orn on July 9, 1937 in Bradford, Yorkshire, England, David Hockney is considered one of the most influential British artists of the twentieth century. The most highly publicized British artist since the Second World War, he is best known for the pictorial production that rapresent the main field of his artistic activity (besides his publicly acknowledged homosexuality), but he has always been interested in the full spectrum of the arts as a a painter, draughtsman, printmaker, stage designer and photographer: “I’m interested in all kinds of pictures, however they are made, with cameras, with paint brushes, with computers, with anything,” said Hockney. “All of them are artifice – technology alters the way you make pictures.” In keeping with his philosophy, he has used faxes, laser prints, and color copies to create his signature intense colors. The shifts in color that occur in reproduction have also been an important aspect of his work. His artistic production has consistently examined the relationship between image and reality, space and perspective.
Hockney’s relationship with photography started at a young age. Watching Laurel & Hardy films as a child, he noticed that the Californian light created a distinctive tone in the quality of American films. He began to experiment with groundbreaking techniques in the 1970s, creating his first photo collages, and retourned to this technique till the 1980’s: in these years (1982-87) 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 photocollages, compiling a ‘complete’ picture from a series of individually photographed details. Because the photographs were taken from different perspectives and at slightly different times, the result is work that has an affinity with Cubism, which was one of Hockney’s major aim – discussing the way human vision works. These collages, he used to call “joiners”, have different subject from portraits to still life, and from representational to abstract styles.
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. 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 as a preparatory work, 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.
Hockney reflected extensively on this process as connecting to the Cubist sense of multiple angles and especially of movement. These “multiples” convey a strong sense of movement, Hockney argued, in that you the viewer keep adjusting your imagined viewpoint as your eye travels from print to print. And of course by this means you can build up a single image that is many times wider in angle of view than the camera lens (the viewing angle of a standard 55mm lens for a 35mm format camera is about 45 degrees. Wide angle lenses increase the angle of view to about 75 degrees without obvious distortion, but the human angle of view, with eye movement, is about 180 degrees.)
“All you can do with most ordinary photographs is stare at them – they stare back, blankly – and presently your concentration begins to fade. They stare you down. I mean, photography is all right if you don’t mind looking at the world from the point of view of a paralysed cyclops – for a split second.” Otherwise, about his collage technique, Hockney said: “I realized that this sort of picture came closer to how we actually see, which is to say, not all-at-once but rather in discrete, separate glimpses which we then build up into our continuous experience of the world.”
The earlier works of this 5 year period are experimental, Hockney is exploring the medium, and perfecting his technical ability. As the complexity of the joiners increased, he moved to using a Pentax 110, this allowed him to hugely increase the complexity of the pieces. His longest Polaroid joiner took 5 hours to complete, his longest Pentax joiner took 8 days of photography alone. His later works demonstrate his mastery of the medium, and he begins to use the technique for artistic effect; this can most notably be seen in Pearblossom Highway (1986), Place Furstenberg, Paris (1985) and Interior, Pembroke Studios (1986). The last of these was his last large scale joiner.
According to Cubism’s principles, Hockney’s works introduce three artistic elements which a single photograph cannot have, namely layered time, space and narrative. The first two of these are central Cubist themes. Hockney points out that a single photo expresses a single instant, and so cannot represent time or narrative: “Cubism was total-vision: it was about two eyes and the way we see things. Photography had the flaw of being one-eyed… My joke was that all ordinary photographs are taken by a one-eyed frozen man!”…”Most photographers think that the rules of perspective are built into the very nature of photography, that it is not possible to change it at all. For me, it was a long process realizing that this does not have to be the case.”
As well as narrative, there is layered time, this is similar to narrative, but a bit subtler. A good example of layered time is in Gregory and Shinro (1982), which depicts two friends chatting. Since the friends are continually moving and talking, and there is a space of time between each photo, the whole conversation is present in the joiner, but it is presented at once rather than sequentially (as in a film). This gives rise to a very interesting effect.
Finally, there is the spatial aspect to Hockney’s joiners, which ties in to Hockney’s feelings about the objectivity of the image. He firmly believed that there was no such thing as objective vision, too much subjectivity is impressed upon any image by the viewer. He explores this theme in Pearblossom Highway (1986), in which the left side of the picture consists of scenic elements, and the right side consists of road elements, corresponding to the fact that the passenger seat is on the left and the passenger enjoys the view, and the driving seat is on the right and the driver looks at signs, etc. Another example of the subjectivity is his use of reverse perspective. A good example is The Desk (1984) which consists of a desk in reverse perspective (reverse perspective means that things get smaller as they get closer, one of the interesting aspects of reverse perspective is that it enables you to see 3 sides of a cube, which is very useful to Hockney. The use of reverse perspective – which is surprising to a Westerner – is in fact very old, many pre-Renaissance and Japanese paintings have reverse perspective, as it allows you to see more of a scene).
When making his photocollage of Pearblossom Highway, David Hockney positioned himself closer to or more distant from his subjects, choosing which elements in the scene should be large and which should be small. By reassembling views from multiple perspectives, he applied ideas borrowed from Cubist painting to produce a rich, compound image that he considers “a panoramic assault on Renaissance one-point perspective.”
‘Pearblossom Highway’ shows a crossroads in a very wide open space, which you only get a sense of in the western United States. “[The] picture was not just about a crossroads, but about us driving around. I’d had three days of driving and being the passenger. The driver and the passenger see the road in different ways. When you drive you read all the road signs, but when you’re the passenger, you don’t, you can decide to look where you want. And the picture dealt with that: on the right-hand side of the road it’s as if you’re the driver, reading traffic signs to tell you what to do and so on, and on the left-hand side it’s as if you’re a passenger going along the road more slowly, looking all around. So the picture is about driving without the car being in it”.
At the end of the 1980’s Hockley left photography to go back to his main passion, painting, but he continued to explore contiguous territories; after working with master printer Ken Tyler in the 1980s on making etchings and lithographs, in 1986 Hockney explored ways of creating work with colour photocopiers. “The works I did with the copying machine … were not reproductions,” he said later, “they were very complex prints”. Subject to the same curiosity about new technical methods, he began to experiment with the fax machine, and in 1989 even sent work for the Sao Paulo Biennale to Brazil via the telephone line. Experiments using computers followed, composing images and colours on the screen and having them printed directly from the computer disk without preliminary proofing. From the 1990′s, Hockney has continued to work on a variety of paintings, photographic and digital work, as well as opera productions. Since 2009, Hockney has made drawings using the Brushes iPhone application: “It’s always there in my pocket, there’s no thrashing about, scrambling for the right color. One can set to work immediately, there’s this wonderful impromptu quality, this freshness, to the activity; and when it’s over, best of all, there’s no mess, no clean-up. You just turn off the machine. Or, even better, you hit Send, and your little cohort of friends around the world gets to experience a similar immediacy. There’s something, finally, very intimate about the whole process” (for more about this, and his ideas about digital-art, look at the interessing “Current” section of his web-site). Lately, he has very happily shifted to the larger screen of iPad.