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He Aims to Please

David Hockney Photographs

by David Hockney
Petersburg Press, 118 pp., $30.00

David Hockney
David Hockney; drawing by David Levine

When David Hockney showed his photographs for the first time, at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York in 1976, the striking thing was that they had what his paintings, drawings, and prints lacked—the light and texture of the real world. His subjects were the same as those in his canvases and graphic work: a nude boy with a beautiful body, seen from the rear, in a bathroom; a couple of good-looking Panama hats, placed, along with an afternoon tea service, on wicker chairs; the entrance to a Mediterranean beach, caught at a hazy and fragrant moment, probably after the day’s activities are over. The surprise and pleasure of the show came from seeing the actual bodies, objects, and places that, in so much of his other work, led such a juiceless, tepidly stylized existence.

The photographs left a mellow memory on their own, too. By the standards of other photographers (and of most other painters whose photographs are known to the public), Hockney’s photos, all of which were in color, were old-fashioned and unexperimental. It was clear that he didn’t like to play with light—he wanted only sufficient light for his immediate needs—and so his pictures had a toasted, golden tonality, a kind of Kodak glow, and a lack of crisp, stark definitions. In appearance, his elegantly composed photos weren’t so different from those an advertising firm would use to make us want to run off to some corner of Europe (or, in the case of the nudes, to buy a cologne). Yet these mild, even commercial factors combined to make the pictures refreshing. Hockney’s seeming lack of interest in the art of photography, combined with the fact that his subjects clearly absorbed him regardless of whether or not he caught them with a camera, gave his photos a distinct place in the field of recent photography. His smooth and friendly snaps, it seemed, might even be able to hold their own next to the work of photojournalists and art photographers; in that company, his photos might stand up in the same way that paintings by some naive artists hold their own alongside the canvases of trained painters.

In 1982 Hockney showed his more recent photographs, which were Polaroids, at the André Emmerich Gallery in New York, and while this show didn’t make as vivid an impression as the first, it led some people, especially those who find his worldwide fame a livelier topic than his art, to believe that his photographs were his most solid work. I thought so, too, and looked forward to seeing more. Yet the experience of seeing David Hockney Photographs, the first formal, book-length collection of this work, based on an exhibition organized by Alain Sayag at the Musée National d’Art. Moderne in Paris in the summer of 1982, was like that of being flattened out by feathers. It’s not that inconsequential pictures have been chosen; while nothing from the 1976 or 1982 exhibitions has been reprinted, the pictures that are here are of similar subjects and have the same soft light and elegant appearance. It’s that close looking at a good number of Hockney’s photos (or, I believe, at a good number of his pieces in any medium) takes the viewer outside the realm of anything imaginative.

Hockney himself seems to know this. “I may be one of those people,” he remarks in the introduction,

who in the end will say, “the only good things I ever did were all those photos, all the other stuff is junk, or pointless.” This has occurred to me once or twice. For instance, Cecil Beaton thought of himself as a photographer and as a stage designer but I think that in the end the best work he did was his diary…it is more unique, more original, and I think he will be remembered more often because of it.

Spending time with Hockney’s photographs, I was taken down to this resigned state; I was left with the belief that his photos are his “best work” because they make the man a shade more real.

David Hockney Photographs reflects the painter’s uncertainty about the worth of his photos. This book has the heft of an overproduced souvenir rather than that of a full-scale presentation. It reproduces enough work, though, in almost a hundred plates, some of which are made up of many separate photographs, to give a sense of his range in this medium. And it includes a long introduction by him which picks up where David Hockney by David Hockney, his profusely illustrated autobiography, left off. (The autobiography, made up of over twenty-five hours of taped conversations with Nikos Stangos, who edited them for book form, has the length of a novel and reads like one. Published in 1976 in a run of over fifty thousand copies and reprinted in 1980, it is becoming scarce in its second printing, an accomplishment for an expensive art book.) As a conversationalist, Hockney is almost in the same league as Andy Warhol and Alex Katz. He isn’t as funny (or as theatrically and relentlessly naive) as Warhol, and he doesn’t come out with the show-stopping opinions about talent and success and failure that make interviews with Katz so startling and enjoyable. Hockney isn’t as taunting as either of the Americans, but he has something of their humorous frankness, and, like them, he wants to reach the widest possible audience. He enjoys sharing the details of his life and work habits, and while he doesn’t draw many conclusions from those details, he gives them a taut simplicity—a slight twist. He always has the shape of his entire career on tap.

