Hartman’s aerial photographs capture a unique view of the world, combining elements of abstract composition and some of landscape painting. His inventive adaptation of photography to suit a new concept of a 2-dimensional visual experience has claimed an esteemed place in the historical development of Bay Area Art.

The artist trained in painting and initially practiced and taught a form of realism, later forming his own Abstract Expressionism. An avid pilot since 1946, he eventually synthesized his observations from his own Piper Clipper plane with his painting practice through the medium of photography. Hartman’s images are realized with a camera as he flies at 100 mph about 1000 ft. above the landscape.

Hartman has lived and maintained both a studio and teaching practice in the Bay Area for many years. He taught for over 30 year at UC Berkeley and has exhibited widely. In 2002 the exhibition “Solo Flights: The Aerial Photographs of Robert Hartman” was presented at the Oakland Museum. In 1986 the innovative program MATRIX at the Berkeley Art Museum featured his photography work.

Robert Hartman is represented by Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco.



























































































Robert Hartman was interviewed by John Zurier on April 22, 2011 in Berkeley, California.

John Zurier:  Let’s start with your show at Gallery Paule Anglim, which opened a couple of weeks ago on April 6. You have 11 photographs in it. Tell me a little about these new photographs.

Robert Hartman:  Well, they're all done with color infrared film so some colors are not what you expect to find. But others are very close to perceived color. For instance, the one with the windmills is barely distinguishable from regular color film.

JZ:  That's “Hills, Shadows II?”

RH:  Yes. Whereas “Valley Geometry” is clearly not what you'd expect in crops. Bright red crops usually are not…

JZ: It’s not healthy, is it?

RH:  No. No. Anyway, I enjoy the surprise factor of the film. In fact, every time I get a roll of film back if I don't see a surprise I'm depressed. I always love surprises. It's one of the reasons I've stuck with film for about 13 years now.

JZ:  So, you are not looking for a particular kind of image when you go flying?

RH:  No. I'm just trying to go with eyes wide open and in a receptive mode because there are all kinds of marvels down there and all we have to do is look around. In that sense, almost every flight is a flight of discovery. Although sometimes I'll have a specific goal in mind, a place where I've photographed before. But very seldom does it become repetitious because in the course of time everything changes.

JZ:  Do you ever fly by something, miss it, and think, "Someday I'll go back and try to get it?"

RH:  Yes. I've done that and I can never find it.

JZ: You used to do the flying yourself, but now you go up with someone. What's the difference for you?

RH:  Well, it was a lot more fun when I could do it. A lot depends on the pilot that you have. I've got to break in a new pilot now because the one I'd been flying with for over six years has left the area. He became a valuable partner because in the beginning, as it turns out, he had never looked at the ground very much. I guess he learned to see by osmosis or something.

Anyway, he sits on the right. I always sit on the left. Since I can't see anything out the right side of the airplane, he looked at the ground after a few flights and began to spot stuff that I would have been unaware of. So he'd say, "Maybe you should look at this," bring the plane around and most of the time he was right. I should look at that. It was a good partnership.

Also, he was very good at putting the airplane where I wanted it and really putting it up in a steep, steep turn attitude so I could shoot as nearly straight down as possible. Some pilots are reluctant to do that and some pilots won't keep the nose slightly elevated. That's a nuisance because if they let the nose drop then the strut interferes.

JZ:  I remember flying with you for the first time. What struck me was how stripped down, and well, just how flimsy it all seemed. My memory was that in the plane there were only two pedals and a stick. You would put the stick between your knees, tilt the stick with your knees, and send the whole plane tilting way over to the left. Then you would slide open the window and shoot out the window. But the plane was flying with the wing perpendicular to the ground.

RH:  Very nearly.

JZ:  Is that how all your photographs were taken?

RH:  Yes. Well, occasionally I would shoot at an oblique angle, but I didn't like to.

JZ:  You have a few oblique angle shots in this show. There’s that terrific tall vertical silvery one called “Fields Near Sutter Butte.”

RH:  No, that's not oblique.

JZ:  Really?

RH: That’s straight down.

JZ: The tapering of that field isn’t from shooting at an angle?

RH:  That's how the field is.

JZ:  That’s incredible. But with “Valley Geometry” that...

