Warhol captures paranoia of the not-yet-famous

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A rogue's gallery of iconic Sixties faces, filmed by Andy Warhol at the outset of their careers, is to be shown to the public for the first time.

Screen Tests, on display from tomorrow until 2 September at the ICA gallery, is a strange, hypnotic collection of not-yet-famous and never-to-be-famous people staring into Warhol's blank camera lens between 1963 and 1965 and wondering what their few minutes of fame would bring.

Dennis Hopper, baby-faced and clothed in hairy tweeds, narrows his eyes suspiciously at the camera, four years before he was to direct Easy Rider. Lou Reed, before the Velvet Underground was a dirty gleam in Warhol's eye, resembles a petulant, pouting young capuchin monkey in a Duane Eddy haircut, smoking like a beagle, listening to some internal riff and refusing to look into the camera. Allen Ginsberg, the WH Auden of the Beat poets, is bearded like Karl Marx and almost lost behind his sensible, black-framed spectacles.

Warhol made about 500 short films over a two-year year period at the Factory, the name he gave his dingy, Bacofoil-decorated, underground HQ at 47th Street in New York. He invited friends, lovers, distant associates and complete strangers to stand in front of a camera, in a silent parody of a Hollywood screen test. Each film was just four minutes long, and during the shooting the director declined to give the subjects any clue as to how they should behave.

As a result, they grow visibly nervous. Their cool carapaces begin to crack under the strain, and a more intimate register of feelings starts to emerge. The camera gradually takes on the role of interrogator and torturer.

"Sometimes he'd leave the room and just abandon them to the indifference of the lens," said the ICA's director, Philip Dodd.

"Nobody knew about the films for ages. The first ones were discovered 12 years ago. Since then, some have been cleaned and restored, and sometimes shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but some have never been seen in public before and none has been seen in Britain."

Some of the figures who stare in puzzlement at the viewer are still unidentified. Who is the Russian peasant woman with the wise, weather-beaten face? Who is the hairy scholar who patiently makes a cat's cradle out of string for the camera's inspection? Who is the gorgeous black model who plucks nervously at her sleeves, smoothes her skirt again and again, stands up, sits down and bites her fingernails? Whose is the baby?

Just as problematic are the halfway figures, the almost-celebrities from Warhol's entourage – like Billy Name, the reclusive photographer – whom Warhol declared to be "superstars" a little too early, and who crashed and burned shortly afterwards, or simply faded away.

Warhol's one authentic star, the fashion model Edie Sedgwick, can be seen in a 1965 screen test, before the drugs got to her – with shining eyes, dangling earrings and a sensible Hermes scarf. Only the scar above her nose suggests how troubled her life would become. In a room next door, Warhol's film Outer and Inner Space features four versions of Edie talking incessantly.

The rest of the faces in Screen Tests, caught in their brief, monochrome purgatory, look like animated police mugshots of people arrested for a common crime – a frenzy for renown.

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