David Hockney: A Challenge

By Michael Thomas

Thus speaks our subject-author, the artist and born-again photographer:
“Today people don’t draw that much. They use the camera. My point is, that they’re not truly, perhaps, expressing what it was they were looking at… to share this experience to make it vivid to someone else.” (My italics)

It seems an endless, cyclical argument to make in the way of discussing artistic expression by comparing artist to photographer. Yet David Hockney has for that very reason discovered, or should I say, re-discovered, the artistic significance of photography as a valid art form.

Hockney began using photographs as a means to study layouts for paintings in 1972. Since then he has produced over 120 volumes of studies, and recorded countless photographic works. Yet throughout such an intensive and ongoing process Hockney has seemed to uncover more than just a wonderful photographic collection of personal worth. He has in fact brought the photographer a challenge worth considering. It was impossible for Hockney to merely shoot one photograph of a particular subject. He felt untrue to his intentions in that subjects would become less real than his memory to paint them would require. Perspectives seemed incorrect and the artistic vision of reality was thus incomplete. Hockney’s explanations seemed to pinpoint, a list of modern photographic concerns facing both aesthetic and technical issues, one of which is that the time experienced through the lens during conception never equaled the same time within the final print. The more time spent to make the photograph the more time it would express.

Hockney’s final works are photographs of different views combined to make one composition that comes as close to the ideas within his paintings as possible. In some instances as many as 187 separate photographs are combined to produce one work. The result of such an artistic emotion not only brings the viewer closer to the actual subject or event through a forced examination, but provides he/she with an actual view into the artist’s personal life as well. I feel confident in saying that, if nothing else, the plates of photographs within this book clearly speak for themselves. Not only is the book a challenge to a new way of seeing within this medium, but a challenge to include the viewer as a challenge to include the viewer as a participant within the final step of an artistic process.

Clearly, after reading the text one also feels an unfinished quality to Hockney’s ongoing fervor. The final plate of the book, #177, reinforces that idea by presenting both drawing and photograph together within one composition. Hopefully this is a clue to future work.

Following the final plate is a full two-page spread of color negatives. In an almost personal way Hockney seems to include these in order to reinforce the idea that his photography is primary used as a tool. Yet I would highly recommend the examination of each plate along with careful consideration of the text to anyone concerned about the future of modern photography.