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Saturday, 09 May 2009


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I've been a fan of Edward Hopper all my life, perhaps one of the reasons I'm so closely bonded to the home of his "Nighthawks".

I've not yet read Jeffrey Fraenkel's book (having just ordered it myself). Knowing Jeffrey I'm sure it's impeccably accurate and very insightful. But this relationship between painting, photography, and filmmaking really became very circular early in the 20th Century. For example,
I'm not aware of Hopper using photos as reference for his paintings. To my knowledge he did all of his preliminary sketches by hand a he was very accomplished with pencil and conte crayon (and many such work sketches are in public and private collections). He was, however, very much a film buff and spent a great deal of time at the movies. His 1939 painting "New York Movie" reflects this. Many of his compositions, particularly his urban scenes --most notably "Nighthawks"-- had a certain cinematic framing feel to them.

Photographers have certainly long noticed how snap-like many of Hopper's paintings seem to be, something that has only added to his popular fame and popularity over the decades.

Painters and Photographers worked together from the dawn of Photography. In the book "Our Lincoln" edited by Eric Foner, there is an essay by Harold Holzer, that points to painters commissioning some of the best known photos of Lincoln, as "models" for paintings.

I agree with Ken; I don't think Hopper used photos, though the influences are circular as he says.

Reginald Marsh did take and use photos:

I think the Hopper book is fantastic. There is an essay, but most of the book is dedicated to photographs with a Hopper painting added in every so often to draw parallels between the works.

I'm a big fan of Hopper and the photographers included in the collection, so your mileage may vary.

I'm also a Hopper fan, and I have never read anything that mentions the use of photos -- and there exist numerous preparatory sketches of his paintings, and that would suggest that he didn't use photos. While his watercolors resemble the actual buildings and scenes that he painted, the big studio oils often do not -- he eliminates a lot of detail, adds imaginary light, etc. Photographs aren't as useful to good painters as people might suppose: photographs specialize in the specific and the detailed, and paintings specialize in the imaginative and the composed.

I have to say that I was shocked recently to have read that Cezanne sometimes painted from photographs...he was such a staunch advocate of painting in front of your actual motif that he died because he was doing that, in the rain...the (great) painter most influenced by photographs was probably Degas, not counting such non-great painters as the photo realists...


I can't remember who it was who said that it's the dream of all street photographers to become invisible; I'm not a street photographer but if I and my camera could become invisible, I'd end up doing a lot of stuff that Hopper would recognise. (Not that he would necessary like it or do anything but grimace.)

I visited a Hopper exhibition in London a few years back at the Tate Modern and just loved it. The man understood aspects of modern life that shouts out to many photographers.

Lyon's book is certainly photo essays, but he is a graceful and effective writer. "Conversations with the Dead" and his most recent work, "Like a Thief's Dream", use mostly text to present the life he documents. I have followed his work with interest as he represents one edge of my own generation. In the "Memories," he presents, well, memoirs which read like reconstructed and augmented journal pages.

He chooses to present himself unsympathetically. One passage describes his Schadenfreude when Magnum passes over Mary Ellen Mark and Ralph Gibson to select him for associate membership, the only one of the three who didn't desperately want the appointment.

My favorites among the essays are the Uptown Chicago and Knoxiville sections. There is some glorious color work as well. A piece of trivia -- the cover of "Bikeriders," with the Outlaws flying in formation along a Wisconsin back road, was not taken from his Triumph, but from the right seat of a VW Bug.


For those of us not brave enough to be street portrait photographers, not invited to be fashion snappers or photo journalists and simply too sophisticated to be landscape photographers; isn't Hopper the Holy Grail?

> simply too sophisticated to be landscape photographers

More sophisticated than Robert Adams, Burtynsky, Shore, Baltz, and Misrach ?

"For those of us not brave enough to be street portrait photographers, not invited to be fashion snappers or photo journalists and simply too sophisticated to be landscape photographers; isn't Hopper the Holy Grail?"

There's something about this question that makes me wish I understood it.

Dear Mike,

Dammit, I wish I had some extra money for books. I really want that Danny Lyons!

One of the last exhibits that Ted Hartwell put together for the MIA was Danny Lyons. (I think I saw it with DDB or else he went on his own; I expect he'll chime in with some comments). I was truly blown away. I've always been impressed with his work; I was a lot more impressed after seeing this exhibit, because I saw a lot of pieces I'd never seen before. The civil rights work is profoundly wonderful but not as well-known as his later more sensational (I use that word in a good way) essays.

Two photos, though, stick in my mind for their artistic proficiency. One was from the "The Bikeriders" portfolio, showing several bikers riding across the bridge. The composition was impeccable; the motorcyclists, the other cars, the physical elements of the bridge in the background, all were positioned beautifully. And everything was in motion, including Danny! To some extent a photograph like that is going to be pure luck, but you have to be astonishingly good to even merit that kind of luck (let alone take advantage of it).

The second one simply left me stunned. I don't know what series it was in; my recollection is that it was photographed on a city apartment building rooftop and it was a group photograph of a large extended family (Italian immigrant? Danny's? I don't recall.) It was a hugely complex scene with a myriad of disparate and important elements, and the composition of it was utterly perfect.

It stunned me not because it was better than any photograph I would've made, but because it was a better photograph than I COULD make. That is, if you gave me exactly the same scene and the same people, I wouldn't know how to make a photograph that good. You could even gIve me written instructions for where the people should be placed and how they should be posed and where all the other foreground and background physical elements should be in the frame, I still wouldn't have been able to do it. It was far beyond my level of skill and talent, so far that I cannot imagine ever being able to learn it.

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com

@Ctein -- The first picture you remember is the cover shot from "The Bikeriders." He describes taking it. My theory has always been that, like Robert Johnson, Lyon met with the Devil late one night at a crossroads and they made a deal.

Apparently there are two more books of his in the works with Phaedon.


In case anyone's interested, Danny Lyon's website is over at Bleak Beauty.

He writes very well. This is from the intro to his blog:

"Who are we?
Where do we come from?
Where are we going?

This generation born in war, born in the jail cells of the South, born at the Pentagon march, watches in disbelief as the country is paved over, malls replacing corn fields, synthetic food replacing corn, cash replacing value. What has become of us? Is the country brain dead? Is this what we have done with our freedom? Our greatest surviving value is greed. Is that what our legacy will be? What shall we tell the children?"

Here's another great Lyon quote, from his website:
The sign at the entrance to my gym locker room says “no cell phones please, cell phones are cameras.” They are not. A camera is a Nikon or a Leica or Rollieflex and when you strike someone with one,--- that is take your camera and use it as a weapon, they know they have been hit with something substantial.
He's an analogue guy, hypo and dektol have only positive associations.


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