Hockney: Painting is Just Better

Karen Wright: So what are the differences between painting and photography? 

David Hockney: I recently watched a television programme about Goya's painting The Third of May, 1808, which I had just been looking at in Madrid. It was only after the programme that I realized something rather important that they failed to point out, which is that the image Goya made could not be made by a television camera or by any camera at all, because the camera man would have had to have been on the side of the soldiers, otherwise he would have been shot. People in television like to claim that they can show you everything, but they can't and neither can cameras. When the Church stopped commissioning paintings, in approximately 1840, it coincided with the beginning of the manufacture of lenses, because photography had just started. As the Church stopped commissioning pictures, its power began to decline and its social control became weaker. Now social control lies almost entirely with the media. The continuity and power is the mirror and lenses! That's quite disturbing.

KW: Do you think that photography still has an important role in terms of social documentary?

DH: Photography is very good at documentation if what is being documented is two-dimensional, ie. a painting or a drawing. But if the subject is three dimensional, photography is far less successful. Of course all old photographs become interesting from the point of view assuming that in a particular picture those people stood there at that time and looked like that. Now with digital photography you have no need ever to believe that. It has also always been pointed out that photographs need captions – without captions you don't know which side you are on, who's doing what to whom. They're essential and if you change the caption then you change the meaning. My point about the Goya painting is that if a photograph was being taken of the same incident the camera person would have had to be on one side. There is no neutral position he could be in. The truth is photography is a bore. ...

KW: Do you find the camera useful for taking reference pictures for your own work?

DH: I stopped using photographs for reference a long time ago. I never look through the camera any more. That's what made me see they weren't good enough, even if you take them yourself. There is something there but not enough. Lucian Freud told me that he tried using photographs for reference but he said there wasn't enough there. I was in Andalucia recently and realized that the way you see flowers, walls – pattern – doesn't come across in a photograph. They don't photograph the way you see them.

KW: So you use sketchbooks instead? 

DH: I like fluidity between the heart, the eye, the hand, right down to, and through, the brush. I believe in the Chinese saying – for a work of art you need three things: the hand, the eye and the heart. It is marvelous and profoundly true. You can have all the skill with the hand, skill with the eye but with no heart what will it be? If you've got the heart and the eye but no hand what could you do? Rembrandt is a very good example of this. In every Rembrandt drawing it seems to me you see the hand, the eye and the heart at work. Which you don't in a photograph. No photographic portrait has ever been like a Rembrandt face.

KW: But surely a photograph must be the truest portrait? What does a Rembrandt show us that is different?

DH: Humans! ...

KW: So you think that what is being taught at art colleges is the problem? 

DH: The Royal College of Art in London has a course called 'Fine Art Photography'. It is mind-boggling that they would do that and not have any interest in drawing. They got rid of the painting and drawing school, thinking that we've got new mediums which are more important. I think it has been a disaster, because drawing is a discipline and to be good at it you have to keep practicing in the same way any musician has to.
Edvard Munch made a very profound comment: 'Photography cannot compete with painting because it cannot deal with heaven or hell.' And it might account for the secular twentieth century that we are moving out of now. In fact many people thought hell didn't exist in the twentieth century; maybe they will in the twenty-first.

– Modern Painters Magazine, Spring 2004