Questions about seeing and looking.


We recently visited Salts Mill at Saltaire in West Yorkshire, which is more than anything else a showcase for the work of David Hockney, described by some as “the world’s most popular living painter”. Perhaps to my shame, this was the first time that I had looked with any care at his work, and in many ways I enjoyed it greatly. He has embraced technology in an interesting way, declaring himself revitalised by the use of both iPhone and iPad as media for making, and indeed distributing art. Currently the centrepiece of his gallery at Salts is the huge triptych entitled (wonderfully!) “The Twenty Five Trees Between Bridlington School and Morrison’s Supermarket on Bessingby Road, in the Semi-Egyptian Style, 2009”; which apparently consists of 42 photographic images. I don’t suppose there’s a connection there with the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” which proposes the answer to the question about the world, the universe and everything as 42?

In the course of the visit I bought a copy of “A Bigger Message”, subtitled “conversations with David Hockney” by Martin Gayford. DH is a man of opinions clearly, and many of them very interesting and constructively provocative, so it’s a good read, and to be re-visited.

I’m intrigued by his relationship to photography, which he uses as a tool, but with reservations and a clear sense of its limitations. Thus: (p.47) “Most people feel that the world looks like the photograph. I’ve always assumed that the photograph is nearly right, but that little bit by which it misses makes it miss by a mile. That is what I grope at.” This in the course of (as Gayford puts it) searching “for ways of depicting the world that are different from the way a camera lens sees it.”

If I’m understanding this correctly, the difficulty Hockney has with the camera (and presumably with the photographer as artist) has to do with a way of seeing and looking, and in particular with the speed and intensity of that process. So (Gayford p.115) he objects to “the photograph which, by its nature contains a mere instant of time, and a single point of view.” So photography can be a tool for the artist, but mostly in Hockney’s work in collages which he describes as drawings, because he is then making decisions in a way parallel to the decisions involved in using a pencil. (p 116). He then goes on to be frankly rather disparaging about photography as an art form, describing it as “coming to an end” and “crumbling” (p118), at least in part because of the growth of digital techniques, citing the polishing and retouching used in magazines such as “Hello or OK” (p.119). I’m not at all sure why these should be seen as exemplifying photography as a whole!

There is an obvious sense in which an artist who works with pencil or brush looks longer and with more intensity, and perhaps more care at the subject. The process is longer, and the manual skills involved more demanding. I guess that in one strand of painting / drawing that extended concentration is in the cause of the accuracy and detail which, within technical limitations, the camera will capture with relative ease. I’m not sure though that “mere” accuracy and detail are what flows from Hockney’s seeing and looking when he paints, draws or makes collages. Is he not reflecting on and interpreting what he sees? Obviously (and positively and creatively – there’s no implied criticism in this, just an attempt to understand the process) the result is subjective, the fruit of his imagination and intellect as well as of his looking and seeing.

Might not photographers lay claim to at least a little of that? I do recognise (and see in my own photographic experience), the less than subtle temptation in digital image making to “blast away” I recently visited Leeds in search of two contrasting images for the OCA assignment. I had several possibilities in mind, and came home with about 50 images, and to my shame, discovered that almost half of those had been made with the camera settings wrong. That’s bad practice, and implies a sense of haste and thoughtlessness which I need to work at – relying on photoshop to pick up the pieces simply won’t do! There’s any amount of comment in books and journals about slowing down and taking / making time to look and see properly, and I accept the challenge!

There is another side though, which doesn’t justify bad and hasty practice but does accept that there is a contribution that the camera, and maybe the digital camera in particular, can make to the whole of artistic expression which does in fact derive from it’s speed and immediacy. I recently watched, and recorded, a TV documentary about the magazine “Life” and the work of its photojournalists. That deals with a wholly different strand of image making from landscape or formal portrait photography. Many of the “big names” of photography of the time worked for them – Robert Capa for instance, many of whose images of WW2 are more widely familiar than his name is. Eisenstatz, very quick and technically very highly skilled, who produced the iconic image of the victory celebration of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square. W Eugene Smith whose study of a country doctor recorded with empathy and intimacy the joys and tragedies of that profession. In a filmed interview he explains that he likes to be immersed in the lives of those he photographs so that he can speak (his word) from that position of that in which he is participating.

That sense of being embedded in a situation for an extended period of time and speaking photographically from within it (which almost certainly lies as far removed from most photographer’s experience as does the originality of Hockney from most drawers and painters) implies a seeing and looking which is long extended and which both goes before and surrounds the fraction of a second exposure of the image itself.

The photographer Rankin who made the film, and comes across as being slightly (perhaps much!) in awe of those whose art he is exploring, remarks on Life magazine’s ability, through its images, to reach out and touch people in a very direct way. During the Vietnam war they ran a series entitled “The Weeks’ Dead” – which was made up of simple images of all those killed in action during the preceeding week. It was seen by the photographers as a powerful anti-war statement.

So that very speed and immediacy can be at the heart of the photographer’s art. Not easily though, and sometimes at great cost to the individual – Larry Burrows, one of the great photographic documenters of the Vietnam war was killed there, and he stands as just one example of the journalists and photographers who have suffered for their art.

My conclusions? None really, except that there are differences of style and approach and that there is a need to respect and value one another. If by that token however I might feel the need to defend photography a little from accusations of inferiority to painting and drawing, I recognise that such defence must be justified by the giving of time, care and consideration to its pursuit. To quote Hockney once more (Gayford p.186) “Vincent (Van Gogh) makes us see a great deal more than the camera could” Well, fair enough; except that depends on who’s holding the camera!

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