ROBERT HEINECKEN 1931-2006.

ROBERT HEINECKEN 1931-2006.
Heinecken was physically a small man – and towards the end of his long debilitating illness, he was tiny. But when he had his health you never noticed his size because he always seemed, unobtrusively but decidedly, to be at the exact center of the energy of any room he was in. His size has relevance –because that, tied to his quick instinctual reflexes and ready intelligence, made it possible for him to excel as a Marine Corps jet fighter pilot and then as a pilot instructor in the mid-1950s. And that’s significant; because Heinecken brought many of the qualities of that life into his later life as an artist and a teacher. He tied together a sort of savage dedication to searching the boundaries and forcing the rules of established “high art” beliefs and concepts with an astonishingly rigorous methodology of practice in his art and in his professional activities. (This might seem unusual unless you understand what qualities are useful for flying very fast, very dangerous, fighting planes.) To these qualities he added an exact and precise and unflinching and, one might even say, moral sense of responsibility to his own commitment to the practice of art-making. Initially, it looks like an awful lot of his art was about sex and sexism and violence and the media that carry those issues so persuasively into our lives; but actually his art was about finding and facing those powerful and confusing inner forces that make us human.
A half hour on the internet will convince anyone of his distinction as an artist and the weight of his presence in current photographic practice and I’m not going to attempt to reiterate that information here. But please remember that Heinecken was also an outstanding teacher. He taught much more than the skills and practices of being an artist. He also taught, deliberately and carefully, to his students a sense of professionalism, the necessity of community, and the importance of nurturing and contributing to that community. Something he himself did as he could, for as long as he could. William S. Johnson
“Robert Heinecken 1931-2006. A Remembrance.” Afterimage 34:1/2 (July-Oct. 2006): 2.

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HEINECKEN, by William S. Johnson (revised March 2014, 2019)

I met Robert Heinecken in the late 1960s or early 1970s. I had been invited to attend a small weekend gathering at my friend Carl Chiarenza’s house in Lexington, Massachusetts. This meeting consisted of photographers who were teaching photography at various universities around the country and who were officers of a young organization called the Society for Photographic Education. It was an unusual time. Photography was burning hot in academic circles; and art departments at scores of universities, which had previously ignored photography as a creative discipline, were scrambling to cobble together programs to meet the extraordinary demand coming from hundreds of students everywhere around the country. I, myself, was a reflection of those demands. I was trained and working as a librarian, who through a series of unusual circumstances was also teaching a lecture course on the history of photography for the Department of Fine Arts (meaning art history) at Harvard University. I had never completed a course in art history, and yet I was lecturing in one of the most prestigious art history departments in the country to a class of 250 to 300 students each week. And my friend Carl, who was a graduate student in the Fine Arts department at Harvard and who was also a professor at Boston University across the river, was giving lectures there each week to an auditorium filled with 600 or more students. As I said, an unusual time.

The known history of photography at that time consisted of Beaumont Newhall’s survey plus two or three other books written in English and a dozen or so books in other languages; plus maybe a two or three dozen books that might be stretched to be called artist’s monographs. The finest library collections held far fewer than a thousand books even distantly relating to the medium as an art form. And there were few other resources available to instructors. I remember that one set of a few hundred teaching slides was available commercially through the George Eastman House – one of only a handful of museums in the country that even considered photography as a potential art form. I was scrambling frantically through the magnificent general collections of the Harvard University Library to dig up 19th century examples of the use of photography and getting slides made so that I could teach a more complete and nuanced survey of the medium. I was at best one or two weeks ahead of the students in those lectures; and I hadn’t yet gotten close to learning much about contemporary practice. What I did know about contemporary work was mostly from the half dozen or so photography magazines that occasionally mentioned “creative photography” from time to time. That view of the medium was dominated by articles about the “stars” of photojournalism or fashion photography (W. Eugene Smith, Richard Avedon, etc.) on one hand or by Modernist photographers (Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, etc.) on the other.

