FOUR DECADES AGO, WHILE DAVID HAMMONS was working in his Los Angeles studio making body prints and assemblages, and developing ideas for installations and performances, Bruce W. Talamon was nearby photographing every moment. He says the two met in 1974, before the artist moved to New York. Hammons had already gained some recognition. In 1971, 12 of his body prints appeared in “Three Graphic Artists,” a Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibition that also featured Charles White, his drawing instructor at the Otis Art Institute. Part of a group of pioneering artists and jazz musicians ensconced in LA’s black arts scene, Hammons soon began transitioning to New York where the urban surround bolstered his concepts and performances.

 

HammonsBT4154-26A-FFr-Eml
From left, David Hammons and Bruce Talamon in front of Hammons’s La Salle Street studio in Los Angeles in 1977. Talamon describes the image as a sort of “self portrait.” He says, “I had set up one of my Nikon’s with a motor drive and remote firing button. David is pushing the remote release button to snap the photo.” | Photo by Bruce W. Talamon, Courtesy Bruce W. Talamon

 

Talamon was photographing R&B artists and fast becoming a fixture on the local jazz circuit. Over the years, he photographed countless figures including Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye, Chaka Khan, Parliament Funkadelic, the Jackson 5 and Stevie Wonder. After establishing himself in the music world, he made inroads in Hollywood, shooting stills on film sets and photographing official movie posters. Talamon also hit the campaign trail, covering Jesse Jackson’s presidential bids in 1984 and 1988 for Time magazine.

Meanwhile, the photographer and artist stayed in touch and remained friends.

phillips 9:16:14 catalogDocumentary photographs of Hammons’s process and creative methods have been published in several catalogs including “David Hammons: Rousing the Rubble,” “L.A. Object & David Hammons Body Prints” and “Now Dig This: Art & Black Los Angeles 1960-1980.” A great majority of the images were captured by Talamon.

An early Hammons body print appears on the cover of Phillips Sept. 16, 2014, auction catalog and inside, images by Talamon illustrate the lot’s feature essay. After seeing yet another Hammons photograph credited to Talamon, I decided to call him up and ask about his experiences working with the artist. For the first time, Talamon spoke at length about photographing Hammons. During our phone conversation, Talamon, 65, leafed through books featuring his images and reflected on his work and the time he has spent with Hammons over the years, walking, talking and photographing.

CULTURE TYPE: How did you and David Hammons first meet?

BRUCE W. TALAMON: David and I met through his girlfriend at the time. I knew her because she worked in the music industry. I was photographing R&B artists and I worked for a small newspaper called Soul. We became friends and she said to me one day, something like, “You should meet this guy I am going out with. I really think you guys would get along.” And we met in this park at one of those events like the Festival in Black here in Los Angeles. I think we met at something like that and we hit it off. From there, David and I were hanging out a lot and I would have my camera all the time.

Did the situation develop naturally or at some point did he ask you officially to photograph his work?

I don’t think David ever said to me, “I need somebody to take pictures.” It was more casual, you know, “I’m doing this project” or “Why don’t you come by?” and I did. He never hired me and said, “Would you come out and document my work?” I would just photograph. You’d get a call. “What are you doing?” Nothing. “Well, let’s take a ride. I got this idea to do this thing out at the beach.” That was the hair piece on the wire coat hangers.

 

Talamon_DavidHammonsHairandWireVeniceBeach
Recalling David Hammons’s “Hair and Wire, Venice Beach,” 1977 (gelatin silver print) by Bruce W. Talamon | Courtesy Bruce W. Talamon

 

The Hair and Wire piece at Venice Beach in 1977. How long did it take Hammons to set that up? Did he have a precise plan or was it trial and error in terms of the final concept? How did it unfold?

