‘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.
Hockney had long felt dissatisfied with ‘naturalism and the depiction of naturalistic fixed-point perspective space’ and on carefully studying Picasso’s works he had in time come ‘to realize fully that, contrary to what some people may think, there is no actual distortion in Picasso … that Picasso’s way was far more real than anything else’, and not only far more real, but also ‘far more vivid’. And this is so because in looking at Picasso’s Cubist paintings the viewer feels to be ‘inside the picture’ since he or she 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.
From reading his autobiography it seems 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 that his use of photographs has been mostly instrumental to his painting, rather than born out of an authentic interest in photography as a self-sufficient, autonomous medium.
To the contrary, Hockney’s photocollages have their artistic roots in his wish 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.
In this regard it may be enlightening to read Hockney’s words about the last of his photocollages Pearl Blossom Highway 2 (1986) that he considers ‘as a panoramic assault on Renaissance one-point perspective’ (Hockney, 1993:112).
In this like in other photocollages he wants 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 seems 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).
In so doing Hockney brings the viewer inside the picture, in a way that elaborates on Picasso’s Cubist vision, makes the viewer’s 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 of the picture, almost as if the viewer were physically walking or driving along the road represented in the picture. Speaking about Pearl Blossom Highway 2 in a video, Hockey interestingly says: ‘You’re looking down on the road, you’re looking up, you’re looking every direction … You are actually, literally close to something. You’re moving around in it’ (Khan Academy).
The effect the artist is after is an enhanced and sharper sense of reality, a reality that is truer than that offered by photography, with a touchable, immersive character that assimilates and develops the Cubist lesson. Besides being exercises in the exploration of the deep nature of place, Hockney’s photocollages can also be viewed as explorations of how a place changes in time since they are made up of hundreds of images taken in different days, and so they create together very complex narratives as the artist himself notices: ‘I was using narrative for the first time, using a new dimension of time’ (Hockney, 1993:97).
There is a certain implicit irony in the fact that a photocollage like Pearl Blossom Highway 2, developed out of the artist’s dissatisfaction with the very distinctive features of photography as a medium – the capacity to freeze an instant in time and to obtain a ‘slice through the world’ among others (Shore, 2007:64) – makes since 1997 part of the photography collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum (Getty Museum).
To Hockney what matters is painting, not photography, which to him is a tool among others to give voice to his vision of reality: he has repeatedly insisted that his photocollages are drawings, not photographs, which he thinks can show only artificial fractions of reality – single moments, single frames – while he is interested in complexity, in the innumerable changing positions in time and space that the human eye and brain can perceive (Gayford, 2011; Cashdan, 2010) in search of a deeper, vibrating human presence within the pictures.
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)
Wikipedia. (2016). Article ‘David Hockney’. [online] At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Hockney (Accessed 6/06/2016)
Hockney, David (1993) That’s the Way I See It. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.
Edwards, Steve (2006) Photography: A Very Short Introduction. [Kindle edition] From: Amazon.it (Accessed 06/06/2017)
Shore, Stephen (2007) The Nature of Photographs. London, New York: Phaidon Press Ltd. Phaidon Press Inc.
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)
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)
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)
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)