RH:  That one is definitely oblique. But the reason I'm averse to shooting obliquely is the space of the photograph just rushes away out the top. The “Valley Geometry” one doesn't do that largely because there's pretty emphatic color in the top. It doesn't just drain away.

JZ: When I see your work my first response is to the color. But I don’t really get that I’m looking at an aerial photograph. At least not right away. They seem so much like painting. The considerations involved seem to be more about painting, about painterly concerns.

RH:  Yes. A lot of people say that. It's not intended. It's just because that's the way I see, having been a painter for 30 plus years. But I'm making no effort to indulge in subterfuge.

JZ: So there's no conscious attempt then to shift the focus toward painting and away from aerial photography?

Robert:  No, not at all. No, I just shoot what's there. I respond, I suppose, to what people end up seeing as painterly stuff. But, one can't help one's likes and dislikes.

JZ:  When did you start flying?

RH:  I started right out of high school As a graduation present, my dad gave me enough money to get started. That was in 1946. And flying is the only thing I know of that came easily to me; everything else has been a struggle. I guess I was a natural. Well, I was always nutty about airplanes, built countless models. Anyway, I soloed at three hours and 15 minutes, which I'm quite immoderately proud of.

JZ: I remember once standing outside talking with you, and there was a plane going by overhead, and you identified it by the sound of it before you saw it. Is that right?

RH:  That's possible, yes. Some planes have distinct sounds. Propeller airplanes at least do, jets you can't tell one from another, usually.

JZ:  I know that flying for you was instrumental in changing the way you saw yourself as an artist and how you made art. You always loved flying, but you had stopped for many years. Wasn’t it sometime after you had come to Berkeley, and you were teaching at the University in the mid-60s that you started flying again?
RH:  Well, what happened was, I was a committed Abstract Expressionist when I came to Berkeley in 1961, and was, I guess, for two or three years more. And then Pop Art happened, which pretty thoroughly shot the ground out from under me.

JZ:  Did it feel like it happened overnight? Was it that kind of feeling?

RH:  Yes it was.

JZ:  When was that, 1964?

RH:  1963, I think. Well, I fought it for a while, I know, but I guess it was about '64, I decided...well, it was like I had been suddenly put into a lifeboat, in the middle of the ocean, with not a thing on the horizon, as far as what am I going to paint. So I determined to do what I called, in my mind, a garbage painting, where I'd throw everything that came to mind into it, and see if anything showed up.

And about that same time, the graduate assistant in the art office showed me how to use the Verifax machine, an early office copy machine. It involved a photographic process— a sensitized surface, liquid developer, and you get a print and a negative.

And when she showed me how it worked, I happened to have gotten an announcement from a photo exhibit in Florida that had a picture of three turn-of-the-century bicyclists. So I stuck that in the Verifax. Now, the thing about the Verifax, if you worked really fast, you could get maybe eight usable copies. But each copy was a little bit different, in that they got lighter as you went through them, until finally there were just traces left.

I used a sequence of those, from that bicyclist image, and stuck them in the painting. I put in a silhouette self‑portrait I painted, and I smashed a light bulb box flat and pasted that in. I forget what else I had used.
When I finished I looked at it and what I responded to was the nostalgia aspect of the bicyclists. And nostalgia in those days was a dirty word, as far as art was concerned. But, that was what I reacted to, so I decided I'd paint what I was really nostalgic about, which was flying. I hadn't been able to fly for about 15 years, and I was dying by inches. So the nostalgia impulse was large, but also the paintings became lifesaving surrogates for the actual experience of flying.

There were only three conditions that the painting had to satisfy to be a good painting, as far as I was concerned. One was a sense of suspension, which is a very prominent feeling when you're in a small plane at any altitude. You don't feel like you're going anywhere, you're just up there suspended.
The second one was a feeling of disorientation, because when you depart from straight and level in an airplane, things can get pretty haywire, and that's wonderful. And finally, a sense of solitude, which even if you've got someone with you, there's a marvelous feeling of being all by yourself in all that infinity of space.
So, if the painting had all of those three in a strong enough way, it was a successful painting. I didn't give a hoot about how it went together. Whereas with the AE stuff, I'd been totally thoughtful about composing.

