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“There is a vast difference between taking a picture and making a photograph.”

Robert Heinecken, Artist Who Juxtaposed Photographs, Is Dead at 74

Published: May 22, 2006
Robert Heinecken, an artist and teacher whose eclectic and challenging work radically expanded the range of possibilities for photography as art, died on Friday at a nursing home in Albuquerque. He was 74.


Starting in the early 1960’s, Mr. Heinecken used an array of unconventional processes and an irreverent attitude toward the photographic original to influence the course of the art form. Surprisingly, for someone who came to be identified as a photographer, Mr. Heinecken seldom used a camera; he did not really take pictures himself until he started making Polaroid photographs of magazine pages in the late 1970’s.

Instead of treating photographs as the autonomous creations of their makers, as did Ansel Adams and other postwar tastemakers, he viewed them as forms of cultural iconography that reflected the commercialism and venality of contemporary life. In this sense, he was a forerunner of appropriationist artists of the 1980’s like Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince, who borrowed and recontextualized existing photographic images culled from printed reproductions.

Mr. Heinecken’s most influential body of work was his 1966-67 series “Are You Rea,” consisting of images that superimposed advertising and feature photographs found in large-circulation magazines, often to sarcastic effect. To combine the images, he treated each page like a photographic negative, shining a light through to expose both sides at once.

For his source material, Mr. Heinecken also turned to pornographic magazines, mail-order negatives of nude “art studies,” product packaging and television commercials. He subjected these “found images” to a variety of transformations involving methods and materials like lithography, etching, cameraless direct-exposure photograms and photo emulsion applied to canvas. He was capable of a wide range of aesthetic effects, from the delicately beautiful to the deliberately jarring.

In several series, including his “Cliché Vary” in 1974, the artist reproduced and reprocessed photographs of naked women in suggestive poses. This work, coinciding with the rise of the feminist movement, came to be viewed by many as repellent rather than as a commentary on male notions of eroticism.

Less controversial were his “Videograms” in the early 1980’s. He coined the term for a series of color photographs he took directly from a television broadcast without a camera, by fastening a piece of light-sensitive paper directly on the screen. Made during the first inauguration of President Ronald Reagan, they poke fun at both the political process and the media.

Mr. Heinecken’s hybrid integration of photographs with other mediums was a rebuke to the aesthetics of conventional photography adhered to by the major art photographers of the day. But it had much in common with the approach of Robert Rauschenberg, the unclassifiable artist whose graphic work of the late 1950’s and early 60’s freely mingled paint, sculpture, printmaking and photography. Like Mr. Rauschenberg, Mr. Heinecken doted on random effects and chance juxtapositions, joining a lineage in the arts that went from John Cage back to European Surrealism and Dadaism.

Robert Heinecken was born in Denver in 1931, the son of a Lutheran minister, and grew up in Riverside, Calif. After graduating from high school, he attended the University of California at Los Angeles but left to join the Marines, serving as a fighter pilot from 1953 to 1957. After leaving the military he returned to U.C.L.A., where he received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art. As a graduate student, he specialized in printmaking but, influenced by the historical example of Marcel Duchamp and by a contemporary Los Angeles art scene in rebellion against abstract painting, he began to combine lithography, etching, sculpture and photograms in unusual ways.

After receiving his master’s degree in 1960, Mr. Heinecken was hired by the U.C.L.A. art department, where he taught for the next 31 years. In 1963, he founded the department’s photography program, at the time one of the few places to study photography as an art. In 1964 he helped found the Society for Photographic Education, an organization of college-level teachers. He was its chairman in 1970 and 1971.

As a teacher, Mr. Heinecken encouraged experimentation and stylistic freedom but offered no stylistic blueprint. Among his better-known students are Jo Ann Callis, John Divola and Patrick Nagatani. In 1991 he retired from U.C.L.A. and in 1996 he moved to Chicago, where Ms. Neimanas taught photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. They moved to Albuquerque two years ago.

Perhaps because he was identified closely with photography, Mr. Heinecken never achieved the vast public recognition accorded Mr. Rauschenberg, and he did not gain an international reputation quite like those of John Baldessari or Ed Ruscha, fellow California artists with an interest in the photograph as a cultural object. But in the last 10 years, his career was the subject of two retrospective exhibitions, mounted by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in 1999 and the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in 2003. The Center for Creative Photography now holds his archives.


The idea of photography as a documentary medium did not interest Mr. Heinecken in the least. He once said: “Many pictures turn out to be limp translations of the known world instead of vital objects which create an intrinsic world of their own. There is a vast difference between taking a picture and making a photograph.”

Source: The New York Times