GREAT ARTISTS HAVE A SECRET CODE.
DAVID HOCKNEY SHARED WITH ME THE KEY TO UNLOCK HIS CODE!
I was on my way east on Sunset Blvd. to photograph one of the most recognized artists in the world, David Hockney circa 1984.
It was an important day in my career…I had to create a bit of magic. Joan Didion once told me that she and her husband John used to travel to all points east in Los Angeles. They wanted to discover the grit of of the city. My agenda was simpler, softer. I remembered pre- visualizing the Los Angeles cityscape as an Italian Renaissance Mosaic painting intricately strewn across the hills, mountains and highways. All I had to do was take piece by piece, moment by moment and discover the “aha” shot.
Making my way from Sunset Blvd up through the canyons has always bothered me. You have one road in one road out. A fire or landslide is imminent. You are trapped! That fear of the unknown is not for me.
I love the canyons for what they offer: unique architecture, the Planetarium, the Hollywood Bowl and vistas unmatched in the Los Angeles footprint. But it is simultaneously halting and romantic. One feels for Michael Connelly’s protagonist, Hieronymus Bosch. He resides in a period romantic home…with jazz and vistas enveloping his world. Yet there is darkness and danger at every turn. The “Devils Lair” lives in those hills.
But Woodrow Wilson Drive is home to a collection of cultural celebrities…my mentor Julius Shulman and my subject at hand David Hockney were among the dozens.
As I continued up the road, I remember Julius telling me years before; “ David Hockney lives down the road from me”.
I arrived at Hockney’s home. As he greeted me, I shared with him what Julius Shulman shared. David responded giddy with delight, “I guess I might have to start wearing some clothes around the pool”.
Meeting famous cultural figures looking back more than 30 years in my rearview mirror is always daunting. They are famous for many reasons. Their orbit is theirs… yet they encircle a world history, a cultural identity that few experiences, and few share. Maybe Yo Yo Ma comes to mind as equally gracious with sharing his art and his self.
David walked me around his space. He was looking to make me comfortable. We shared mini stories about artists in common. By that time I had photographed a few hundred…and he had understood thousands. I let him lead the talks.
After a while, he took me over to a giant drafting table. He had these two possibly 17th-century Chinese scrolls. He made me promise that I would not take any pictures of the scrolls. With zero prompting he goes on this riff about the relationship between these scrolls and his photographs and paintings. It was electric to be one on one with a Hockney lecture. He was so passionate so giving. Inch by inch he created a reveal. Every motion of unfurling revealed a segment of the narrative and journey. With every motion, David turned to one of his works to point out the similarities and influences.
Somehow, my photography sessions often produce a seminal moment where I realize I am not merely with an artist but an artist who has a code about his art and life. He gave me the key to both in the most delicate of gestures. He placed my hands on either side of the scroll. He asked me to unfurl slowly, delicately, so I could personally unveil the natural beauty of the earth through this Chinese discipline. Each act of unfurling moment by moment gave me a slight window into David’s world, his need for understanding.
David Hockney examines his work as if he is experiencing a paranormal effect. He intellectually goes through portal after portal finding new dimensions to his work. That is also the “Artists Code”; a constant engagement to what may be more.
The day is done. I have seen dozens of Hockney photographs, paintings, and drawings. I made a portrait that for 1984 seemed to work for me for that day.
I shook his hand and he walked me out to my car.
As I got in he said,” can you play music, do you have a cassette player?.” I nodded.
He spun around and raced into his house….he came skipping back and said, “play this on your journey home, you will need to unwind a bit”. He told me to take Mulholland over the hills to Beverly Glen and then head south to where I was staying.
I had a convertible… I placed the cassette, a Mendelssohn recording in my player. He told me to return it when I got a chance.
I was clearly dazed and riveted by my afternoon. Hockney knew that I needed to reduce my adrenalin flow a notch or 10. My top was down the music played and the light atop Mulholland breathed the western light and ocean breezes into my brain…It was an out of body experience. I felt the Hockney influence…I was alive again.
I kept the cassette. I never got around to returning it. I am sure he never expected me to. It is a link to a great memory, and it also has David Hockney’s fingerprints all over it!