a pivotal role in the preservation of their art, providing them with a visual record of work that has since disappeared. “Without people like Martha Cooper, I wouldn’t be able to point to work that I did in the ‘80s,” Adams says from his studio in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn.

“I have boxes of my archives in the studio that I could go into right now and look at a couple of Polaroids that Andy Warhol took of me, Keith Haring, and Patti Astor at a party at his house. Even though I was 19 years old, it wasn’t lost on me that Andy was taking my picture. He was a superstar but when you’re in a room together, everyone is just an artist sharing ideas and enjoying each other’s company.”

Polaroid x Keith Haring, polaroid Now i‑Type Instant Camera ‑ Keith Haring Edition, $119.99
Color i‑Type Film ‑ Keith Haring Edition, $17.99
Polaroid Now Keith Haring Edition Starter Set, $169.99
Available here.

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