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The Mind’s Eye

Long preoccupied with technology, David Hockney is exploring a new artistic medium that uses high-definition cameras, screens, software, and moving images to capture the experience of seeing.
August 23, 2011

One of your basic contentions, I say to the British artist David Hockney, is that there is always more to be seen, everywhere, all the time. “Yes,” he replies emphatically. “There’s a lot more to be seen.” We are sitting in his spacious house in the quiet Yorkshire seaside town of Bridlington. In front of us is a novel medium, a fresh variety of moving image—a completely new way of looking at the world—that Hockney has been working on for the last couple of years.

We are watching 18 screens showing high-definition images captured by nine cameras. Each camera was set at a different angle, and many were set at different exposures. In some cases, the images were filmed a few seconds apart, so the viewer is looking, simultaneously, at two different points in time. The result is a moving collage, a sight that has never quite been seen before. But what the cameras are pointing at is so ordinary that most of us would drive past it with scarcely a glance.

At the moment, the 18 screens are showing a slow progression along a country road. We are looking at grasses, wildflowers, and plants at very close quarters and from slightly varying points of view. The nine screens on the right show, at a time delay, the images just seen on the left. The effect is a little like a medieval tapestry, or Jan van Eyck’s 15th-century painting of Paradise, but also somehow new. “A lot of people who were standing in the middle of the Garden of Eden wouldn’t know they were there,” Hockney says.

The multiple moving images have some properties entirely different from those of a projected film. A single screen directs your attention; you look where the camera was pointed. With multiple screens, you choose where to look. And the closer you move to each high-definition image, the more you see.

Things Reviewed

  • May 12th 2011 Rudston to Kilham Road 5 PM


  • “Brushes” drawings for the iPad

  • Pearblossom Hwy.


  • Luncheon at the British Embassy, Tokyo, Feb. 16, 1983


  • by David Hockney

  • Das große Rasenstück

    by Albrecht Dürer

“Norman said this was a 21st-century version of ­Dürer’s [Large] Piece of Turf,” Hockney says. By “Norman” he means Norman ­Rosenthal, the former exhibitions secretary of the Royal Academy in London and one of the doyens of the international contemporary-­art world. The comparison is an intriguing one. Albrecht Dürer’s 1503 drawing (Das große Rasenstück in German) was a work of great originality.

Dürer used the media of the time—watercolor, pen, ink—to do something unprecedented: depict with great precision a little slice of wild, chaotic nature. He revealed what was always there but had never before been seen with such clarity. Hockney, in 2011, is doing the same job, using the tools of the moment: high-definition cameras and screens, computer software. Of course Hockney, too, is a painter—indeed, his grid of 18 flat screens, run by seven Mac Pro computers, looks much like one of his multipanel oil paintings. Except, of course, that every panel moves.

Hockney’s technology assistant, Jonathan Wilkinson, explains how this 21st-century medium works. “We use nine Canon 5D Mark II cameras on a rig we’ve made, mounted on a vehicle—either on the boot or on the side. Those are connected to nine monitors. I set it up initially, taking instructions from David, to block it in. At that point we decide the focal length and exposure of each camera. There are motorized heads with which we can pan and tilt, once we’ve got going, while we’re moving along. There’s a remote system he can operate from the car.”

Hockney “draws” with images from nine cameras.

Hockney compares that process to drawing. For him, drawing is not merely a matter of making lines with a tool; it’s fundamentally about constructing a two-dimensional image of three-dimensional space. He argues that the same is true of putting photographic images together in a collage, and also of altering a single photograph. Hockney complains that today’s media are full of badly drawn (that is, Photoshopped) photographs.

The wild plants at the side of the road are only one subject. A number of other films chart the sequence of the seasons in the quiet corner of the English countryside where Hockney now spends much of his time. These too present a subject that is centuries old (the four seasons were a feature of medieval books of hours), but with a twist made possible by technology that became available only very recently.

