Hockney or Adams?
There seems to be no escaping David Hockney at the moment. Last weekend I was looking at the many examples of his work displayed at Salts Mill in Shipley and then today I picked up the latest Radio Times to find he’s the subject of a major feature by Andrew Marr.
Hockney, of course, is an Artist. Indeed, many would see him as the greatest living British artist. And he has been using photography in his work for decades.
I’m not planning a complete critical assessment of Hockney’s photography, but I was very intrigued – perhaps provoked is a better word – by a brief reference in Marr’s piece to Hockney’s work in Yosemite – which, as he says, is best known to many through the photography of Ansel Adams. There’s a clear implication that Hockney is ‘taking on’ Adams, who many of us regard as one of the greatest and most influential landscape photographers of all time. Even if that’s Marr’s interpretation rather than Hockney’s intention, I couldn’t let that pass without some comment...
Obviously I can’t reproduce their images in this blog without infringing copyright, but you can see one of Hockney’s Yosemite composites on his own website. There are lots of Adams photos here – including several Merced River views.
I did spend some time at Salts Mill looking at a couple of Hockney’s photo mosaics – one of Yosemite and another of the Grand Canyon. These are composed of dozens (maybe over 100 in the case of the Grand Canyon) of standard size (6 x 4) photographic prints, which look to me very much as if they were taken with the camera on automatic settings as there are curious variations in both focus and exposure.
For instance, in the Grand Canyon mosaic there is a railing in the foreground. In one print it’s pin sharp because the camera has focused on the railing; in the next it’s quite soft because the camera has switched focus to the background.
The question which is raised by this is how far this was intentional, and/or how far did Hockney consciously allow these shifts to happen? I’m sure it would be a mistake to assume that Hockney wasn’t aware of this. He’s well-known as an artist who is very interested in the media he uses. However, he may well have chosen to allow this element of randomness to make itself felt.
If so, it’s very different from the approach adopted by Ansel Adams, who is well known as a supreme photographic craftsman, taking great pains to achieve the highest possible level of control over every aspect of the process. He developed the Zone System for precise control of tonal values and relationships in the negative and the print, promulgated the concept of visualisation, and worked mostly with view cameras whose movements allow exceptional control over perspective and depth of field.
For me, and many others, what made Adams great was not technical mastery as such, but the way he used it to express his vision. (Isn’t this what all artists do?). As he himself said:
A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed.
And so we return to Andrew Marr’s implied comparison of Adams and Hockney. Far be it from me to say whether one is a greater artist than the other; all I would say is that Adams is one of those who showed, in the 20th century, that photographers could be artists just as much as painters can.
And, on a more personal note, although I’ve spent considerable time recently looking at Hockney, I do know that it is Ansel Adams whose work I’ll return to time and again.
Incidentally, there’s lots more to see at Salts Mill, including a very good bike shop, and it also forms part of the World Heritage Site of Saltaire. I’ll be going again – and spending some time exploring with my camera.
I seem to remember when Hockney first started doing those photo collages in the 80s, he used a simple polaroid camera. This was when instant photos were a novelty and this appealed to him. Not sure whether this applies to the Grand Canyon picture but it could account for the odd focusing.
No comments posted.