In 1982 I created the Brooklyn Bridge composite panoramic collage. Measuring 9” x 16” it is composed of 80 35MM frames. It became one of my most popular images, I’ve sold or gifted more of these than any other collage of this kind, including a few enlarged versions. It is in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum, NY. In early 1983 I decided to print a postcard of the image, as it was the 100th anniversary year of the completion of the Great East River Bridge. The plan was to do a promotional mailing, and use it as a ‘leave behind’ card when dropping off a portfolio for review.
On Sunday March 27th of that year I received a call from a close friend, who in the course of the casual conversation said “did you happen to see the Times today? I wouldn’t bother, too depressing” I thought it odd, but whatever. Then my brother called a little later and said less subtly: “did you see the cover of the Times magazine section today?? Some guy ripped off your Brooklyn Bridge picture!!” Artist David Hockney, who had begun experimenting with his own version of photo collage, had his Brooklyn Bridge photo collage on the cover of the NY Time magazine section, as part of an article about the Centennial. Also created in 1982, It was taken from the exact same vantage point as mine, looking at the same stanchion with the same graffiti covered plaque. It was uncanny, and unsettling to see. Now, some 40 years later, I am able to put it all in some sort of perspective. But back then it was a shock to the system, and it had some real ramifications. At that time in my life I was hustling my portfolio of these collages everywhere. And from that moment onward came the familiar refrain: ‘Wow, this looks like David Hockney’s work!’ It was an inescapable phenomenon that I eventually had to accept, in spite of the fact that I was doing similar collages since 1979. There was little I could do against a public perceptual juggernaut like that. My best effort was to create a ‘Pre-Hockney rubber stamp(!) with which I stamped the postcard and 35MM slides of the Brooklyn Bridge image, (as part of the endless cycle of sending ’20 slides of your best work’ to countless galleries, slide registries, calls for entry, etc.)
On the positive side, within a short amount of time there was great interest in photo collage work in general, because, as this ivory tower artist soon discovered, I was not the only person creating photo collage with David Hockney simply coming along later. There were dozens, hundreds of photographers and artists, stretching back in some cases decades, working on photo collage of some sort or another. And out of nowhere galleries and institutions were mounting group shows of collage photography, where many otherwise unknown artists (along with some well known, like Hockney) were in gallery and museum group shows around the country, I was in several, and in at least one case my Brooklyn Bridge was on the cover of the catalog while Mr. Hockney languished inside the catalog. Take that!
In April of that fateful year, I managed to get an audience with the late Barbara Millstien, the curator of photography at the Brooklyn Museum. While talking about the Hockney situation she said “Shit, I would have cried”, acknowledging the inescapable permanent PR problem I had. Nonetheless she accepted a print for the collection for which I am eternally grateful.
So there are two takeaways for me coming out of this situation. The first I have always known, and that the ‘market’ cannot endure more than one person/style at a time to occupy the main spotlight, and any similars are kept at a distance, thru indirect but inescapable forces. There can only be one Rothko, one Picasso (sorry Braque!) one Jackson Pollack. I mean, just imagine if there was another artist trying to do similar drip paintings at the same time. It just doesn’t happen. There is only one Jerry Lewis (sorry Sammy Petrillo!). C’est la vie. But the other takeaway points to the uncanny business of how David & David both did the same basic thing, within feet of each other’s location, within months of each other’s execution, completely unknown to each other. This led me down various rabbit holes where I learned all about synchronicity, simultaneous invention, and the Hundredth Monkey effect, etc. Instead of immature and misplaced resentments and jealousy, I am instead happy and proud to have been a part of the photo collage moment, one monkey among many.
Discoveries are Often Discovered Independently By Multiple People
Postscript: In 1983-84 I was working at Cafe Luxembourg, the uptown sister restaurant of the Odeon, both owned by Keith McNally, and both frequented by the NYC art cognoscenti. Curator and critic Henry Geldzahler, a close friend of David Hockney, was a frequent guest. I waited on him one night and struck up a brief conversation with him about the Brooklyn Bridge, whereupon I gave him a postcard (I was alway loaded to bear with promotional materials, wherever I was. Be sure to ask me one day about how I pitched the one and only Donald Trump in 1983 at the Wollman Skating rink!). He promised he’d show it to David next time he saw him, which he did, and actually reported back to me about it. I honestly forget exactly what he said, but at one point, Henry looked up at me and simply said/asked “No bitterness?” I remember being flummoxed. I was too young and still chafed at my ‘permanent PR flaw’ I never asked for, so I don’t remember exactly how I responded. But now, 40 years later and with much gained wisdom and maturity, I can honestly say: ‘no bitterness’. Gratitude instead.
Added note: From the very beginning of creating these biaxial 360° x 180° collages, i started developing plans for converting them into 3D spheres, initially as panels adhered to Buckminster Fuller type geodesic domes. I eventually opted for my own design and made a maquette version of the Brooklyn Bridge. Of course the idea of doing large inside-out spheres was a logical extension of that, to create a 360° x 360° full surround environment. Looking back it was all a precursor to VR environments, and as digital media became prevalent, I imagined converting these early images into ‘Vintage VR’, which I eventually did (see links)