He had the coat hanger wire straightened and he had placed the hair in various places onto the wire. That was already done. There is a shot in two of the books where we are walking out to the water, to the shoreline. It’s just one of those days. The sun is great. The wind is blowing and he’s got all of these 12 or 15 or however many coat hanger wires in his hand, walking out to the spot where he is going to start. He sat there watching the waves come in like a surfer figuring out where he was going to put it, to plant the first one.

“He’s got all of these 12 or 15 or however many coat hanger wires in his hand, walking out to the spot where he is going to start. He sat there watching the waves come in like a surfer figuring out where he was going to put it, to plant the first one.” — Bruce W. Talamon

He didn’t have a diagram or anything, but he knew how he wanted to put it out and I worked around him. If I saw something that would make the shot dynamic, I would dart in, shoot and dart out. It was almost synchronized. I photographed it wide. Then I photographed it long, which ended up being the important shot because it gives you the reflection. In its simplicity that work shows so much thought.

la object - david hammonsYou were accustomed to photographing musicians, how did you approach photographing a visual artist?

I treated David like I treated the musicians. I documented everything that they did—the rehearsals and the sound checks, to the recording studios, to the performances—and that’s basically what I did with David. There’s so much of it I photographed: The pieces that were completed; I photographed the pieces that were being done; I photographed him actually making the object or I photographed the object itself, like the hair he would collect from the barbershop. I remember taking a series of photographs of that sifter he made out of a screen to use with the hair.

In the book “L.A. Object” there is a series of photographs of performance art he would do. He had a number of studios in the Los Angeles area for a number of years and I would photograph him doing his work, whether it was a performance piece or a body print or a series of body prints. With the work that’s in the Phillips catalog, I remember shooting that at his studio on Slauson Avenue. He had this huge studio. David could find the most interesting spaces for studios. The light would be wonderful. The size would be wonderful and this was an old dance hall. It was upstairs. It had a stage. It had these beautiful wood floors that were painted and he got it for some crazy amount of money a month. He had to pay something ridiculously low.

“David could find the most interesting spaces for studios. The light would be wonderful. The size would be wonderful. It had these beautiful wood floors that were painted and he got it for some crazy amount of money a month. He had to pay something ridiculously low. — Bruce W. Talamon

In those early days and months, when you were first getting to know Hammons what was your impression? His creative process is obviously different from someone who is painting on canvas all the time. What were your thoughts about his unique methods?

I thought he was brilliant. The process of how he made the body prints. If you look in “L.A. Object” you can see him putting the oil on his elbows and you realize it’s Johnson’s Baby Oil. Then you see he presses his body onto the paper and then he uses the imprint and takes the tempura paint, the powdered paint, the different colors. Then he pours it directly onto the paper and then it sticks where the oil is. Then he adds other stuff sometimes, different textured paper. If you look at his body prints, it can be as simple as a sheet of paper or as complicated as a collage with other things added on, other layers.

 

wine leaading wine - hammons
‘The Wine Leading the Wine,” circa 1969 (body print) by David Hammons | Reproduced from “Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960-1980” (Prestel) page 274.

 

Is there a particular body print that you favor?

The one I love is “The Wine Leading the Wine” you can tell these brothers have been drinking. One’s in front of the other, the hat, and that’s all David. I’m looking for the page. Here it is “The Wine Leading the Wine,” 1969. And he even took his hat and put the oil on it. He took his shirt and leaned on it and the other parts of his body. It’s almost like a photograph. It’s almost like an x-ray, down to the brown paper bag and then the guy behind him is like, “Hey brother, let me have a taste.”

When he’s engaged in this method—putting oil on himself and making these impressions—did you ever feel like your presence affected his work or interfered with his process?

One of the things you don’t want to do is be noticed. One of the things you want to do is disappear. If you’re a good photographer you are not there. You’re a fly on the wall. You are not saying, “Hey stop, can you do that again?” Get the fuck out of here. You can’t do that. Obviously, I was there, but I tried to be as far away as possible. The other thing is sometimes you have to be close to get the image and I was right up in his face. But there is a way you do it. A lot of times, I was working with Nikons and Leicas and the Leicas are quiet. The Nikon, if you use a motor drive it can be really distracting, so you don’t use a motor drive. That’s like photography 101.