I knew very little about the photographers attending this weekend meeting. I knew Carl’s work, a little bit about the Florida photographer Jerry Uelsmann, whose work was causing a stir in the few magazines which published “serious” photography, and a bit more about a former LIFE photojournalist named Cornel Capa, the brother of the more famous Robert Capa, who was at the meeting to promote his intention to put together an institution in New York City he was calling Concerned Photographers. Otherwise, I knew next to nothing about the twenty or thirty other individuals gathered at Carl’s, or about the field which they represented.

The morning had been given over to SPE business. The SPE President, a short, casually dressed man with a neat beard and long straight, impeccably clean hair drawn back into a ponytail, who apparently taught at UCLA and was named Robert Heinecken, had impressed me with the professional manner in which he had run the meeting, informally held in the back yard. I had also been impressed by the concern he had demonstrated in his remarks about attempting to assess the future of the community of students he and his colleagues were representing. It had been altogether a far more professional meeting of artists and teachers than I had expected.

That afternoon, after lunch, there was a break period with people sitting around in the living room, gossiping among acquaintances, chatting casually, resting, and building up energy to get back into the scheduled program for the weekend. Very slowly what appeared to be some commercial magazines began to be circulated around the room, being passed slowly from chair to chair. They were described as the latest work of this Robert Heinecken, whose professional demeanor had so impressed me in the morning.

One of these magazines reached me and I began to leaf through it. It consisted of conjoined pages removed from various commercial magazines of every kind, which had been disbanded, collated into a new order, then rebound. In the magazine the left page consisted of a full color pornographic photograph from a “men’s magazine”, the right page a full color advertisement for make-up or clothing from an expensive women’s fashion magazine. The paired images usually shared extended similarities in form and presentation, so much so that it often seemed that the same models, positioned in the same poses, were in both scenes. First, I was startled – this was unusual for me; there were no actual photographs made by the artist, certainly nothing of the black and white, pre-visualized Edward Weston, Ansel Adams type image which I associated with contemporary high-art photographic practice. And, frankly, I was shocked. The very idea of taking apart commercial magazines, then rebinding them in new configurations and calling that “art” challenged my understanding of what I considered to be a “fine art” practice. And the overt and frank referral to human sexuality within the work seemed both unusual and a bit unnerving to me as well, as my understanding of artistic practice certainly did not extend to incorporate pornography. But I kept leafing through the work and gradually I began to understand that this was a serious and sustained indictment of the use of subliminal sexuality in the public media. This is an old story now, but at the time it was both revelatory and a bit shocking, requiring one to re-access the barrage of images one was subjected to on a daily basis. I also had to accept that this was not some frivolous act, but the work of an artist engaged in serious social commentary, and also engaged in pioneering a novel means of expression to best depict that commentary.

But as I sat there trying to understand all this I experienced yet another shock. The artist had brought together pages where the nuances of color, form and shape found within each page complemented and expanded the visual impact of the conjoined double-page spread. In other words, he had taken individual “found” pieces and worked them into a coherent visual whole which extended well beyond the component pieces that it was made from. As I leafed through the magazine I gradually realized, looking beyond the subject content, that these pages often were — for lack of a better word — “beautiful.” And that the artist had created a work that was both a serious social commentary and also an aesthetically pleasing picture. I felt that the artist had taken some mundane and commonplace magazines and transformed them into a matured, complex, and expressive work of art. Which is something to be not found every day — even in the professional world of fine arts practice.

I don’t remember much of the rest of that weekend meeting. What I do remember was that on that afternoon, sitting in a chair in that living room, I had received a profound lesson in what serious art can be, and a revelatory expansion of my understanding of the dimensions of the practice of art-making.

A year or so later Heinecken came back to Cambridge again on a sabbatical leave; where he taught photography at the Carpenter Center for Visual Studies at Harvard for a semester. We got to know each other a bit more at this time, and gradually became friends.

