David Hockney, reaching the age of 80, is being celebrated in Los Angeles with exhibitions of his work. What is interesting is that much of his work on show, is either self portraits (mainly paintings) and his photographic work -his ‘joiners’ or photo collages.
Even though, Hockney himself, challenges photography in terms of being static and time bound, his legacy still seems to include photography as an important dimension of his growth and development as an artist.
What Hockney has been able to do is to move away from the single point in time – “When is the present? When did the past end and the present occur, and when does the future start? Ordinary photography has one way of seeing only, which is fixed, as if there is kind of an objective reality, which simply cannot be. Picasso…knew that every time you look there’s something different. There is so much there but we´re not seeing it, that’s the problem. – David Hockney
The installation above uses photography but in Hockney’s way.
John Berger led us into the worlds of seeing, particularly in art. David Hockney, through his practical exploration of ways of seeing takes us into new realms and perspectives on art.
Let us start with John Berger, from his own utterances:
“Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.”
“Soon after we can see, we are aware that we can also be seen. The eye of the other combines with our own eye to make it fully credible that we are part of the visible world.”
“The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight. “
“The invention of the camera changed the way men saw. The visible came to mean something different to them. This was immediately reflected in painting.”
These and other quotes are from his book “Ways of seeing”.
All photographs are there to remind us of what we forget. In this – as in other ways – they are the opposite of paintings. Paintings record what the painter remembers. (John Berger)Unlike any other visual image, a photograph is not a rendering, an imitation or an interpretation of its subject, but actually a trace of it. No painting or drawing, however naturalist, belongs to its subject in the way that a photograph does.
“What makes photography a strange invention is that its primary raw materials are light and time.”
and from his ground – breaking, Bafta award-winning series:
However, Hockney takes us further back, before the advent of photography, back to when artists used whatever technology was available , such as convex mirrors and prisms to get the ‘correct’ perspective on paper. Hockney’s love/hate relationship with technology, first to enhance his perspectives on seeing and then to jettison the technology so as to return to painting ensures his reverence for painting and reminding us about the limitations of such technology, particularly in photography.
He has used convex lenses, standard photography, polaroids (joiners), fax machines, iphones and ipads all to extend his own ways of seeing so as to represent these new ways in his painting.
Lets consider his polaroid ‘joiners’ :
One of Hockney’s concerns is that photography shows a moment in time whereas painting can show more than one moment in time.
He challenged his point by putting together a collage of polaroid images (in itself an instant image) and to show the passing of time (see the Bill Brandt’s different hand positions)
Noya and Bill Brandt with self-portrait, Pembroke Studios, London, 8th May 1982
As a deeply thoughtful painter, he uses photography to explore more perspectives, which seemed to culminate in his huge collage ‘ a bigger Grand Canyon “
“A Bigger Grand Canyon” 1998 oil on 60 canvases, David Hockney
Henry Allen from the Washington Post describes the paintings:
He creates this space with hardness and softness of edge. He combs one color over another. He lightens and darkens, juxtaposing flat and glossy; using every tool in the oil-painting shop manual, it seems. It’s been a while since a famous artist painted a landscape using this much technique. Landscape painters of the 19th century used the manual, too — Thomas Moran, Frederic Church — but they used it to enlighten us with the sublimity of wild nature. Hockney provides no mist-shrouded peaks with eagles. There’s no sublimity here, unless it’s in the space between all these buttes and edges. If the sublimity is in the space itself, of course, that means it lies in the parts of the painting where there isn’t anything at all. How unsettling.
Photography can unsettle, but the beauty of the paintings and how they are put together ensures that we have to keep looking and exploring as if we were there , looking in different directions at once.
Henry Allen describes how Hockney explored through polaroid and again move to his love of painting to ‘improve’ on his earlier artistic and cognitive explorations:
In 1982, Hockney stood in front of this same view with a camera, about an hour after dawn. Over the next 30 minutes, he took 60 color photographs, moving his camera along one shot at a time, trying to match the edges of each picture by memory, six rows of photographs that each captured one-sixtieth of the view.