JZ:   What freedom! I love this because it gets right to the condition of being an artist, and of finding and establishing our own internal criteria. I like how you called painting a surrogate. It’s not a word we often hear applied to painting, is it?

RH: I used the word surrogate in its sense of substitute; since I couldn’t make use of an actual airplane, these were the next best thing.

JZ:  After making these paintings, how did flying come back into your life?

RH: The airplane images worked for five years. And then suddenly they didn't work any more. So the paintings became just paintings of skies and weather. In 1969, my wife, Charlotte, got tired of me rushing out of the house every time an airplane went over to see what it was, and said, "For heaven's sake, go fly." So I joined the University Flying Club. And that was not acceptable. You had to schedule the plane two weeks in advance. Who knew what the weather was going to be? You had to get the airplane back at a very specific time. It was not the flying I was used to. I could go any time my dad wasn't using an airplane, and do anything I wanted for as long as I wanted. I was spoiled. I decided I either had to forget the whole enterprise or get my own airplane. In the summer of 1970, I taught summer school and got enough extra capital to think about an airplane. I only looked for one kind, which was one of the series of airplanes that Dad had owned, which was the Piper PA16 Clipper.

It was a four‑place, high‑wing airplane and it was one of the few airplanes available that was a four‑seater with stick controls. I definitely wanted a stick because that's the most natural way to fly. Wheels are so indirect. Piper only made this airplane for one year, so there weren't a whole bunch of them, and not many people knew about them.

There's a publication called, Trade‑a‑Plane, sometimes jokingly called, Trade‑a‑Wreck. Anyway, I got the copy of that and went through it and there was a Clipper available in Vancouver, Washington, right across from Portland. I called the phone number and asked about it, did everything wrong as far as purchasing an airplane. I should have looked at it before I got it, but there were so few of them. Anyway I said, "OK. I'll take it." I sent him a certified check and went up. He had said that the cover, which was cotton fabric, was eight years old. So I had an idea it might require attention soon, but still went ahead and got it. The instructor from the University Flying Club went along with me, because I guess he wanted to make sure I knew what I was about as far as getting it back.

Well, anyway that's how that airplane came into my life. It did need to be recovered a few months after I got it. It didn't pass the annual.

JZ:  The fabric is a lot thinner than painting canvas, isn't it?

RH:  Yes. Oh, yes! It’s the weight of a good handkerchief. Then you’ve got all those layers of dope. Anyway, the airplane was delightful to fly, as I remembered it to be. But of course, the only thing worse than owning an airplane is owning a boat, I guess, as far as what you put into it. It then became a matter of asking myself, did I want to spend a perfectly gorgeous day cooped up in a stuffy, smelly, fumey room? Or go up where the air was pure and the viewing sensational? So that took a struggle of about 10 seconds. Since it's not terribly practical to take along a canvas and paintbox, and all that, I took a camera, figuring I could collect images that way.

JZ:  When did you realize that the photographs were enough, that they were the actual work, not preparation or source material?

RH: Well, as I say, everything came slowly to me. This also took me several years. But anyway, the photographs took the place of the paintings entirely by about 1975, I guess. It was very satisfying because I could explore so many different images that way, instead of having them emerge slowly and painfully; plus there was the exhilaration of flying.

JZ:  Maybe, too, there's the directness of it? In a way how the Piper Clipper had only a few controls, like a single stick. It's very, very simple.

RH: Well, as it turned out, the Clipper was an ideal photography airplane because of the stick control. I could push the stick over with my right knee and hold right rudder. The Clipper had enough rudder that once you got up on a wing and pressed full right rudder it would go in a straight line, it wouldn't turn. So I had the luxury of two or three seconds to make up my mind about when to snap the shutter.

JZ: Do you crop in the camera?

RH:  Yes.

JZ:  So the photographs we see are what you saw through the lens? You're not cropping or manipulating and dodging and burning when you print?

RH:  Well, I am dodging and burning in order to make the print as close to the slide as I can. I have to do that. But cropping, I very seldom crop in the darkroom. I hate to do it because I hate to waste anything. The composing is done in the camera, and occasionally, very occasionally, I have to adjust a little bit, but it's a painful act.

