LALA Dispatch: Photographer Jim McHugh on his Friendship with David Hockney

Produced by Rebecca Pynoos.
Produced by Rebecca Pynoos.

Photographer Jim McHugh began his career with a lens focused on Los Angeles’s celebrity culture. A fortuitous phone call to British-born, LA-based David Hockney led to his most famous image and a friendship spanning nearly 40 years. Pulling his favorite Hockney snapshots and large-format Polaroids from his personal archive, McHugh shares the stories behind his own work and insight into the world of the renowned artist.

David Hockney in his studio, Los Angeles, 1984 This is the first photograph I took of David, when we met in 1984. It has become my most published picture of him. I began photographing artists in their studios in the early 1980s as a personal project and counterpoint to my commercial photography. While photographing Don Bachardy in his Santa Monica Canyon studio, I mentioned that I hoped to photograph David Hockney. Don was very impressed with the portraits I was making and promised to personally phone David to recommend that he sit for me too. True to his word, later that day Don called to say it was okay to call, and here was David’s private phone number.

One of the things I have learned about David over the years is that if you ask him for something, you had better be ready for him to say yes and want to do it immediately. For one, when I called that morning, I wasn’t expecting him to answer his own phone. Two, he said yes, and three, most unexpectedly, “How about today?” Would I photograph him today? I photograph my artist portraits with a large 4x5 view camera, the type where the photographer puts a dark cloth over his head and focuses an upside-down, backwards image on a dim ground glass. I also use strobe lights, all of which requires a lot of equipment and an assistant to help with it all. Since none of this had been organized that morning, I explained to David that I was not prepared to photograph him “today,” but could I get organized and call him back to arrange another time? He agreed. I said thank you and hung up the phone. Immediately I was overcome with regret. “Are you crazy? One of the most renowned, collected artists in the world, the one you follow avidly, happily agreed to let you photograph him today, and your answer was, ‘I’ll get back to you?’” No hand has ever moved more quickly. I instantly reached for the phone. When David answered, I said, “Mr. Hockney, if it’s still alright with you, I’m on my way, thank you!” With a few phone calls, I found an assistant; my jitters settled; the equipment was loaded, and I was on my way up the hill. That was the beginning of forty years of friendship.

David Hockney in his studio, Los Angeles, 1988 We look so young here, yet I remember this so well. This picture was taken by my assistant, Pete Caravolis, while I was photographing David for Time Inc.’s People magazine. That session resulted in the portrait below.

I love David dearly and deeply. He’s everything to me. Certainly, as a photographer, his work in panels and perspective has interested me, but more than that, in a personal way, he’s been a great influence. He liked to repeat a favorite quote: “Inspiration, she does not visit the lazy.” I went with him to a huge photography show he did at Museum Ludwig in Cologne. He came back to LA a week later and went off to paint the Grand Canyon. The greatest influence I’ve picked up from him is his ability to just work. He’s a remarkable artist and a remarkable person. It’s been a great pleasure to be in his presence.

David with Boodgie and Stanley, 1993 Another T55 Polaroid image photographed at David’s studio in the Hollywood Hills. David’s dachshunds were the subjects of many of his drawings and paintings. He loved Boodgie and Stanley to such an extent that sometimes he would postpone or even cancel trips away because he would miss them.

David and his mother at Leisureland, Bridlington, 1997 When I traveled with David to Yorkshire, I knew it was a great thing to do, but I was not quite aware of just how great it was at the time. He had a show opening in London, and then we went to Cologne for a big photography show there...then we went to Bridlington and met his mother.

This is David and his mother, Laura, going for a walk in the small seaside town. Bridlington was cold and shuttered in the winter, a very English resort. His mother and sister, Margaret, lived there. It is very near to Bradford, David’s childhood home, and he would visit several times a year. It was so moving to witness the closeness David had with his mother. This is one of my favorite pictures of him.

David Hockney at Bolton Abbey in Yorkshire, England, 1997 We were staying at Salts Mill, an architectural relic from the Industrial Revolution. Once the site of the world’s first alpaca factory, the massive wool mill had become abandoned and derelict until it was purchased and restored by a collector and very close friend of David’s, Jonathan Silver. Sadly, after a protracted illness, Jonathan passed away, but it had been his dream to have Salts Mill become a dedicated museum to David Hockney. In Jonathan’s honor, a massive exhibition was presented there. David created a unique series of paintings of the Yorkshire countryside. Landscapes and the natural environment are still a prime subject of David’s work today.

Salts Mill is but a stone’s throw from Bradford, the town where David was raised. This is a particularly beautiful area of the English countryside. In Yorkshire, one constantly feels like they are stepping into an 18th century Masterpiece Theatre drama. Since this is where David grew up, he knows every path and country lane, having explored them all on his bike as a young boy. One morning he said, “You must see Bolton Abbey,” and off we went, flying across the moor.

Full disclosure: Friends often exercise great patience with my photography. Pictures like this one of David are made with a 1950s Speed Graphic press camera, like you see in old detective movies. The film is a special type of Polaroid called Type 55 created in 1948 by Dr. Edwin H. Land and Ansel Adams. This film is no longer made—manufacturing ended with the close of Polaroid in 2008, but for some of us in a small, but fervent “why on earth do you do this?” school of photography, T55 film is the Holy Grail, making uniquely beautiful photographs. Today, it can be found on eBay for hundreds of dollars a box with the increasingly frequent possibility that it is just no good. T55 produces both a small 4x5-inch positive print and a true film negative of very high quality. To save the negative, it must be peeled away from the positive print after shooting and cleared or washed in a sodium sulfate solution. This solution is carried in a gallon-size plastic bucket called a clearing tank. So, I carry a very large camera, a not-so-small bag for the boxes of 4x5 Polaroid film and a sloshing gallon bucket of possibly toxic liquid. “Hurry up,” is not an applicable phrase. But David is a good sport. Like most artists, he will always put up with the creative activities of others, at least for a little bit. He patiently put up with me and all my bags and buckets to make this memorable, other-century black and white portrait. Around his neck hangs David’s own sleek little Pentax automatic camera. David Hockney and Van Gogh’s Portrait Of His Mother, 2003 This is David at the Norton Simon Museum studying Van Gogh’s portrait of his mother. David’s gallerist came to LA from London, and we all took a trip out to Pasadena to visit the Norton Simon. I had just purchased a digital Nikon camera. It was in the early days of digital, when everyone was still shooting film. I had this little camera but knew nothing about file size, TIFFs, etc. It was more a novelty. It took me the longest time to believe that these were actually “pictures” that could be used. Good thing I kept them! I love this photo, and seeing how David examines a painting, you know he just sees it differently.

This story originally published in the Winter 2020 issue of LALA Magazine