Interview Series: Karen Bystedt “The Lost Warhols”

If you find yourself at an art opening in L.A. bumping into a tall, elegant blonde with wide eyes and a crystalline laugh who happens to be wearing a fabulous gown and to know just about everyone, it might be your first encounter with contemporary photographer and all-around amazing human being, Karen Bystedt.

In the past thirty years of her career, Karen has photographed countless models, movie stars and artists before they became famous… almost to the point now where you know you’re going to make it big if you are on her radar. Her fine art career blew up last year when she released her iconic Lost Warhols series, which features ten 40×40 limited edition rare photographs of the artist and 10 box sets, selling a print to Prince Albert of Monaco and raising 50,000 euros for amfAR.

Besides her obvious talent, luck and pr skills, what we love the most about her is her fresh perspective on pop art. Some photography purists told her not to do collaborations, but she decided to go forward with an exciting, ever-evolving concept in which she invites modern artists/graphic designers she loves to extend themselves on an “Andy” canvas – some of which are featured in this article.


LF: I love the story of your experience of calling the Factory and having Andy himself answer…

KB: When I called Interview Magazine, the last “Factory,” I didn’t expect Andy Warhol to answer, so I was taken aback when he answered himself… It was a moment! I was nervous, but I  just went for it and I straight off I told him who I was and the photography book I was working on about top male models.

He wanted to model and I kind of sensed that – I had seen Andy in an ad for Barneys New York and that’s what gave me the idea to photograph him as a model. It turned out that one of the guys who was on my roster was in a Zoli catalog that Andy also was in… on the same page as Andy. So he knew I was shooting the hottest male models of the day and wanted to be in their company.

LF: What was your first impression of him?

KB: I was a club kid and used to see him around NYC at gallery openings and clubs downtown. Andy was a voyeur, and so my challenge was to make a voyeur a model. When I went to to The Factory to do the shoot, he was  already dressed in his best Perry Ellis suit. He was a little nervous, a bit awkward – afraid and vulnerable – but ready to to the shoot and intensely in the moment. I just wanted to make great picture of a great artist.

Andy was wearing too much pancake make-up and at one point I reached out to smooth his face and he jumped with shock. No one ever touched him. People were scared of him. I think touching him made him feel like a real person. Andy told me that he wanted to be booked for the whole day – he wanted to hang out with the other models… They only booked him for half an hour, but he stuck around for the rest of the shoot. I was able to make him feel comfortable and to make him trust me to make him look handsome.

LF: What is your memory of him now after all these years?

KB: A great man who was human, with strengths and faults. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to work with him.

LF: What is your favorite Andy Warhol quote? 

KB: “Boys don’t have to tell their age anymore”

Collaboration with Peter Tunney.

LF: How was it like for you living in NY as a club kid during such iconic years? 

KB: It was tech disco, exciting, glamorous. I mingled with Steve Rubell, Victor Hugo, Halston, Calvin Klein and the Dupont Twins. There were some amazing performance art clubs like Aria and Nells. I was one of those who “got in” and often saw Andy around town.

LF: How did you lose the negatives, and how did you feel when you found them again? 

KB: After I graduated from NYU, I moved around a lot and put my things in storage in different places and lost track of what was where. Finding the 10 negatives in my garage in L.A. almost 30 years later was like finding treasure. It was a “huge” moment!!

LF: Was that the highest point in your career?

KB: 2011 was pretty incredible for me. From working to restore the internegs to finding myself at the pre -Grand Prix Amber Lounge Charity auction event in Monaco where Prince Albert himself ended up buying my “Handsome Andy” for his collection, to fast forwarding 3 months later to Fashion Week Milan where Sharon Stone auctioned off another of my Artist Proofs to raise 50,000 (euros) for amFAR. I receive a thank you letter from Kenneth Cole. It was awesome.

Collaboration with Speedy Graphito.

LF: You made a name for yourself for discovering celebrities before they were famous. What are you looking for when scouting for the next best thing? 

KB: I look for integrity, individuality and passion for their art. I’ve been thinking about doing a series about the new artists of today. I believe that artists are the new “culture dynamic.” Very exciting!!

LF: You spent your whole life traveling… Why such a need for exploring? 

KB: Travel ROCKS MY WORLD! Take me on a safari into the Bushveld in Africa, let me smell the elephant dung and i am transformed. The more I see of the world, the smaller the world seems, the more similarities I recognize between all people. I get excited about the idea of the human experience; the overall drive that pushes humans onward. Travel allows me to share in that human experience. I love that! It rejuvenates me.

LF: Why do you choose to wear beautiful gowns to your events? 

KB: I guess it’s a bit like playing dress up. Growing up I traveled around the world and spent a large part of my childhood in London, Switzerland and San Francisco. My mother was very cultural, so she made sure my sisters and I went to museums, operas and events. I was always being shown this beautiful, glamorous world. When I grew up, I created the opportunity to photograph beautiful world renowned male models, and of course Andy Warhol. Then later on I took portraits of up and coming actors in the late 80’s and early 90’s including Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp, and it was as if I was still surrounded by this glamorous world that I saw when I was a kid.

So I guess I wear the gowns to celebrate my love affair with glamour, art and fashion. I love the gowns!!! I’m making art and running around. There’s something about putting on a fabulous gown that makes you feel truly beautiful, and people really appreciate it!!

Collaboration with Aengus Cawley.

LF: Who are your favorite artists now? 

KB: I love Marquis Lewis RETNA’s work. He is brilliant and we are about to trade art. He has been very supportive of my “coming out” as an artist. I love Gregory Siff, a new L.A. based artist because he is so relentless and passionate about art….

LF: What’s next for The Lost Warhols? 

KB: I just finished up a show for Photo LA at the Bergamot Station at the Robert Berman Gallery and I have a lot of plans in the works including shows in Tokyo and NYC. Apart from the photographic portraits as stand alone works which I am keeping very limited, I see an opportunity to do something very special, very “Andy” – yo use Warhol’s own photo portraits as canvases for other leading artists to overlay their work on… Commercial Art as Andy Warhol saw it… Let’s not disappoint him.

LF: How fast do you live?

KB: Whether I like it or not life is moving fast for me right now! Part of that is just what it takes to be an artist – there are so many exciting creative opportunities being brought to me right now and the challenge is breathing and doing one project at a time. But I definitely believe in taking care of myself too. I do yoga, work out and I clear my energy with my Tibetan Healer, Dhargya Lobsang. I drink lots of green juice every day.

L’Agent Goodies…