They offer a lesson in the startling changes in vegetation, quality of light, and patterns of shadow that a few months will bring. The left-hand side will show, say, a progression down a country road in early spring, the right-hand side the same journey taken at exactly the same speed past the identical trees, fields, and bushes in high summer: the same, but utterly transformed. Because it is in practice impossible to drive at absolutely the same speed along a road in spring, summer, and winter, the precise synchronization of these sequences is achieved by editing. “Because we’ve done things at different times of the year,” as Wilkinson puts it, “we remap time to get them in the same place simultaneously in each film.”

Jonathan Wilkinson, Hockney, and Dominic Elliott rig up the cameras.

The Camera’s Eye
“A lot of people have told me,” Hockney remarks, “that before they see these films they can’t imagine what nine cameras could do that one can’t. When they see them, they understand. It’s showing a lot more; there’s simply a lot more to see. It seems you can see almost more on these screens than if you were really there. Everything is in focus, so you’re looking at something very complicated but with incredible clarity.” In a way, this is a matter of multiplication: nine cameras see many times more than one.

Furthermore, Hockney believes that his multiscreen film collages are closer than conventional photography to the actual experience of human vision: “We’re forcing you to look, because you have to scan, and in doing so you notice all the different textures in each screen. These films are making a critique of the one-camera view of the world. The point is that one camera can’t show you that much.”

Stills from Woldgate 7 November 2010 11:30 AM (left) and Woldgate 26 November 2010 11 AM (right).

You could say Hockney is using cameras to reveal the limitations of the camera. The films are the result of decades’ thought about the place of old art forms—painting and drawing—in a world dominated by rapidly evolving photographic and electronic media.

Now 74, Hockney was born in Bradford, on the other side of Yorkshire, in 1937. It was apparent from early on that he was an exceptionally brilliant draftsman. Indeed, he belongs to one of the last generations of artists to receive a rigorous training in draftsmanship before art education changed in the late 1960s.

Hockney started using photographs as a basis for paintings in the late 1960s. But he became dissatisfied with the direction his work was taking, which in some cases veered toward a form of photorealism. By the ’80s he was conducting a personal research program into the nature of pictorial and photographic space. He began to entertain the idea that what the camera sees and what the eye sees are in some ways fundamentally different. “Most people feel that the world looks like the photograph,” he says. “I’ve always assumed that the photograph is nearly right, but that little bit it misses by makes it miss by a mile. This is what I grope at.”

A camera looks through one lens; we look—most of us, at least most of the time—through two eyes. Then we are not just looking at a scene from outside; we are always in it. People, you might say, are biological sensing devices, placed in an infinitely complex three-dimensional environment. What we see, subjectively, is always related to what we are interested in. Or, in Hockney’s epigram, “The eye is attached to the mind.”

Pearblossom Hwy. (1986)

In the early 1980s, Hockney began a series of composite or collaged pictures made from a mosaic of photographs, including Luncheon at the British Embassy, Tokyo, Feb. 16, 1983 and the several versions of Pearblossom Hwy. (1986). These were images with not one viewpoint but dozens, presenting—Hockney would argue—a representation of the world truer to experience than a single photograph. (Just as today he likens his multiple-screen images to drawing, he classified these collages as drawings rather than photographs.) At the time, he wanted to make moving multiple-viewpoint images—and produced one for a television documentary—but the process was prohibitively complex and costly. Only in the last few years has the technology become available that allows him to do so with his own studio team, and in richly detailed quality.

Another result of this preoccupation with the role of lenses in the making of art was his book Secret Knowledge (2001). In it, Hockney argued that Western art had been affected by the lens-eye view for centuries before the official advent of photography in 1839. It had long been known that some artists had used the camera obscura—essentially, a filmless camera that came in portable or room-size versions (both Canaletto and Joshua Reynolds owned the former). But whereas conventional art history had tended to minimize this, Hockney maximized it.

