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He Aims to Please

David Hockney Photographs

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

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.

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