In 1974, photographer Bruce W. Talamon documented David Hammons in his Los Angeles studio in the process of making his pivotal early works on paper, the body prints. In these monoprints and collages, Hammons used the body as both a drawing tool and printing plate to explore performative, unconventional forms of image making. Hammons’s body prints represent the origin of his artistic language, one that has developed over a long and continuing career and that emphasizes both the artifacts and subjects of contemporary Black life in the United States.
For the publication David Hammons: Body Prints, 1968–1979, Talamon contributed an illuminating photo essay and text, excerpted below, reflecting on his time spent documenting the artist at work.
I was introduced to David Hammons in the summer of 1974 in Los Angeles. These photographs represent a visual record from 1974 through 1977 at the 2409 West Slauson Avenue studio and from 1977 at the LaSalle Street studio that he shared with Senga Nengudi.
David could always find the most interesting spaces. The Slauson Avenue studio was huge, maybe 3,000 square feet of open space. In another life, it was a former ballroom with beautiful painted wood floors, twenty-foot-high ceilings and a stage. Located on the north side of Slauson Avenue, the studio was upstairs and had a bank of windows facing south. The LaSalle Street studio was much smaller—a storefront located at street level with huge display windows that were painted white. In both studios, the light was wonderful.
These are photographs of David Hammons as seen through the lens of a young African American photographer at the start of his career. I’ve known David for more than forty-five years. To this day, I don’t know why he gave me such intimate access to his process, but I recognize the responsibility I had. I would like to think that we developed a certain level of trust. From 1974 through 1978, when he moved to New York, we had adventures. I look back on that period fondly.
When David called, I never knew where we would end up, but I always brought extra film. I was working for a small African American music and arts newspaper, photographing R&B, funk, and jazz musicians. I approached working with David Hammons with the same respect and attention I gave to Marvin Gaye, Dexter Gordon, Max Roach, Earth Wind & Fire, and later, Bob Marley.
This collection of photographs includes a series that captures the process of making a body print at the Slauson Avenue studio. It could have been Marvin Gaye or Earth Wind & Fire in the studio. For me, the same rules applied:
Pay attention. The pictures are all around you. And don’t mess up the vibe.
You can see him rubbing oil on his arms and then you realize he’s using Johnson’s Baby Oil. He presses his body onto the paper, leaving an imprint. Next, he takes powdered tempera paint and pours it through a kitchen strainer onto the paper. He uses the strainer to make sure that any lumps of powdered paint are removed. Holding the paper with both hands, he shakes the fine powder over the imprint. The paint will stick only where the oil imprint is on the paper. Sometimes he would repeat this process with different colors.
During this period, I documented a number of projects. The body prints, the spade chain masks, and then newer work that incorporated the hair he collected from barbershops for the performance pieces.
When documenting visual artists or musicians, one of the things you don’t want to do is to become a distraction. You learn to wait. Did I know this was “Important”? I would say that I knew that David was special. Even though our relationship was casual and unstructured, I always made sure that I treated David the same way I treated my biggest assignments: Focused. Always with respect. I never had an assignment. But I knew it was important to have a record. He was brilliant.
David was also generous. You just had to listen. In 1994, he gave me the title for my first book, Bob Marley: Spirit Dancer. In my introduction, I acknowledged David’s contribution. Now reading it again I realize that my friend had given me much more than a title. He gave me a gift. Here’s what I wrote then:
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. This was what you didn’t see at a concert. Sharpening and honing. Adding and deleting songs from the set list. Waiting. When you were backstage, you were an observer and a participant. It can be argued that by simply being there and photographing, the reality was altered. But you shared that moment with the artist as you recorded the process. You had just witnessed something special. The saxophone player Eric Dolphy once said, “When you hear music, it’s gone. In the air. You can never capture it again.”
It was the same when photographing David.
I have often described my professional career as one of access and opportunity. That I got to photograph David Hammons and have adventures along the way—to be able to say that means a lot. I would like to think that maybe I was able to keep up; and that I was able to create a visual record that will last long after we are gone.
Thank You, David. You taught me to use my eyes.
—Bruce Talamon, Los Angeles, 2020