In the text for David Hockney Photographs, which was put together from taped conversations with Sayag—and edited by Raymond Foye and David Robbins—he tells about what he was feeling when he made the shots and about the business of photography in general. And most of the pictures, the majority of which are in color, have an instant, picturesque appeal. Two of the most attractive, “Gregory asleep in the train from Glyndebourne” and “Dover England,” a view out to the Channel through the door of a dimly lit, empty ferry station, aren’t the work of a sensibility that can be pinned down—a mind you believe you can enter—but the images create a pleased, anticipatory mood, the way travelogue shots in movies can. There’s an ingenious image-within-an-image-within-an-image picture called “Tourists, China,” where Hockney and five other people, most of whom are grinning, are seen peering into a mirror that is part of a beautiful yellow and blue sign, which also happens to be a billboard for snapshots taken by other tourists.

And there is a witty unit of twentyfour SX-70 Polaroids called “Ian + me watching a Fred Astaire movie on television, Los Angeles.” In a jumpy but easily read sequence, Hockney places, in no clear-cut order, shots of Ian’s smiling and engaged face; a pack of Marlboros on a table; scenes from the movie; shots of the TV itself; tight chinos; a fireplace; the dark room; Ian’s white socks; an ashtray; a bulging crotch; and flames, seen through a metal fire screen. Hockney casually creates a picture short story that neatly sums up the cozy excitement of a stay-at-home date.

Hockney says of the picture of Gregory, where he is asleep on the train, that “I thought he looked very handsome and suddenly saw him in a slightly different way…he is more there, he is more the person,” and we agree. That’s what draws us to the picture. Though it isn’t a sloppily composed photograph, there is a rumpled quality about the lighting and about Gregory’s body and face that make us feel we know him a little more than we know the people in most of Hockney’s other photographs and in practically all of his paintings and drawings.

In the handful of photos he has included of his parents, especially of his father, Hockney goes further. There are only three pictures of Kenneth Hockney, and his face is seen in only one of them, but he is the sole person in this collection, other than the artist himself, we have distinct feelings about. In the photograph where his face is visible, he’s smiling and happy, looking away from the camera. Dressed in a tie and jacket, his arms folded into each other, he sits before the packed, neatly messy shelves of his workshop at home. In a photo that is only of his effects, we see his bedside table at St. Luke’s Hospital in Bradford, England (where the family is from). This is the only still life I have ever seen by Hockney, in any medium, where the objects are arresting in themselves and pull the viewer into their own world. We see, placed on top of a laminated pale-blond table with heavy-duty plastic edging, a watch, a glass of water, and a white denture case marked BEST DENTURES. Standing along with these things, keeping guard over them almost, is an illustrated announcement card from one of David Hockney’s exhibitions. (Hockney says that what the “best dentures” case implies is so: his father had other cases marked “next best dentures,” “good dentures,” “not very good dentures,” and “not bad dentures.”)

The strongest image of the three is “My Father photographing a sign, Paris 1974,” where we see a man with his back to us, facing the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, which happens to be having a David Hockney exhibition. If the photo weren’t titled at the bottom—Hockney titles and dates all his photographs at the bottom—this would be a moderately striking and mysterious picture of a man in a slight crouch, wearing a hat, standing beside a parking meter whose silhouette somewhat echoes his own. With the title, though, the picture takes on a spooky charm. It has the quality of a dream you might have where you’re the lead in a school play, your parents are in the audience, and, while you stay on stage, part of you magically gets to go and sit next to your parents and watch them looking at you. It’s a dream that leaves you depleted, perhaps because it catches that snapped-apart moment when you become emotionally bigger and older than your parents, but it’s one you are glad you had, because it marks a moment in your education of yourself, a more real moment than most that come through formal education.

