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Lesson Death and Disasters: Appropriating and Manipulating News Imagery

A grid of two rows of four black-and-white images depicting cans of tuna with varying degrees of shadow obscuring the image. The bottom right image is missing. Under the images is part of a headline that reads, “Seized shipment: Did a leak kill....”

Andy Warhol, Tunafish Disaster, 1963
The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.
© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.
1998.1.17

Examine the practice of photojournalism and explore how visual information may be edited or altered to convey new meanings.

Students look through contemporary newspapers to critically examine the use of photojournalism to report the news or to tell a story. Students create their own interpretation and story using Andy Warhol’s processes of appropriation, cropping, and repositioning.

Objectives

  • Students interpret visual data from art and source materials.
  • Students differentiate between journalism and art.
  • Students predict how the meaning of an image changes through journalistic and artistic editing.
  • Students edit visual information to convey new meanings.
A grid of two rows of four black-and-white images depicting cans of tuna with varying degrees of shadow obscuring the image. The bottom right image is missing. Under the images is part of a headline that reads, “Seized shipment: Did a leak kill....”

Andy Warhol, Tunafish Disaster, 1963
The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.
© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.
1998.1.17

About the Art

Warhol loved all forms of daily media and collected various newspapers, magazines, and supermarket tabloids. He recognized the power of mass-circulated media images in American culture and appropriated these as source material for his artwork. To create this version of Tunafish Disaster, Warhol used a page from Newsweek dated April 1, 1963, featuring a story about a can of contaminated tuna that killed two housewives in a suburb of Detroit. He repeated the image of the tuna can with its cut-off caption seven times on a silver ground. In his Death and Disaster series, Warhol explored the impact of cropped images taken out of a journalistic framework and placed repeatedly into the context of art. Some of the photographs that Warhol chose as source images for this series depict horrific scenes, such as race riots, car crashes, suicides, and nuclear explosions. Others focus on a narrative that may not be obvious but is symbolic of death and disaster nonetheless, such as the Electric Chair and Jackie series. In all of these works, Warhol used the repetition of images to mirror the repetition evident in society through media and technology.

When you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it really doesn’t have any effect.

Andy Warhol, Artnews, 1963

Points of View

In 1963, while Warhol was working on his Death and Disaster paintings, Artnews published an interview between Gene Swenson and the artist.
G.S. When did you start with the “Death” pictures?
A.W. I guess it was the big plane crash picture, the front page of the newspaper: 129 Die. I was also painting the Marilyns. I realized that everything I was doing must have been Death. It was Christmas or Labor Day—a holiday—and every time you turned on the radio they said something like “4 million are going to die.” That started it. But when you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it really doesn’t have any effect.

Andy Warhol in an interview with Gene Swenson, Artnews, 1963

Warhol’s art [Death and Disasters] will convey the range, power and empathy underlying his transformation of these commonplace catastrophes. Finally, one can sense in this art an underlying human compassion that transcends Warhol’s public effect of studied neutrality.

foreword to Andy Warhol: Death and Disasters, The Menil Collection
(Houston: Houston Fine Art Press, 1988), p. 9.

Warhol’s repetitions of car crashes, suicides and electric chairs are not like the repetition of similar and yet different terrible scenes day in and day out in the tabloids. These paintings mute what is present in the single front page each day, and emphasize what is present persistently day after day in slightly different variations. Looking at the papers, we do not consciously make the connection between today’s, yesterday’s, and tomorrow’s “repetitions” which are not repetitions.

Gene Swanson, Artnews, 1963

 

A photograph of one of Andy Warhol’s time capsules surrounded by its contents, dozens of copies of the New York Post with headlines that announce stories such as Millions Mourn Presley and Muslim Bands Terrorize D.C.

Andy Warhol, Time Capsule 1975-1977; Bulk: 1976-1977
The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.
© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.
TC170

Discussion Questions

  1. What do you think is conveyed in Tunafish Disaster?
  2. How do journalists manipulate images by cutting and cropping out information in order to suit their story? (Use examples from tabloids, magazines, the internet, etc.)
  3. What is the difference between journalism and art?
  4. How does meaning change in these images when they are used in Warhol’s art?
  5. Do you think it is okay for artists to work from other people’s photographs? Why or why not?
  6. In the current age of digital media, photoshop, and “fake news,” are photographs still viewed as factual or the source of truth?

 

Vocabulary

Materials

Procedure

  1. Explain and discuss the vocabulary terms.
  2. Using Warhol’s method of appropriation, look through current newspapers/news journals to find headlines and images you find interesting.
  3. Cut or crop your image, editing out any information you don’t want.
  4. Glue your image into the template; choose either a horizontal or vertical layout.
  5. Use an eraser to lighten areas of the newsprint. Use a pencil to darken or add contrast to areas of the newsprint.
  6. Answer the questions on the Appropriation and Manipulation of News Images handout.

Wrap-up

  1. In small groups, students share their work with peers and explain the choices they made in the creation of their images. Students use a 1–5 rating scale to assess their artworks (1=unacceptable; 2=needs work; 3=mediocre; 4=well done; 5=outstanding).
  2. Decide as a group if the work was a success. How well did the artist transform the meaning of their image? Did they use Warhol’s processes of appropriation, cropping, and repositioning to successfully convey their intended meaning?

Assessment

The following assessments can be used for this lesson using the downloadable assessment rubric.

  • Aesthetics 2
  • Communication 1
  • Creative process 3
  • Creative process 4
  • Critical thinking 2
  • Historical context 4