People is one of several works Hamilton made from postcards with figures on the beach as subject during the 1960s. The paintings and subsequent prints examine small areas of the postcard close up, reproducing figures at the edge of legibility and showing the half-tone texture of the printing process. The print People is based on a painting of the same title Hamilton created in 1965–6 (collection the artist) made from a postcard of a view of a beach at Whitley Bay, a small town on the north-east coast of England. Hamilton was teaching design at the University of Newcastle in the north-east of England at this time. The People image was preceded by the painting Whitley Bay, 1965 (private collection), a colour image, showing people in swimwear on the sands and in the water, developed from a postcard printed in the usual way. The postcard from which People was derived is unusual in that it was a real photograph printed on emulsion, rather than a halftone reproduction. This means that when it was enlarged it did not break down into a landscape of dots. Instead it is a composition of shadowy black forms on a light ground. Because the beach was quite crowded when the photograph was taken, only isolated figures are recognizable as people. Hamilton was interested in the information which could potentially be discovered by enlarging a general image. He wrote: ‘As this texture of anonymous humanity is penetrated, it yields more fragments of knowledge about individuals isolated within it as well as endless patterns of group relationships’ (quoted in Richard Hamilton, p.161).
To create People, Hamilton closely examined the scene on the postcard and selected the area he was interested in. He photographed this detail, using an extension bellows on the camera which allowed extreme close-up, producing a 35mm negative from which he printed an eight by ten inch enlargement. The artist followed this procedure several times until the prints lost legibility, discovering to his great interest that there is a precise, identifiable point at which legibility breaks down. He played on this in a work derived from the same photograph and focusing on the same area as that used in People. To mother, 1968 comprises a series of eight stages in the zooming in process printed as a fold-out emerging from a copy of the postcard. The crop that became People constitutes the fifth stage of the enlargement process shown in the fold-out. The image features mainly dark clusters of bodies sitting and standing on the beach. A child is recognizable standing on the left and another child may be identified approaching a supine figure on the right. The two latter figures – possibly a mother and child – are the last stage of enlargement in the multiple To mother to which they gave the title.
The painting People comprises the photographic enlargement mounted on a wooden panel, to which Hamilton made several additions using magnolia and black oil paint. Their main purpose was to add textural interest to the otherwise smooth photographic surface and they do not disrupt the composition. For the print, the artist again added markings in order to create points of special interest. He used four hand-cut stencils to print marks in white, black and grey that enhance the composition. The white area is the same small organic form that he painted, in magnolia, onto the painting. He then sprayed black pigment onto the photograph and added more by hand. He placed two small paper circles, of the type once used to reinforce holes punched in paper for filing purposes, in the upper right of the print. One sits on an area of black and the other is on an area of grey, with its central hole filled by an area of black. Three small painted magnolia circles float over the surface of the print.
Photography became a central focus of Hamilton’s practice in the mid 1960s. During this period many artists, such as Robert Rauschenberg (born 1925) and Andy Warhol (1928–87) in the US and Gerhard Richter (born 1932) in Germany, were using the camera to transfer imagery onto their canvases. Photographs – the material of the media – are fundamental to Pop art, one of the dominant artistic movements from the late 1950s to which Hamilton was a significant contributor. He had already used photographs culled from magazines to produce collage; from the 1960s he began to categorize the types of imagery he derived from photographs. Photographs from the field of cinema generated Hamilton’s portrait of Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland in 1963–4 (P78721), his Interiors in 1964–5 (T00912 and P04250) and his images of Marilyn Monroe in 1965 (P04251). He continued to work with pictures of celebrity in a series of prints based on a press photograph of his art dealer Robert Fraser handcuffed to the rock star Mick Jagger in the late 1960s and early 1970s (P01855, P04254, P04255, P02416–32 and T01144). As well as contributing to the postcard works, found photographs of anonymous people were the source for A dedicated follower of fashion in 1980 (P07448) and The marriage in 1998 (P78290). Images from advertising provided the materials for Adonis in Y fronts, 1962 (P04247), Fashion plate, 1969–70 (P07937) and Soft pink landscape, 1980 (P07447). More recently Hamilton has used photographs taken in his own home and spaces where he has exhibited to create paintings and digital collage (P78289, P78705, P78919 and P20287).
People was created in several stages. The photograph was printed on photo-enlarging paper and mounted on board at Carlton Studios, London. It was then screenprinted by the artist and Chris Prater at Kelpra Studio, London before being retouched and collaged on by the artist. Hamilton published People in an edition of twenty-six plus one artist’s proof.
Etienne Lullin, Richard Hamilton: Prints and Multiples 1939–2002, exhibition catalogue, Kunstmuseum Winterthur and Yale Center for British Art, New Haven 2003, pp.84–5, reproduced p.85 in colour.
Richard Hamilton, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1992, pp.160–1.
Richard Hamilton: Collected Words 1953–1982, Stuttgart and London 1982, pp.68–9.