Photo Teaching in Primary Schools, Part 2: David Hockney’s Joiners

I have inspired students of all ages with David Hockney‘s Joiners for the past 30 years, both in this country and whilst on a teaching exchange in Tucson Arizona in 2003/4. There is something extremely satisfying about seeing a body or object in small pieces, photographing each part, joining them together in a very physical way, and then making a life-size picture from them all within one school day. It also works very well, because it is so participatory.

The Primary School children that I have been working with on the Beaford AVTTOS Project, had already got used to using the cameras and made some great stand-alone pictures. I started off by showing pictures that David Hockney had made himself in the 1980s. Some of these were in black-and-white, some were square from a Polaroid camera, and others were in colour. Hockney would always class himself as an artist rather than a photographer, and it is the art of seeing that he does so well. There are very few technical stills employed in his photographic image-making, automatic cameras were always used, and the prints were processed automatically too.

Hockney’s great achievement though was seeing the big, finished picture, in his mind’s eye before the first photograph was taken. This was a big leap for Primary School children to try and imagine how something might be before they started making it, using equipment that they were still only just starting to get to know.

I find that a big part of the teaching and learning process is allowing mistakes to be made so that you can learn from those and make something better. With this Joiner exercise, the mornings were often spent trying, but often failing, to make successful combinations of prints which joined together. But once the children were able to cut these contact sheet sized images up and try to fit them together like a jigsaw, they were able to recognise how to make the images better. They were always very keen to make more photographs and try again. There were also some children in all of the classes who naturally got the hang of it a lot quicker, and they were always happy to help those in their class who were struggling.

I tended to use the image above, by Hockney, as an example for the children to try for themselves. They wouldn’t be taking nearly as many photographs as he did, but the guidelines were to include themselves in the photograph and photograph one of their classmates sat on a chair including, the space between the two of them in the Joiner. For best results, they were to keep their lenses as long as possible.

Some children would take their Joiner making on a completely different creative trajectory, cutting their friends up and joining them in different, non-human ways or they might put different heads on bodies much like the old happy families card game. Distortion was also explored where legs were extended or like a photograph of a boy with a guitar where the neck of the guitar was stretched so that it was a lot longer than it should be, through the joiner process.

Once a good Joiner was achieved it was worked up into their sketchbooks and the children would write down how they made it. If there was time these finished sketchbook images were recreated life-size, using an A4 paper sheet for each individual image, and tacked to the classroom or corridor wall. Seeing their work in this way was a tremendous achievement for the children who would proudly show them off to their school friends.