 

Talamon_Drinkwater_slauson
To create his body prints, David Hammons rubbed margarine and oil on his body and clothes and pressed himself against sheets of paper. “David Hammons, Slauson Studio,” 1974 (gelatin silver print) by Bruce W. Talamon | Courtesy Bruce W. Talamon

 

What about when you were documenting some of his performances or installations?

If you look at the stuff we did out at Venice beach, that whole thing could be affected by where my footprints in the sand would be, where David might plant one of the pieces of coat hanger wire. That was a beautiful piece and the one thing I am really proud of is that, in the end, that’s the only record that you have of that piece because it was in the water and then the water ended up washing it away, as I remember it.

Hammons was already a relatively accomplished artist at that point. When you were in that moment at the beach, did you feel like you were hanging out with your friend or did you have a sense that you were creating an important art historical record?

Hindsight is wonderful isn’t it? We were having a good time. Did I know it was “important”? Not really. I knew that David was special. Even though our relationship was casual and unstructured, I made sure I treated David the same way I treated my biggest assignments. Very intense. Very focused. I never shot just one roll. I was going to be a lawyer. I was going to go off to law school and then I picked up a camera. Now you look back and I’ve got this amazing body of work on David in different periods throughout his life.

It’s only recently that I’ve really started to show this work in 2011 when the Tilton gallery approached me. I had done the PS1 book, where it’s me and Dawoud Bey. Are you familiar with that book, “David Hammons: Rousing the Rubble”? Unfortunately, now the damn thing costs $600.

rousing the rubble - david hammonsI am. It has the chicken wings on the cover.

Yes. I am looking at a copy now and I see all of my photographs of the spades. “Laughing Magic” in 1973. “Bird.” Come on. Who takes a shovel jams it into the top part of a tenor saxophone and puts a black hand from a mannequin on it and calls it “Bird”? David. You see it and you get it. Or you look at the spade with chains that he did and all of a sudden it is literally an African mask. Better than any mask, or equal to the finest carved masks that you’ve seen in West Africa. And this came out of this brother’s head. When I look at some of his stuff, the “Bliz-aard Ball Sale” [1983]. Who sells snowballs in the middle of Manhattan? Who puts them up for sale and then people buy them? (Laughs.) And his wry commentary on basketball, “Higher Goals” [1986]. You look at that and you understand what he was talking about. Although, I will say, people have gotten carried away and they didn’t understand his commentary.

Does any particular instance of his intentions being misinterpreted come to mind?

The classic is “How Ya Like Me Now,” which was the Jesse Jackson piece. Some brothers took offense. They thought David was insulting him, when of course he wasn’t. When we were out on the [Jackson presidential] campaign, a number of the African American journalists who were out there, there was a huge number of us, one of the things we noted when we would talk back and forth was how at these sites—and we could in New Hampshire, we could be in South Carolina, we could be in Georgia, we could be in Florida—there would be white people out there. A lot of people just thought he only had a black electorate that was behind him and that’s not true. He made a conscious effort to reach out and that’s why they talked about the rainbow and that there was this coalition. There was a white audience that came out to see him and to see what this was about.

Having said that, when the primaries were held his numbers in the most part were low. One day we were talking about how somebody had come forward and basically said, “I love what he is saying and if he was white I’d probably vote for him.” They couldn’t get past the fact that even though he was talking the better position, he was black at the end of the day. When they would go into the ballot box, they still couldn’t push that button for a black man. In an offhand comment, I remember someone saying if Jesse was white, the inference being if he had blonde hair and blue eyes, he’d have won. So then in 1988 here comes this piece that David has put together and I got it immediately.

