Edward Hopper’s Silence
Undoubtedly, when you think of Edward Hopper, it is his painting, titled Nighthawks, that immediately comes to mind. It is your quintessential American diner sans the chaotic embellishments and crowdedness that one would expect from such an establishment. Herein lies the beauty of Hopper’s vision, to transform prosaic scenes into moments of contemplative isolation. Even with the presence of the four individuals in Nighthawks, it is the strangeness of their shared ambiguity that continues to intrigue and captivate viewers.
Where Nighthawks impinges you on the solitariness in urban exteriors, it is Hopper’s paintings of lonesome individuals in rooms that wrenches open the void that exists within us. A painting that is particularly tragic in its essence is the one titled Morning Sun (1952). Contrary to the rather optimistic connotation of the title, the painting depicts a woman in a pink slip, in a posture where the tenseness is palpable; her face shrouded by a deep foreboding as she stares pointedly at the window overlooking the city. Unbound by the theatrics of time and place, Morning Sun, like most of Hopper’s work, radiates an eerie recognition of our own trepidations.
To truly appreciate Hopper, it is not enough to simply resonate with the sentiments in his work. Hopper was deeply perceptive of composition. His paintings were very often contoured and structured in an angular way to give you the impression of inhabiting the same space as the subjects in them. He uses light to exacerbate the sufferings of the denizens in his paintings; his use of colour blocking to further intensify the scene. Windows feature prominently in his work. Where light bathes the walls of the rooms and the exteriors of buildings, it appears to have no effect on the glass facades in Hopper’s paintings. The windows, meant to separate the interior from the exterior, in Hopper’s paintings, become faceless frames, an intended suggestion for viewers to gaze—to look—in a voyeuristic fashion at the individual in the frame. It is these qualities that loan Hopper’s work an almost photographic appeal. Art collector and Founder of the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, had this to say about Hopper’s genius… “Edward Hopper’s relevance to American photography becomes clearer with each passing decade. His respect for humble subjects, his interest in the psychological, his depth as a landscape artist, and his astonishing sensitivity to colour as a means of communicating feeling, are only some of the elements that may have led the writer Geoff Dyer to theorise that Hopper could claim to be the most influential photographer of the twentieth century, even though he didn’t take any photographs.”
There’s something inherently and perversely irresistible about loneliness and isolation. It is perhaps the price we pay for the beauty that exists all around us. Even in the disquietude that is prevalent in Hopper’s work, it is hard not to acknowledge the elegance of the environment surrounding his subjects. It is this irony that the camera has sought out in the course of its history. Robert Adams’ Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1968, although bereft of colour, contains all the makings of Hopper’s paintings. The plainness of the house is immediately heightened by the deep contrasts between light and shadow, and the ominous silhouetted figure who appears to be suspended in the dark interior of the window. It is unclear whether William Eggleston was inspired by Hopper, but an image by him, titled Huntsville Alabama, 1970, shows a rather hunched individual, seated at the edge of the bed in a sparsely embellished hotel room, looking forlorn; a real-world manifestation of Hopper’s Morning Sun. Several other photographers like Lee Friedlander, Walker Evans, Harry Callahan, Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Harry Gruyaert have channeled the solitariness of Hopper’s paintings as well.
However, Hopper never liked his paintings to be pinned down to loneliness. When asked whether his work was reflective of the isolation of modern life, he said, “It may be true. It may not be true.” Then, what drew him to solitary scenes, he said, “I suppose it’s just me.” Never a man of exact words, Hopper’s vagueness reaffirms the themes that we’ve all come to recognise his work with. The eerie familiarity in his paintings was and continues to be displayed in the ongoing pandemic. No where to go and nothing to photograph, we became our own subjects. In fact, we became the very subjects in Edward Hopper’s paintings.
This article originally appeared in the November 2020 issue of Better Photography.