“My Father photographing a sign” held me because it seems to contain the emotional basis of Hockney’s approach to everything. On some level, he always plays the omniscient but vacuous role he has here: that of a mild, impassive master of ceremonies, a watcher of people from the rear. It is as if his chief awareness of things is the freeing yet forlorn one of always having been above and beyond his parents, or at least his father. There is something almost embarrassing about Hockney’s father in these few images; he seems exposed, juvenile, weak. It is a perverse measure of how strongly Hockney creates his own bland and impersonal mood that when someone with a bit of enthusiasm appears in his pictures we draw back, and feel that person’s spiritedness as a kind of weakness. Once you see Kenneth Hockney and feel his wizened, satisfied, and bustling presence, you become aware of how pacified and characterless all of Hockney’s other subjects have been made, though most of them are his close friends and work associates.

In the suite of photographs he showed at the Sonnabend Gallery, his father steals the show, too. In a picture of his parents standing on the steps of a house in Bradford, Laura Hockney, the possessor of a face of great firmness and dignity, looks off and away. His father, though, planted on the steps and facing the camera head-on, is grinning, playing for his son, pointing what looks like a Brownie at him. Hockney says that his father liked to make paintings of Laurel and Hardy, and there is something of Stan Laurel in Kenneth Hockney here; he is a physically bulkier and more prepossessing version of the movie comedian.

There is a gap between what Hockney gives us and what he feels about it. Whether in his comments about his life or his work, he presents a land of childlike prettinesses, but he himself doesn’t see as a child—though perhaps it might be said that he sees as a very neat, careful child, a child on permanent good behavior. Looking at the stiff, doll-like figures of his paintings and prints (which might be taken as a parody of a child’s point of view), you may feel that he uses a childlike way of seeing because he never experienced being a child, and that he has continually sought to make an art of childlike simplicities to make up for what he feels he missed. Hockney himself, as an artist, seems quite old, even aged—as a draftsman and painter, he has the touch of someone whose hand shakes ever so slightly. Expressively, he has the stinginess of an aged person, too, someone who gives us only so much and no more.

One of the reasons people are drawn to him is his honesty. He doesn’t mince around about his homosexuality, in his art or in his various autobiographical writings, and he doesn’t camouflage his desire to be situated in sunny, foreign climes. He takes material that has a chichi, exclusive edge to it and lets us like it in the way he does. His readers and the viewers of his photos, paintings, and graphics know exactly the pleasures he is after, and travel with him, jumping in this little car or getting on that old train, going from one site to another. We feel comfortable with him, as if he were our Mum and our Dad in one guy.

We drive with him into a little town somewhere in France and see a small building that has lovely proportions and stands off by itself, almost waiting for our eyes. We sit for hours at the Café de Flore in Paris, watching everybody go by. We spend an afternoon in the amusingly ornate lobby of a nineteenth-century German spa, writing letters and absorbing the pleasantly frayed atmosphere. We check into a hotel in Marrakech, and, as we walk out on our terrace, encounter the fading light and faraway noises of the early evening. We work all day in a studio in a sleepy part of Los Angeles and then, when our friend comes home, go to a neighborhood bar before dinner, and then, after dinner, return home and read and watch TV. There is such a nugget-clear moment in this text, when he talks about a trip he made with Peter Schlesinger, who is the subject of many of the photographs: “In the winter of 1968 Peter and I took the Orient Express to Munich, to see a show of mine. I remember one morning when we were both on the bottom bed, we opened the curtains, and it was snowing. It was fantastic to lie in a little couch with a nice warm body next to you, gazing out the window at the cute little Bavarian villages half hidden under the snow. It’s a wonderful way to travel.”