“I remember someone saying if Jesse [Jackson] was white, the inference being if he had blonde hair and blue eyes, he’d have won. So then in 1988 here comes this piece that David has put together and I got it immediately.” — Bruce W. Talamon

But others misunderstood it.

Those brothers who saw the thing go up? What I got from that was they were being protective of Jesse. They didn’t care about what David was doing. They just thought that someone was defaming their hero, their champion, and they were not going to stand for that. They didn’t understand the subtleties. They took these sledgehammers and they were going to bust it down. Then it got saved.

Did you and Hammons ever discuss Jackson’s campaign?

I’m pretty sure at some point we had conversations, but I had no influence. I was out there for six months. David knew I was doing it. I don’t ever remember the two of us talking about white people being in North Carolina or South Carolina saying, “If he’d been white with blue eyes and blonde hair I would’ve voted for him.” But it happened. I am just glad David picked up on that. Whatever that vibe was out there, David felt it.

Did you photograph Hammons after he started living and working in New York?

After he left Los Angeles and went to New York, I’d photograph him every time I was in New York. I might not even be looking for David and I’d find him. He’d walk around the corner and there he was. David is like this spirit. It’s not like you conjure him up, but David will appear. I wish I had done more in New York. I would travel to New York if I had a music assignment or when I would drop in off of the Jackson campaign.

 

Talamon_DavidHammonsLaSalleStudio
“David Hammons, La Salle Studio,” 1977 (gelatin silver print) by Bruce W. Talamon. Hammons used a saxophone for his assemblage work “Bird” 1973, referencing jazz saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker. | Courtesy Bruce W. Talamon

 

You collaborated with Hammons on a set of images for a possible Max Roach album cover.

(Laughs) The Max Roach project. Yes I did. That came about because David had an idea. He knew I was taking photographs of jazz musicians and… Here’s the deal. I would take my lighting equipment into these clubs. I’d show up at the door unannounced to do a portrait at The Lighthouse or Concerts By the Sea or the Shrine Auditorium and the promoters or club owners would let me in. I remember the first portrait I did was of Cannonball Adderley at Concerts By the Sea. Howard Rumsey was the owner of the club and Howard would let me in. Full disclosure: I was going out with Dexter Gordon’s daughter at the time and Howard loved Dexter so when he’d see me coming I never had to pay.

Is that where you photographed Max Roach?

Yes. The assignment with Cannonball Adderley for Fantasy Records established what I did, bringing in this strobe light and doing these portraits backstage. Then I photographed Max Roach backstage at Concerts By the Sea. I photographed the performance in available light. You don’t want to have a flash going off in the middle of a song. It’s not cool. So I talked to Max afterward and he said, “Sure, you can come back and do some portraits.” I did the portraits and I had my lab make some prints and I gave them to him and he loved them. That was the trade off. Generally they performed on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. I’d shoot and Friday or Saturday and bring them a print.

So Hammons knew you had photographed Max Roach, what was the idea?

We would talk about what we were doing when we were together and so he saw some prints that I had done of some of these musicians and he had this idea. He said, “I’ll do a silk screen.” He took two images and he came back with two silk screens. The actual screens, I still have that stuff. I’ve got the silk screens. I’ve got the paint. All these years I’ve kept all of that stuff. I want to say we were up in my girlfriend’s apartment. I am not sure. All I know is we silk screened all night long. Then I think he took it over to his studio and did some stuff. This was a real collaboration from day one between David and I. Remember this was around 1976 and we were hustling around and were trying to make some money. We were trying to get known. I knew Max, so I wrote a note.

“I want to say we were up in my girlfriend’s apartment. I am not sure. All I know is we silk screened all night long. Then I think he took it over to his studio and did some stuff. This was a real collaboration from day one between David and I. — Bruce W. Talamon

Right. The note was referenced in the lot description when the images were up for auction in 2012 at Swann.

