David Hockney’s secret to interesting images

In behind-the-scenes footage from an award-winning documentary, the British artist explains why one should never concentrate too much on a central subject


"Hockney Unlocked" is a series of 80 short films produced, directed and edited by Bruno Wollheim. The films are outtakes from Wollheim’s award-winning documentary, "David Hockney: A Bigger Picture", filmed single-handedly over five years with David Hockney. Here, Wollheim writes a commentary on some of the short films informed by a friendship stretching back 30 years.

By attending to the edges rather than concentrating too much on the central subject, you can make better compositions and suggest the world outside the pictorial field. A formula for creating decent or at least more interesting photographs, according to David Hockney, a photographer so good that he (more or less) gave it up as a creative medium.

This video was shot in 2004. Earlier that year Hockney had been staying with his sister Margaret while making watercolours of the surrounding East Yorkshire Wolds in England. Margaret is two years older and, in retirement, had become a keen amateur artist. She had shown her brother what Photoshop and the new scanners could do, both in sending images and experimenting with their scale, something that was to have far-reaching consequences in the coming years. A close bond but also a creative and competitive streak is noticeable amongst the Hockney siblings.

In this video Hockney describes the power of the cinematic image and the inadequacy of the camera, an ambivalence that has driven and defined much of his art and his consciousness. As I see it, as much as he bridles at its limits, distortions and normative status, the photographic image has remained for him an ever-present yardstick for how the visible world is represented.

I have also come to believe there is more to David’s dissatisfaction with traditional perspective and spatial representation than meets the eye. He would talk to me often about wanting the viewer to be in the scene, “to be in it”, in the space, or sharing in his excitement. An “if only”—a  thwarting of aspiration—hangs in the air. But then contrary to mass critical consensus, I’ve never viewed David’s art as principally or straightforwardly joyous and celebratory. Rather I see it as rooted and energised by internal conflict, by a blend of optimism and alienation. It is the tension between connection and disconnection that give his best images their power, and place Hockney in a distinguished group of artists whose art at once evinces beauty but at the same time communicates a modern, 20th-century psychic discomfort or anguish. There is a parallel in Pierre Bonnard’s interiors, or in the music of Van Morrison.

Selecting the poolside cutaways in this video takes me back to putting together the main documentary with my editor Chris Swayne, when we were faced with the challenge of setting David’s anti-photographic argument within a film. We went for a gentle dialectic between David’s words and images, and a counterpointing of his painted images with my photographic ones that hinted at a supposed rivalry that could only have one winner.

• David Hockney: A Bigger Picture is now available online