Hockney’s world isn’t exotically different—it comprises very graspable, pleasant moments all of us have had or can easily imagine having. This is why, I think, even if you’re certain you have had your fill of him, you still keep a tiny desire to go to his exhibitions of new paintings, or to see his new sets for an opera, or to flip through this book of photographs.* The colors of his palette are always mixed to give us the sensation we have when, say, we walk on a plane bound for somewhere and, for an instant, we’re hit with the thought that brand-new, tasty pleasures lie in our path. Hockney is our foremost painter of that instant of holiday freedom.

And yet he never makes that holiday freedom into anything more than a little artificial flash in the mind. For someone whose material is so often the pleasure of bodies and the charge of foreign places, and who thrives on many kinds of older art, his own art ought to be sensuous, but it isn’t. Formally, it has a chalky dryness. (His pictures spell out his freedom about his own homosexuality, but if, in his use of materials, he conveyed anything of the rounded firmness or wetness or hairiness of any sexuality, neither the homosexual nor the heterosexual side of his large audience might be so comfortable with him.) There is a matte quality to Hockney’s vision. It’s there when he talks and it is in his art. Whether he paints in acrylics or in oils, he gives surfaces the unglistening, unluminous finish of gouache or of the bright water-based paint kids use in school. His pen-and-ink line drawings are inert in another way: they appear to be careful tracings of existing images. Nor are there patches in his paintings, photographs, or graphics where the viewer wonders, “What is he thinking of?”

Reading Hockney’s autobiography and his text for this photography book, you’re struck and surprised by his devotion to the craft of picture making. He doesn’t show off his learning, he doesn’t make craft into a mystery that we will never understand. He does the opposite: he informally and invitingly draws his reader into the sometimes purely technical, sometimes only logistical, processes whereby his paintings, photographs, and prints are made. He presents those processes as things that he finds himself having to learn but that he will never be a true master at. When he says, “I don’t really know too much about exposures,” the reader believes him and likes Hockney’s combination of modesty, flippancy, and indifference because the reader knows it’s accompanied by a willingness on Hockney’s part to learn about exposures if and when it becomes important for a specific problem. But he sees his paintings, prints, and work for the stage too much in terms of the different skills needed for the various jobs. Some vital impulse gets snuffed out in his keeping himself in a state of constant apprenticeship.

In the photography book, Hockney relates an exchange that inadvertently comments on his perception of art as a series of tasks. It’s 1973 and he has gone to see the portraits of himself and Henry Geldzahler that Andy Warhol has done. Hockney doesn’t say what he thought about his portrait, but tells us that “Henry didn’t like his—he told Andy that he’d left something out. And Andy said, What? Henry said, You left the art out. And Andy replied, Oh, I knew I forgot something.” Hockney never leaves out the art. That is, he never forgets to be artful—but the real stuff is missing.

In the past few years, his itch to find, and then surmount, obstacles has spread to photography. Using an SX-70 Polaroid camera, he has been producing large composite works, sometimes made up of over a hundred separate shots, that show the subject, be it a person or a fountain, from many slightly different distances and angles. These were the type of pictures exhibited at the André Emmerich Gallery in 1982, and a handful have been included in David Hockney Photographs. Hockney has Cubism in mind, and the pictures do have the buzzing busyness of a Cubist image, where each little facet seems to angle in on the still life or the model in its own independent way. Hockney’s fascination with the Cubist period and with Picasso in particular was one of the underlying strands of his autobiography, and it has grown since 1976. It has almost become a sub-theme of his art (as a romance with Picasso, Braque, Gertrude Stein, and the last golden era of Parisian life was once a continuing inspiration for Red Grooms). Hockney’s wish to pay homage to things French—and to Picasso especially—was the strongest emotion left by Parade, the Metropolitan Opera’s three-part “Evening of French Music Theatre,” for which Hockney provided the sets and costumes and, apparently, along with Manuel Rosenthal and John Dexter, the overriding conception.

