DEZO HOFFMAN

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(1) Dezo Hoffman, The Beatles, photograph, 1964. Photo courtesy of Silver K Fine Art.

by Todd Baron

(Posner Fine Art, Santa Monica) The question with an enormous social and cultural phenomenon such as the Beatles were is how to gain an entrance. The question of how to find an entrance into photographic work that engages or records history can be much the same. What does one do with a relatively flat yet expansive image--one that attempts to produce or create some form of reality? What does one do with a "form of reality" that needs and seeks advertisement? The wonder of Dezo Hoffman's photography is that it both captures an inescapable essence of the 1960's and (without a specific consciousness of doing so) comments on and creates both the vacuousness and importance of the "pop" world.

Hoffman was the Beatles' first professional photographer, a man whose very career had been spent photographing the historic: Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia, the 1936 Olympics, the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and work with the International Brigade Press Corps during World War II. At the war's end he photographed more lighthearted show business images such as Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra, among others. It's not surprising then that this show of 50 photographs of the Beatles taken between 1962 and 1967 (with a few of John Lennon and Yoko Ono during 1970) is as much part of the visual vocabulary that we now think of as comprising the 20th Century as any other single photographic work of that time.

The most familiar of the work here--Hoffman's clear but often silly shots of the Beatles "at play" (the signature "jump" shots, beach poses, the Beatles on the backs of donkeys!) from 1963 shows the Fab Four in pure pop form: four eager young capitalists announcing to the world that a sunny revolution was about to be up for sale. But what's truly engaging in this work (knowing what we know about the seriousness of the 1960's: The Cuban missile crisis; the civil right movement; the assassination of the Kennedys, King and Malcolm X; the Vietnam war) is the view the show comprises as an entirety. While these early shots seem to say nothing more then "buy our youthful exuberance," the larger trajectory of these images invokes a specific cultural mapping (albeit a "pop" one that now looks dated--check out the temporality of hair and other styles) of the times.

The earliest work is comprised of carefully composed studio shots which shaped the imagery the larger publicity machinery called "The Beatles" produced. The behind-the-scenes shots (taken with available light) show the band hard at work: recording, composing. and rehearsing. These two seemingly opposing groups of images say as much about the tension between the false image of the youthful world of the 1960's as pubescent, energized and endlessly hip, and the gritty reality of hard work, constantly changing values and mores, and the development of talent. For awhile the promoters of youth culture did their very best to create a world filled with prefabricated instant ecstasy. But it was obvious somebodies had to be working hard behind the scenes to produce such memorable work as the Beatles (and others) did. This aspect of Hoffman's ad work is at the very core of the serious realism that he brought to the world of pop culture, and a lasting truth about the process and labor of music and art-making.

Not surprisingly then, the most arresting images are of the four at work: the beautiful black and white photo of the Beatles recording Can't Buy Me Love (February 1964) and the March 1964 shot of John Lennon at the piano with a thoughtfully absorbed Paul McCartney sitting behind him, listening.

This is not to say that the more "happy" shots were not as important to the formation of the Western world's pop sensibility. The "jump" shots themselves truly changed the photographic and cinematic style that had preceded them and allowed commercial photographers to break out of pure studio work and venture into the immediacy of the "real" world. Soon after these shots were taken major advertisers were using "caught in motion" shots to sell their products, while T.V. caught on to the "act" with shows like Laugh In, The Monkees, and others (One wonders, too, how familiar with and influenced by certain Dadist photography the young Hoffman might have been. Youthful images of Tristan Tzara, Hans Hoffman, and gangs of Cabaret Voltaire members capture them in playfully chaotic anti-authoritarian pose). Because of those advertising copy-cat lists, Hoffman's work became lost in the miasma of other pop imagery, so it's important to recognize that without these "work shots" we might be left only with what the recording industry wanted to sell us: a myriad of empty poses devoid of cultural intensity .

Photos of the Beatles are hard to view as simply "images" of a certain aspect of our culture. Anyone familiar with their music (and now, with new Beatlemania at our heels, that includes anyone with a radio, TV, magazine, or newspaper at hand) or the popular and/or political fronts that the 1960's represents gets bound up in the endless capture of a time that itself changed so fast that perhaps only the quick-witted shutter of a properly placed camera could catch it. Whether the image is of the Fab Four caught jumping in mid-air or a set of pensively postured Mount Rushmore-like heads about to release their opus Sergeant Pepper's album, Dezo Hoffman's photography did apprehend and create much more than a PR and pop phenomenon. He helped create an unforgettably shared moment of time within the very personal view that his eye had captured.