Over the years, he kept reassembling them in collages, until, last year for a show in Cologne, he blew them up large enough to make an 18-foot picture. It didn’t work.
“The moment I saw it, I realized you didn’t feel it across the room,” he says. Only oil color would have the impact he wanted.
He set out to paint 60 canvases that would blend the photographs together, crank up the color, and retain the collage oddity that made the picture possible: 60-point perspective, one point for each panel.
Which is to say: Instead of looking toward one vanishing point, you’re looking at 60, staring at a picture that goes off in 60 slightly different directions at once.
and finally a description on how this evolved:
Across the hall are drawings that lay out the painting in parts and whole; also, two of the photo-collages. After you see the painting, the collages have all the vibrancy of a sun-faded magazine cover. In their jagged immediacy and busyness, though, they recall the thrill of the first Hockney photo-collages you saw years ago, a thrill that was partly the hope that progress in the arts wasn’t entirely dead, that one thing could still lead to another.
Then you look back across the hall at this tour de force fireworks finale, optical illusion, catechism of 20th-century isms and 24-foot parade float commemorating the history of oil painting and and you realize that the collages did lead to something: a painting that takes us all the way back to the Big Bang beginning.
Perhaps Hockney should have the last word:
Photography can’t lead us to a new way of seeing. It may have other possibilities, but only painting can extend the way of seeing.
David Hockney is a great painter,but he has also known fame through photography, although he does not mince his words when he says ‘Photography will never equal painting!’
Perhaps this is the wrong argument as they are different media and needn’t be compared.
However he does make judgemental comments about photography such as ‘Photography is only good for mechanical reproduction’. ‘Photography can’t show time’ and more… I’ve seen professional photographers shoot hundreds of pictures but they are all basically the same. They are hoping that in one fraction of a second something will make that face look as if there were a longer moment…If you take a hundred, surely one will be good. It could be anybody doing it…There are few good photographs, and those good ones that do exist are almost accidental.Photography has failed…How many truly memorable pictures are there? Considering the milllions of photographs taken, there are few memorable images in this medium, which should tell us something.Photography can’t lead us to a new way of seeing. It may have other possibilities but only painting can extend the way of seeing.
Perhaps Hockney has not succeeded with one image but his photo collages and photo montages – ‘Joiners’ = certainly caught the eye of the public in the 1980’s.
Hockney’s creation of the “joiners” occurred accidentally. He noticed in the late sixties that photographers were using cameras with wide-angle lenses to take pictures. He did not like such photographs because they always came out somewhat distorted. He was working on a painting of a living room and terrace in Los Angeles. He took Polaroid shots of the living room and glued them together, not intending for them to be a composition on their own. Upon looking at the final composition, he realized it created a narrative, as if the viewer was moving through the room. He began to work more and more with photography after this discovery and even stopped painting for a period of time to exclusively pursue this new style of photography. (ref Guardian) From 1982 Hockney explored the use of the camera, making composite images of Polaroid photographs arranged in a rectangular grid. Later he used regular 35-millimetre prints to create photo collages, compiling a ‘complete’ picture from a series of individually photographed details.
The main obstacle Hockney thinks he has overcome is the limited perspective of a stationary camera. A single photograph can only show one point of view, usually for a small period of time. “All photographs share the same flaw,” he says. “Lack of time.” He then goes on to trace photography’s misguided view back hundreds of years to the Renaissance and invention of the Camera Obscura.
Cubism helped to topple the single perspective in the hand-arts, but with photography it still exists. The idea behind Hockney’s grids was to inject multiple reference points into photography, in short to make it cubist.
With a new exhibition of Hockney’s work in the Royal Academy -A Bigger Picture which focuses more on his painting, for obvious reasons it is worth looking at his ‘inferior’ artwork of photography:
And the very well known ‘Pearl Bllossom Highway”
and for more on this one..
A portrait of Hockney’s early art dealer friends John Kasmin..
and for a change, one in black and white…
More exploration of composition..
and a portrait of friend, artist and art dealer Nick Wilder