Photo Essays

Photographing the Enchanted Belongings of Dead Celebrities

Assigning value to a cheap, everyday thing that a famous person happened to use can be explained in part by what psychologists call the “law of magical contagion.”

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Henry Leutwyler, “Andy Warhol’s (1928–1987) paintbrush,” from ‘Document’ (2016) (all images courtesy Henry Leutwyler/Steidl)

Dead artists’ material belongings sometimes sell for nearly as much money as their artworks do. In 2008, for example, a paintbrush used by Andy Warhol sold at auction for $4,000. Assigning such massive value to a cheap, everyday thing that a famous person happened to use can be explained in part by what psychologists call the “law of magical contagion”: The often unconscious belief that a person’s “essence” can be transmitted through the objects they touch.

This notion of magical contagion is part of what makes the photographs in Document, a new book published by Steidl and exhibit at Foley Gallery by Henry Leutwyler, so transfixing. Over the course of 12 years, Leutwyler, a specialist in celebrity portraiture, photographed 124 objects that were somehow connected to famous or notorious individuals, all deceased.

‘Document’ by Henry Leutwyler (cover image: Charter Arms .38 caliber revolver used to kill John Lennon on December 8, 1980)

Against white backdrops, with a forensic style, Leutwyler documented the signature items of legendary artists: The blue sunglasses of Jean-Michel Basquiat; the Caran d’Ache pencil of designer Massimo Vignelli; the cowboy hat of photographer Richard Avedon. Leutwyler shot plenty of Hollywood- and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-style memorabilia: James Dean’s black leather wallet; Elvis Presley’s glasses; Bob Marley’s first guitar. Other objects are the chilling relics of national tragedies or high-profile crime scenes: The .38 Special revolver that killed John Lennon;  the zigzag shoes, with manipulated footprints, worn by “Unabomber” Theodore Kaczynski; a Rodin fragment found in the rubble of the Twin Towers after 9/11. What unites these seemingly disparate artifacts is their roles as props in recent cultural history.

Even if you think you don’t believe in “magical contagion,” the artifacts do somehow seem more significant than identical objects that weren’t used by celebrated artists or infamous criminals. “Artifacts such as these beg the question whether objects have memories or can retain even an iota of the energy imbued within them for the parts they played in history,” writes Graham Howe in the book. “They also make us wonder if we are ‘drawn’ to a significant object, claims clairvoyants have long made, via some past or energy-based connection.”

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Henry Leutwyler, “Abraham Lincoln’s (1809–1865) top hat box, c.1860,” from ‘Document,’ published by Steidl

Photographs of banal objects — artist Donald Judd’s luggage tags, for example — recall tabloids’ “Stars: They’re Just Like Us” sections; they humanize their iconic owners. Looking at these objects suggests their owners doing boring normal-person things, like packing suitcases, instead of living in an alternate reality for the rich and famous.

However, just as many pictured objects are reminders that stars are notjust like us”: For example, a diamond ring that Richard Burton gave Elizabeth Taylor, which later sold in 2011 for $8.8 million. Of the 124 images in the book, the one Leutwyler relates to personally illustrates this best: It pictures Donald Judd’s three American Express cards, in green, silver, and black. “We all start with the green one,” the photographer told the Wall Street Journal, “and we all hope that at some time we will get a black one.” 

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Henry Leutwyler, photograph of Elvis Presley’s (1935–1977) wallet containing various business cards belonging to law enforcement officials, his gun registration permit, a newspaper clipping and a photo of him and a young Lisa Marie Presley.
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Donald Judd’s (1928–1994), tri-color American Express credit cards (1991 and 1992)
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Jean-Michel Basquiat’s (1960–1988) Issey Miyake sunglasses
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Massimo Vignelli’s (1931–2014) Caran d’Ache Fix pencil. The designer used this pencil every day.

 Document by Henry Leutwyler is out from Steidl. The accompanying exhibition continues at Foley Gallery (59 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan)) through January 8, 2017. 

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