An artist of the Renaissance or Baroque eras might have used a camera image in many ways. For Canaletto, tracing the image onto paper was evidently a handy way of noting architectural detail (such drawings by him, with a telltale traced line, exist). But other painters might have learned from observing how a camera obscura simplifies highlights and shadows onto a two-dimensional surface. There are compelling resemblances between such projections and 17th-­century painting. Once you’ve seen them it is hard to believe that Caravaggio, Van Dyck, and Dutch still-life painters hadn’t looked through a camera obscura.

But there have always been ways to draw and paint that do not imitate cameras. Hockney reminds us that Far Eastern art, for example, has neither Renaissance-style single-­vanishing-point perspectives nor shadows. The former is an optical property of a single-lens view; the latter result from the strong illumination that cameras tend to require.

Luncheon at the British Embassy, Tokyo, Feb. 16, 1983.

The most recent of Hockney’s nine-screen films were shot in his huge and light-filled Bridlington studio. They look like a cross between silent comedies and Chinese scrolls, filled with a characteristic range of astonishingly saturated color and—because of both the cameras and the light flooding through windows in the roof—without shadows.

Art as Technology
An exhilarating aspect of Hockney’s approach is that it widens art history into a unified account of pictures, images, of all kinds—handmade, photographic, cinematic, televisual. They are all part of the same story. He is, for example, strongly interested in the movies (after all, before coming to work in Yorkshire in 2000, he lived for three decades in Los Angeles, which he still calls his base).

A basic point for Hockney is that all art is based on technology. The paintbrush, as he says, is a technological device. And paint, a discovery tens of thousands of years old, can still produce an intensity of color that no screen or printing machine can equal.

Though drawing itself is a very old human technique—going back at least to the prehistoric cave paintings of southwestern France—Hockney has been adept at using new technology to find new ways to draw. In the 1980s he used early color photocopiers and fax machines to make art. Using the fax, he distributed art by telephone; with the photocopier he made prints that, paradoxically, could not be photocopied (if you make an intense black by putting the paper through the machine four times, it cannot be replicated by a single copying process).

Untitled, 30 November 2010, No. 1, created on an iPad.

During the last three years, he has been fascinated by the possibilities of drawing on, first, an iPhone and then—as soon as it appeared—an iPad. He had tried earlier forms of computer drawing but found them too slow for practical use. Now the iPad, plus an app called Brushes, is his medium of choice. He uses it as an electronic sketchbook; it is always by his side. A steady flow of iPhone and iPad drawings—loose, free, experimental, and intimate—pop, sometimes every day, into the mailboxes of his friends and acquaintances. More than 200 are currently in mine. They add up to a visual diary, recording sights that fall under Hockney’s eyes as he moves through his day: the view from his bedroom window at dawn, the kitchen sink, a coffee cup, a candle burning in the evening. Looking at them gives clues to where Hockney is, how he’s feeling, and what the current weather is like in east Yorkshire.

Recently he has begun printing Brushes drawings out at a large scale (this requires a program that prevents the images from pixelating, as they otherwise would). Early next year a sequence of these grand-scale iPad pictures will fill the largest gallery at the Royal Academy, where there is an exhibition of Hockney’s new work depicting the very same Yorkshire landscapes that he films with his nine cameras and paints in oil. His work in all three media is interdependent. The paintings and drawings led on to the films, and the films in turn prompt new directions for the paintings and drawings.

All Hockney’s work and thought is dedicated to the proposition that there is always more to see in the world around us. Art is a way—you might say a set of technologies—for making images, preserving them in time, and also for showing us things we aren’t normally aware of. Those might include gods, dreams, and myths, but also hedgerows.

“Don’t we need people who can see things from different points of view?” Hockney asks. “Lots of artists, and all kinds of artists. They look at life from another angle.” Certainly, that is precisely what David Hockney is doing, and has always done. And yes, we do need it.

Martin Gayford is the chief art critic for Bloomberg News. His 2005 portrait by Lucian Freud, Man with a Blue Scarf, which has been exhibited at the Correr Museum in Venice and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was the occasion of his most recent book, also titled Man with a Blue Scarf. His next book, A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney, will be published in October.

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