Here’s the interesting thing. This is very layered. I had worked with R&B musicians who were on a label, but a lot of times jazz musicians would not be on a label or they’d be on a label for one or two things and they’d move to another label. Max was one of those guys. So it’s not like he had a label and he had an album coming out next year. But I didn’t know that at the time.

I put the images in a package and mailed them off to Max. I saw Max a year later and he said, “I’m in between labels and I don’t have a project.” He said, “Let me hold onto them for a bit and we’ll see what comes up.” Well, quite frankly, time passed and I was doing other things. David was doing other things. Max was doing other things and so we forgot about it. And then Max died.

How did you and Hammons spend your time together when he wasn’t creating, when you weren’t photographing?

We would talk about stuff. David was always very curious about everything. We would have these great conversations about all kinds of stuff, be it art or politics or trying to find a great studio space. He’d say, “You have to walk. You can’t drive.” If you drive, you are passing by too fast and you miss all the things you need to see on the street. We would eat out a lot. We would always go to these interesting restaurants. There was a restaurant, I want to call it the Meatless Mess Hall, in Venice on the boardwalk. We’d go to bars and drink. I remember many a night going out to bars in Los Angeles just to eat and watch and see what was going on. A lot of times people would just be fascinated with what I was dong. Jesse Jackson or working on a movie set. There was no set routine. We both loved jazz and jazz musicians. We’d talk about women and black folk in the community where we were. Whatever happened to us.

I remember one time we were somewhere in New York and we ended up walking all the way up to his studio in Harlem, but then we ended up at a speakeasy. We fell out of that place and it was like sunrise. The sun was brightly shining. That had to be in the 80s. David knew some folks and it was literally a thing where you knock on the door and someone slides the thing and says, ‘Yes?’ And they knew David and we came in. It was great. For me it’s always an adventure with David. I just cherish the time that we have spent together. He’s the one that gave me the name of my Bob Marley book.

bob marley - spirit dancerHow did that come about?

I traveled off and on with Bob Marley over a three-year period between 1978 and 1980, his travels in the United States and culminating in West Africa. On what would have been his 50th birthday in 1994, I did a book with W.W. Norton. David and I were talking and I remember him saying that the important part is sort of the dance before the dance. It’s the tune up, the warm up, the sound check, running down the songs before the formal performance. Rehearsals are much more interesting than the performance where everyone’s dressed up and the musician comes out and they play a set and that’s the end of it. To be there and watch them create and watch them tweak it and maybe change something, that’s much more interesting. And in a sense, that’s like what an artist does. What you see generally is the finished piece.

That’s absolutely true.

I was going to look at the book because I actually, in my introduction, said something about David. [Reads from the introduction to “Bob Marley: Spirit Dancer”]: “My friend artist David Hammons planted the seed for the title ‘Spirit Dancer.’ We used to talk a lot about jazz and now, on those too rare occasions when we get together, we still talk until the early morning, David used to say that the sound check for musicians before a concert was the place to be. That final rehearsal was where the artist jammed, worked out new ideas—a private dance.”

Then I say at the end that David was just like Bob Marley. Marley was generous. Gave me access to photograph behind the scenes. Total access. No publicist hovering. No buffer. No restrictions. You want the sweat and the grit, all of what contributes to the process. You want, as George Clinton so eloquently put it, the “uncut funk.” That is the way that I’ve always photographed David. There’s not a lot of times where you going to get that now. I look back and, quite frankly, the two most important people that I’ve photographed or the most fun or the most interesting, the most access, I’d have to say it was David Hammons and Bob Marley.

“I look back and, quite frankly, the two most important people that I’ve photographed or the most fun or the most interesting, the most access, I’d have to say it was David Hammons and Bob Marley.” — Bruce W. Talamon

basketball hoop chandelier - hammons
“Untitled,” 2000 (crystal, brass, frosted glass, light fixtures, hardware and steel) by David Hammons, sold for $8,005,000 on Nov. 13, 2013 | Image via Philips

 

What do you make of the multi-million dollar value of Hammons’s work today?