For some people, Hockney’s recent multiple-viewpoint Polaroids are his most satisfyingly complete works, and he says that he has been greatly stimulated by them. They have made him think about photography as something more than a way to record the details of his daily life, and given him new ideas for his painting. Yet they don’t deliver more than his straight, one-shot photographs. Once you have put yourself through the endless number of subtly different positions that Hockney must put himself through to get these cubified reworkings of reality, the idea loses its novelty, and it isn’t replaced by anything. The technique is no more than that, a technique.

In some way, this head-with-a-hundred-eyes view is less related to Cubism than to a certain distinctly English kind of scrappy, helter-skelter lyricism. The composite photos have the amusingly complicated appearance and rhythms—and less complicated underlying content—of Joan Littlewood’s movie Sparrows Can’t Sing, the Beatles’ movies, or John Lennon’s books. The difference, though, is that Hockney’s spirit doesn’t mesh with such a larky approach. Unlike Littlewood or Lennon, he doesn’t have the satirical energy of a passionately larky creator. These very handsome photo arrangements don’t leave us with the feeling that Hockney (or anybody) sees reality this way. We’re left only with another, if more polished and novel, aspect of Hockney’s artfulness.

For me, the most commanding and vibrant picture in David Hockney Photographs is a black-and-white shot that the painter made of himself in a photo booth in Berlin in 1962, when he was twenty-five. He isn’t wearing eyeglasses, which, especially when he dons his oversize, goggle ones, make him appear forbidding and a little ineffectual. Hockney’s specs negate the flamboyant message of his bleached-blond hair. They lend a note of the hesitant schoolboy—of the asthmatic Piggy, say, in Lord of the Flies—to his makeup. Without them, he hardly resembles David Hockney. Clothed in a striped blazer and a striped shirt, and with a cigarette sticking out of his mouth, straight at the camera, he exudes a bullying confidence that is different, too. With the photo-booth flash making his thrusting, square-jawed face look bleached out, and with that face topped by a crudely but stylishly close-cropped blond-white thatch of hair he has the menacing giddiness of a Soviet sailor revving up for a weekend’s leave in a foreign port.

The photo-booth picture isn’t a Hockney, of course. Yet this document has been subtly Hocknified. Entitled “Machine photograph rephotographed,” it has no doubt been enlarged from the original, and the date and “Berlin” have been written on the top in pen and ink. Hockney has also added his name in pen and ink, in large, slightly wobbly and baggy capital letters that walk up one shoulder and down the other, like a string of elephants from a Babar book. Taken together, his additions and the photo itself form a work of art; closer to being a densely packed novel than a picture, it tells a story whose protagonist is David Hockney and whose overriding emotion is bravado blunted.

There is a sturdiness in Hockney. It isn’t felt in his individual pieces, many of which are airy to the point of barely being there at all. Yet the mass of his work leaves the impression of a willed industriousness—one that, however, bestows on each piece, be it a photograph, a design for a set, a painting, or a lithograph, only the lightest bit of itself. In the photo-booth picture, Hockney’s strength is evident as it never is in his own art. It’s a relief to be hit by the icebreaker force of this image; its lurching power is the antithesis of the too-nicely removed, compositionally well-adjusted distance from which he makes us see the figures in so many of his pictures (and which makes those figures maddeningly unreachable).

The photo-booth picture shows the renegade and the powerhouse that are missing from his art. And it catches him in the act, as it were, of undermining his brutishness with the charmingly animated and docile lettering. Hockney, it seems, can’t help dressing up the image with his name, and when he thinks of us looking at his name his chief desire is that we will love him immediately. His lettering says, in effect, “Take me home.” If he hadn’t drawn his name on the picture this way, the photo might pass as an actual mug shot. Adorned with the lettering, the image shows someone who has made himself a prisoner of his own desire to please.

  1. *

    Or to pick up the recent China Diary (Abrams, 1982), Stephen Spender’s account of a three-week trip taken with Hockney and Gregory Evans in the spring of 1981. Hockney, the co-author, is responsible for nearly all the many color and black-and-white shots and the fewer watercolors, brush drawings, and crayon sketches.