Ralph Steadman is best known as the artist who realized the gonzo vision of Hunter S. Thompson in illustrations for the latter’s books and articles (and more recently, perhaps, for the labels on Colorado’s Flying Dog brew). His work has famously appeared over the past several decades in Punch, Private Eye, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and he produced a brilliantly illustrated edition of Alice in Wonderland. Like his friend Gerald Scarfe, another wickedly satirical cartoonist who created the look of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Steadman has made significant contributions to the look of the counterculture.
But while Steadman’s work with Hunter Thompson may largely define his career, another notable collaboration with a literary figure, William S. Burroughs, also proved fruitful many years later. In 1995, Steadman brought together his own illustrations with Burroughs love of guns, asking the octogenarian writer to blast holes in original Steadman creations.
Some of these paintings feature the Polaroid portraits of Burroughs above and at the top of the post (see a resulting Steadman/Burroughs silkscreen print, with gunshot holes, here). Just above, you can see Steadman taking the photos. First, he makes some test shots with an assistant, then, at 2:50, we see him with Burroughs and an entourage. As The Independent described the meeting at Burroughs’ house in Lawrence, Kansas, it was something of a “contrived event,” with “swarms of assistants” and “acolytes” in attendance, “taping the whole thing on video.”
Luckily for us, I’d say. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have video from later in the day, when the group drove “out to Burrough’s friends place outside town, where he does his shooting.” Once there, “Burroughs, Steadman and his wife Anna and Burroughs’ entourage take turns blazing away with .33s, .45s, pump-action shotguns and Saturday-night specials at a variety of targets,” including Steadman’s art. That would be something to see. We’ll have to settle for the art itself, and Steadman’s fascinating demonstration below of his approach to portraiture.