David Hockney’s Metaphotocollage

The metaphotocollage (how about that word!) by David Hockney, “Luncheon at British Embassy, Tokyo, Feb. 16, 1983,” is meta because it upsets several assumptions about photographs, refers to the photographer, and captures the act of taking photographs.

What assumptions are challenged? Assumptions about time, perspective and frame. Instead of a frozen moment, Hockney’s photo-collage gives a sense of passing time: heads turn and expressions change. Instead of a single viewpoint, perspective shifts, like a cubist painting, showing us several angles at once. Instead of a single rectangle, the photo-collage flows past the normal boundaries of a photograph, creating a unique shape that bulges towards the viewer in an oval on the left-hand side, then recedes to a narrow neck, accentuating the depth of the far end of the table, quite difficult to capture in a two-dimensional photograph, then widens out to the viewer again, breaking up.

One of the two most directly meta elements is the photo of Hockney’s name card, which makes us conscious that everything we see is from the photographer’s perspective. Isn’t that obvious? It should be, yet most photos pretend that there is no photographer present — the lie of naturalism! Such supposedly-realistic photos create an illusion for the viewer who wants a little visual doorway to slip through. We don’t want to be reminded of the artist who opened the door for us; we don’t want the photographer to stand between us and what we are looking at.

Like it or not, a metaphoto like this one makes us highly aware that we are seeing things as Hockney saw them. We, the viewers, take his place at the table as we look at the collage. We drink his brandy (a more sensible choice than tea) and listen to the woman on the left (thank god we have brandy!). Instead of a solid image, gaps appear, showing (by not showing) the places the photographer was not looking: sections of the background, the left-hand end of the room, the wall behind him, the ceiling (except the light fixture).

Hockney, in effect, captured the act of looking, which is never as all inclusive as we think it is, but limited in range and also sporadic, jumping from spot to spot in a habitual pattern. If we could mark the things we look at in our homes with an orange stain, somethings would be bright orange and the rest untainted, for we look at the same things again and again and ignore the rest, which is the reason we can be blind to something right in front of our faces, like our keys in an unusual spot, or not notice a building on a street we have walked down a hundred times.

The other majorly meta element is the picture of the two empty film cartridges on the right. This brings the act of taking photos to our attention. This guy Hockney was not just sitting there drinking brandy, listening to people around him, he was ceaselessly taking hundreds of photos.

If you look closely at the second photo above, you can see the photographer of the photocollage, Omar Rodriguez Rodriguez, his fingers and his camera, making this a metaphoto of a metaphotocollage. Now where else can you get so much meta for your money!

(The first photo is from Photo/Synthesis, where you can read more about the collage. Check out more metaphotos on InstagramFlickrPinterest, and Tumblr.)

3 thoughts on “David Hockney’s Metaphotocollage”

  1. i love that collage. it’s at the de young museum, no?
    i just thought of another meta-photographic element of the piece while reading your post: the collage also highlights the process of selection and editing that goes into publishing a photo of any newsworthy event in the age of print. (Maybe it is possible now to attach a portfolio’s worth of photos to a news article online, but back in the day, it would probably be a single shot printed to represent the event.) This collage puts the viewer in the role of the photo-editor, arraying the prints on his or her desk, considering the merits of each shot as representations of, as you pointed out, a quite complex series of moments in time and space. Any choice, even the choice of a wide angle shot which might take in all of the elements of the scene at once, is a little fiction, and this collage, as you pointed out, highlights the subjective nature of a medium that promises objectivity and instantaneous realism.

  2. That’s right, at the De Young. Thanks for these excellent additions to the post, Ian! Keep ’em coming.

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