Edward Hopper’s Influence on [My] Photography

Edward Hopper’s influence on my photography has been considerable, and it is a constant and guiding source of inspiration.

A couple of years ago I watched a short documentary piece on Channel 13 (WNET, New York) on Edward Hopper’s archetypal painting, “House by the Railroad” and its many levels of meaning. It also discusses its influence on photography, which many photographers recognize as significant. I had inadvertently found it while sitting down to have lunch one day (I’ll usually watch a science or art program while eating). I was so engaged that I ran to get a piece of paper to scribble some notes. I came across those notes recently in a text file on my computer. To my amazement they read like prose poetry and I wanted to share it in this post, which is an update to one I wrote a couple of years ago on the subject.

The notes are pieces of commentary by a few of the interviewees—filmmakers and art historians— and reference “House by The Railroad” directly. You can see the piece here: Edward Hopper, House by the Railroad, 1925. Afterwards, I viewed another good 50-minute piece that’s more comprehensive entitled, “Edward Hopper – Painter of Alienation”.

Edward Hopper - House by The Railroad 1925
Edward Hopper – House by The Railroad 1925

Here are my abstract notes on the piece:

solace…an emotional painting…uniquely American…

…transience…is an American experience…

…the painting is a cultural experience and a formal experience at the same time…

…an abbreviation, the quintessence of what you’re saying…like film, like painting…in the way the artwork is rendered; Hopper “had the genius to be reductive…”

…the yearning for sensation…attuned to its absence…

…a tarnished, decaying dream…

This is a far cry from the thematic approach of the previous generation of American painters from about the turn of the Century. You can find many examples depicting close human relationships and interconnectedness in the works of Samuel Carr, Eastman Johnson, and Thomas Hovenden. But Hopper’s scenes are more emotionally somber by comparison. Singular people, often dramatically lit, largely featureless and seemingly isolated from the rest of the world, even in the crowded Big City. Or if there are couples, as in many of his images, there is no communication or intimacy. The subjects are cut off emotionally from one another. There’s such mystery in each scene, an unsettling sense of something not quite right. This is the psychological underpinning of Hopper’s work along with his use of dramatic lighting, the signature of his style. He developed the latter through a life-long love of cinema and the theater, and a job he had earlier in his career doing illustrations for a movie company.

"The Mansard Roof"
“The Mansard Roof” – Edward Hopper 1923

Many of Hopper’s scenes incorporate period architectural exteriors and interiors. The buildings are mostly of a 19th Century vintage so they were considered ‘period’ even when he painted them. And this is a major point of involvement for me. When first discovering his work in my undergraduate art studies, the two defining aspects—lighting and the architecture—immediately caught my attention and I became a Hopper fan for life. Since then my quest has been to use these two elements as the foundation for heightened dramatic and thematic effect in my own work (see my two photographs below). It’s intriguing to me how they’re a fixture in Hopper’s 20th Century art, and now as I photograph them in the 21st Century, they’re an integral element in my pictures as well. Many of these structures have survived the last 150-plus years to accommodate the lives of modern people, both then and now. It’s an idea that’s part of the concept for my 19th Century House Project and also inspires me to depict that emotional element as well. Please see a sampling from that multi-part project here.

Ringoes farm house
Greek Revival Townhouse (adapted to a farmhouse) circa 1830 with later Italianate porch, Ringoes, New Jersey 2017 –James T Callahan

George Street, New Brunswick NJ 2012
George Street, New Brunswick NJ 2012 (photograph) – James T Callahan

I think many of Hopper’s images suggest that the world is ever speeding up and burying the past, leaving even the present and its occupants in the dust. It has thereby caused people to be more separated from one another. We can see this readily in “House by The Railroad,” where the Victorian house looks forlorn and buried—passed by—behind the tracks in the foreground, a symbol of modern travel of the time.

If Hopper’s art is uniquely American and suggests that transience is part of the American experience, then his images are the precursor (and possibly an inspiration) to Robert Frank’s later seminal series of photographs, The Americans. Frank’s images depict the anxiety, hollowness and psychological wasteland that belies the vernacular American landscape. And this is significant because, if that’s the case, Hopper was ahead of his time, prefacing Frank’s work by some 30 years. Indeed, he was at the forefront of artists of his time with his ability to synthesize the past and present in an abstract way. He painted what, to me, are Modernist renderings of the urban landscape permeated with a mood that is an antithesis to everything that movement held in high regard: shining ‘Progress’ and all the promise it held. In Hopper’s scenes, it is a promise not fulfilled.

Author: jamestcallahan

James T. Callahan is a commercial and fine art photographer based in Hillsborough, New Jersey. His specializations are in product, industrial and architecture. His fine art work takes a poetic look at the American Landscape through 19th Century architecture, historic and abandoned railroads and the American Small Town. You can see his work on his website at www.jamestcallahanphotographer.com, and on Instagram at www.instagram.com/jamestcallahan/.

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