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;…

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