How many times do you hear about the artist who dies poor? Works in obscurity for x number of years, dies poor, and then their work sells for $8 million or $10 million or $20 million dollars at some auction? It’s someone who bought the stuff early on in the person’s career or maybe not so early, but they got it and they got it cheap and then all of a sudden they have this windfall and the artist never sees anything. The beauty of what happened last year, you know David sold that piece. Some other third party didn’t sell that piece. [Hammons’s basketball hoop chandelier sold for more than $8 million at Phillips Nov. 13, 2013, auction.]

Yes, in the catalog it says it was acquired directly from the artist and so he was able to profit instead of a collector or institution.

Exactly and that’s beautiful. That’s the correct way it should have been. David early on was trading for stuff. He really didn’t have a car a lot of times. At the start of our careers all of us were hustling around. That’s a part of the past for David now and that’s as it should be. I don’t think he’s been as recognized as some of his contemporaries today and I still think that they’re dragging their feet because he is such an important artist and I am not saying that just because he is my friend.

Talamon_DavidHammonsBakersfieldWhen was the last time that you photographed Hammons?

The last time I photographed David was maybe, I’d have to check. But it’s probably been two years. I mean time does fly, at least a year plus. I was back in New York and I went by his Brooklyn studio. We had lunch and it was my turn to buy.

What are you working on now?

Actually, I haven’t really worked on a film in a while. The last film I did was a little project with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts called “Larry Crowne.” Tom directed that and I shot the poster. I did a project with John Singleton called “Abduction” and I shot the poster for that. Those were a while ago, like in 2011.

Since then, I’ve been working on some personal projects. One of them is my R&B book, images from my work from 1972 to 1982, which incorporates all of the usual suspects: Parliament Funkadelic, Jackson 5, Labelle, Johnny Taylor, Bill Withers, O’Jays, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder. My agent is shopping for a publisher.

I am working on a documentary on the American rock and roll photographer Jim Marshall. He was a very close friend of mine. And I am working on an interesting project dealing with African American photographers from World War II, original negatives and prints from 1942-45. We are talking about images that are 70 years old and in some cases haven’t been printed since the ’40s and the work is just lyrical. It’s just wonderful. That’s a big project. I am working with a couple people on that. It is not my project. It’s an “our” project. What we would like is a museum exhibition and book. So my plate is very full.

You’ve said that Bob Marley and David Hammons were the most interesting and important people you’ve worked with. Can you talk about the irony of connecting with these two people who are very similar—independent spirits with unique points of view, who have been incredibly successful in their fields?

I’ve often described my professional career as like a BB being dropped into a box car and it bounces around or like a pinball. There is so much randomness to it. That I got to photograph David Hammons and Bob Marley, to be able to say that in the same sentence, in the same breath, is kind of nice. They were going about their business and they didn’t tarry and I would like to think that I was at least able to keep up so that they would feel that I did a good job in representing them. CT

 

This interview has been condensed and edited.

 

IMAGE: Above right, “David Hammons, Bakersfield,” 1974 (gelatin silver print) by Bruce W. Talamon. Two “African masks” by Hammons appear on the wall behind him. | Courtesy Bruce W. Talamon

 

BOOKSHELF
Over the years, David Hammons’s work has been captured in a pair of collectible catalogs. Published in 1991, “David Hammons: Rousing the Rubble” celebrates two decades of his practice. More recently, “L.A. Object & David Hammons Body Prints,” offers an historical overview of the artist’s practice and the Los Angeles assemblage movement of the 1960s and 70s. Meanwhile, Bruce Talamon’s “Bob Marley: Spirit Dancer” documents the reggae legend’s life in photographs.

 

HammonsBT675--36A-eml
David Hammons standing in front of his Slauson Avenue Studio in 1974 | Photo by Bruce W. Talamon, Courtesy Bruce W. Talamon