Robert Heinecken was the son, grandson, great-grandson and nephew to several uncles in a multi-generational family of Lutheran ministers; yet he dropped out of college in the early 1950s to become a U. S. Marine Corps jet fighter pilot – a profession not known for its piety. And he excelled at this profession, on one occasion landing his crippled jet onto an aircraft carrier after another pilot had clipped his tail rudder and crashed into the sea. Heinecken was basically flying a brick at this point, and no one understood how he was able to land the plane. In those days in order to fly jet fighter planes successfully one had to have an absolutely controlled discipline, with the ability to master and perform the very delicate, always dangerous tasks needed to keep those unsteady objects in the air, and yet be able to combine this rigor and discipline with a complete willingness to “push the envelope” of any given situation in an absolutely hair-raising way. Even a brief glance at Heinecken’s oeuvre shows both of these qualities in profusion.

Later Heinecken became an instructor, training or retraining other pilots until the end of his enlistment. I think it is here that he developed and refined the skills and procedures and understandings that made him such a good teacher at UCLA and Chicago and elsewhere after he had left the Marines and returned to art school. Because Heinecken was widely and justly considered to be one of the best teachers of his generation.

A few years later my wife and I had the opportunity to observe Heinecken over an extended period of time, with multiple video and audio tape interviews spaced over a period of several months, observing him while he created his art on several occasions and sitting in on the final day of a seminar he was teaching that summer in Chicago.
Heinecken always attempted to wrap up his teaching sessions with a final talk to his students – a talk in which he outlined four issues that every student would have to face once they leave school if they wished to continue practicing as an artist/photographer. He laid out these four points and then developed his discussion of each part of these points in a very orderly, specific and detailed manner. It seemed more like a military briefing than anything else. Relying on a thirty-year-old memory, I’m afraid that I will have to generalize a bit, but I still remember the main points.

First, he talked about professionalism, and what that might mean to a struggling young artist. He pointed out that an artist was responsible to or at least would have to respond to four major issues throughout the remainder of their career. Heinecken claimed that each of these issues would at times place conflicting demands on the student’s time and energies, but that all of these issues were important to the individual’s development and that they should consider how best to manage them throughout their future progress as an artist.
1st. To develop their art. An artist has to make art. One had to keep working hard to continue to develop and expand their mastery over their own art practice.
2nd. To develop their career. Some time, careful thought, energy and action had to be devoted into developing their own career, otherwise they would always be working in a vacuum.
3rd. To develop their profession, which parallels, but isn’t quite the same as the first two issues. In spite of the romantic ideal of the individual isolated artist, in fact, the practice of art took place within a context of supporting institutions and organizations which also needed to be developed and maintained.
And 4th, to develop their community. Heinecken took pains to point out that the students existed within a specialized community of like-minded individuals consisting of those who enjoyed the practice and qualities of fine art photography and who valued and fostered it in their lives. This community consisted in those artists, educators, administrators, curators, authors, critics and collectors who chose to spend their own time, energy and money to foster the development of fine arts practices in photography. And as many more people in the world were indifferent or even hostile to the idea of fine art photography or the practice of art in general, this was a small and occasionally embattled community which only at times marginally interfaced with the larger cultural functioning of contemporary society. So it was necessary to be aware of and attempt to respond to those forces and ideas in play at the time, from censorship to funding to the health of the organizations or institutions, which might impact upon that community. The artist should always give some consideration of these issues and strive to help maintain a healthy environment within the community the student had elected to join by becoming an artist.

It might seem ironic that the man who had the public reputation of being a misogynist, but who had such a clear vision of the fragilities and frailties of the male ego and the force of sexuality in contemporary life, and who had been considered so radical at times, would expend such care to attempt to teach good citizenship to his students. But that was Heinecken; combing irony, humor, concern and compassion to challenge careless thinking at every level.

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