There are thousands of perspectives – not just one – everywhere you look. Perspective doesn’t exist in nature. It is just a convention’, says David Hockney in a recent conversation with Lita Barrie (Barrie, 2015) speaking about his latest ‘photographic drawings’ exhibited in Los Angeles at the L.A. Louver Gallery in 2015.
They consist in digital collages of hundreds of photographs arranged in compositions that show every detail in close-up views, from multiple vantage points, in ever-shifting perspectives and taken at different moments of time, and though for these works he has been using new digital tools – an iPad and Photoshop – the artistic vision and concerns behind them are along the same line of his early experiments with the ‘joiners’ which were made up of hundreds of at first Polaroid and later 35mm prints back in the Eighties, like My mother, Bolton Abbey (1982) and Pearl Blossom Highway 2 (1986) (Wikipedia, 2016).
As Hockney charmingly recounts in his autobiography That’s the Way I See it (Hockney, 1993), in 1981 he had rather casually started to play with the Polaroid camera and was soon exploring its creative potential in a rich series of photocollages. He explains how his deep involvement with photography at that stage was strongly associated with his long-held interest in Picasso’s explorations of multiple points of view in his Cubist paintings and revolved around the concept of perspective and the nature of realism in art.
From reading his autobiography it seems in fact that Hockney’s engagement with the problems of realism in art and his dedication to create works that are truer than ‘reality’ as it is commonly understood have actually been at the very heart of his painting practice for decades now and also that his use of photographs has been mostly instrumental to his painting, rather than born out of an authentic interest in photography as an autonomous medium to explore. What always mattered to him is painting, not photography.
Hockney’s long-felt dissatisfaction with ‘naturalism and the depiction of naturalistic fixed-point perspective space’ had led him to concentrate on Picasso’s works early in his career and made him ‘realize fully that … there is no actual distortion in Picasso … that Picasso’s way [is] far more real than anything else’, and not only far more real, but also ‘far more vivid’. This is because in looking at Picasso’s Cubist paintings the viewer feels to be ‘inside the picture’ and can see ‘the back and the front at the same time’ and ‘slowly [the picture] then begins to look more and more real. In fact it is naturalism [based on the single-point perspective] that begins to look less and less real’ (Hockney, 1993: 101-2), and so unsatisfactorily limited.
But in his photocollages Hockney does not limit himself to use photography as a tool among others to obtain an enhanced and sharper sense of reality, in the wake of the Cubist lesson: in creating them, he wishes also to overcome what he considers ‘the limitations of photography’, seen by him as the ultimate product of the Renaissance invention of the single vanishing point perspective theories and consequently as ‘the end of something old, not the beginning of something new’ (Hockney, 1993: 124-5). According to this view, rather than being a faithful reproduction of life, a photograph, exactly as Western pictures based on single-point perspective, is a conventional construction and not a natural category (Edwards, 2006:91), and so basically an abstraction of reality. Speaking about Pearl Blossom Highway 2 (1986), Hockney said once that it is ‘a panoramic assault on Renaissance one-point perspective’ (Hockney, 1993:112).
Hockney aims to go beyond the frozen moment as fixed by the single photographic image and through the assemblage of hundreds of photographs taken at different times and from changing vantage points to create works that reproduce reality in a way that looks to him much closer to the human natural vision, which is binocular and not monocular as the ‘mechanical eye’ of the camera: ‘take one step and something hidden comes into view; take another and an object in the front now presses up against one in the distance’ (Shore, 2007:48). From Hockney’s approach, it would seem that he considers the distinctive features or ‘nature’ of photography as a medium – to use Shore’s words, the capacity to freeze an instant in time and to obtain a ‘slice through the world’ among others (Shore, 2007:64) – as a limitation, not as an opportunity to explore for what it offers, like other artists have done.
The effect Hockney is after is to build a reality that is truer than that offered by photography, with a touchable, immersive character. Besides being exercises in the exploration of the deep nature of place, his photocollages wish also to be viewed as explorations of how a place changes in time since being made up of hundreds of images taken in a succession of days they are able to create a narrative of that place as remarked by the artist: ‘I was using narrative for the first time, using a new dimension of time’ (Hockney, 1993:97).
I think that there is a certain implicit irony in the fact that Hockney, notwithstanding his views on photography dismissed as a useful but limited tool and not valued as a medium in its own right, creates a work as compelling as Pearl Blossom Highway 2 which could never have seen the light if not for photography: it is exactly by being a photographer almost against his will – he insists that his photocollages or ‘joiners’ are to be viewed as drawings, not photographs – that he brings the viewer inside the picture, makes his or her eyes move along it, slowly and sequentially absorb its many elements, one by one, as the eyes naturally focus on and off the different details, almost as if the viewer were physically walking or driving along the road represented in it.
Hockney’s position on photography seems to be part of the old and never resolved debate if photography can or cannot claim to be an independent form of art and, more specifically, in which relationship it stands to painting. His ‘way of seeing’ is that photography is born old, being the last expression of the single-point perspective of the Renaissance, and as such cannot be considered really innovative. To Hockney photographs can show only artificial fractions of reality – single moments, single frames – and not offer the complex vision that he is after of the innumerable changing positions in time and space perceivable by the human eye and brain (Gayford, 2011; Cashdan, 2010).
Barrie, Lita (2015) ‘David Hockney Interview: Review of Painting and Photography at L. A. Louver’ In: http://www.huffingtonpost [online] At: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lita-barrie/david-hockney-painting-an_b_7853808.html (Accessed 6/06/2017)
Cashdan, Marina (2010) ‘Into the Woods’ In: Blouinartinfo 31.03.2010 [online] At: http://www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/276547/into-the-woods (Accessed 06/06/2017)
Edwards, Steve (2006) Photography: A Very Short Introduction. [Kindle edition] From: Amazon.it (Accessed 06/06/2017)
Gayford, Martin (2011) ‘The Many Layers of David Hockney’ In: The Telegraph 23.09.2011 [online] At: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-features/8782275/The-many-layers-of-David-Hockney.html (Accessed 06/06/2017)
Hockney, David (1993) That’s the Way I See It. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.
Khan Academy. (n.d.). ‘David Hockney’s “Pearblossom Hwy”’. [online] In: http://www.khanacademy.org At: https://www.khanacademy.org/partner-content/getty-museum/getty-photographs-films/getty-photographs-photographers/v/david-hockney-pearblossom-hwy (Accessed 6/06/2017)
Shore, Stephen (2007) The Nature of Photographs. London, New York: Phaidon Press Ltd. Phaidon Press Inc.
The J. Paul Getty in Los Angeles. (n.d.). ‘Pearblossom Hwy., 11 – 18th April 1986, #2’ [online] At: http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/105374/david-hockney-pearblossom-hwy-11-18th-april-1986-2-british-april-11-18-1986/ (Accessed 06/06/2017)
Wikipedia. (2016). Article ‘David Hockney’. [online] At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Hockney (Accessed 6/06/2016)