JZ: That reminds me of Sergei Eisenstein’s essay on Japanese film where he contrasts European and Japanese ways of seeing. He said that the essential difference involves how drawing was taught. The European way is to take a piece of paper and stuff things into it, often ignoring the edges of the paper. And the Japanese way is to take the edges of the format first, a rectangle, circle, or square, and use it as a frame to cut out a part of reality. In other words it’s like framing a shot. He was all for the Japanese method, because it seemed a very physical method of selecting and stamping out an image. Would you agree with that?

RH: Yes. It’s just like looking through a viewfinder. It’s a question of recognition in the viewfinder. I have to look for the big event, and I don’t have time to see the little stuff that’s also very important. Sometimes I get the film back and I’m amazed at what I didn’t see. But I couldn’t see it because I didn’t have time. In other words, it’s not a studied thing. A landscape photographer with a tripod and a view camera can spend an hour setting up a shot and knows exactly what he’s going to get. You can’t do that in an airplane. But I’m not sure I’d enjoy it anyway. I like to be surprised.

JZ: I'm wondering if photography didn't help or alter at all how you saw or realized space and composition?
RH:  I don't know that it altered it. I just thought of it as another medium, and there was no anxiety about going from one medium to this one. It was still picture making and it just seemed very natural, no stress.

JZ:  For many years at UC Berkeley, you taught a beginning drawing class. I remember, when I was a student there, seeing all the drawings in the hallway, and thinking they were so inventive and beautiful. I can think of several people now who do a variation of what you did then. In other words, they either saw the work at Berkeley or they've talked with you, and use aspects of the drawings in order to bring up ideas that they're thinking about. Tell me about this drawing class. If I remember, essentially there were about six or seven exercises.

RH:  Oh, there were more than that. But I don't know how many. Maybe a dozen. Well, this was Beginning Drawing. It assumed that nobody had ever done anything in terms of using any graphic means to produce an image. It was a very structured class. The only structured class that I ever taught. It had a series of assignments, starting very simply and getting progressively more complex or taking in more considerations.
I structured the course with strict limitations on the goals to be pursued in each assignment. If those limitations were observed and adhered to, there was no way they could avoid having a certain experience.
My introduction of it to them was that they would have to revise their seeing, and in order to revise their seeing, they had to revise their thinking, and had to get used to equations like 1=2, 1+1=3, and so on, which is contrary to what most people think an equation should be.

For example, take a basic thing like an edge. In the real world here, we know darn well that an edge of a table is possessed by the table. That's only logical, and it's a handy way to keep from getting yourself all bruised when you navigate. You don't bump into things that way.

JZ:  It's a good way to get through a room.

RH:  Or a door.

JZ:  Yes, exactly.

RH:  But to try to replicate that on a two‑dimensional surface is going to result in nothing but frustration, because an edge is a joint‑ownership deal of two forms meeting. An edge, rather than being the cause of, say, a table or a tabletop, is, from where I'm sitting right now, a consequence of the table shape being met by the wall shape. The edge doesn't exist until those two come together.

Every shape you make is responsible for its adjoining companion: it's a reciprocal arrangement. When you draw one shape with the intent of making that shape, you're inevitably going to have to consider that you’re really making two shapes, and that matters.

JZ:  Drawing these days is now often taught with a concept of negative and positive space.

RH:  A terrible terminology. Negative implies second‑class status. But the status is equal. An edge pops into visibility because of two forms meeting. It's like a collision, and the pressure of it pops the edge into visibility. The edge is a result, not a cause. That kind of reversal of the usual way of thinking is probably going to be a boon as far as coping with structuring a two‑dimensional surface. For some folks it flies in the face of what they've always thought was reality or logic or rationality or whatever.

The sense of one form having the responsibility, not just of defining itself but of defining the adjoining form—you forget that at your peril.

JZ: Did you come up with these assignments when you were in Arizona or when you were working here?

RH:  At Arizona I was taught the old academic way, faithfully rendering the observed world. I had to make it look like that thing.

JZ:  When you were developing these assignments, what were some of the questions you asked yourself? For example, about creating pictorial space?

RH:  Essentially, we could say there is a difference between illusionistic depth and pictorial space. Illusionistic depth is a continuation in an illusionistic way of the actual space we're living in. We live in a universe of objects separated by distance, objects with gaps in between the objects. As we said, that's a good way to get through a doorway or avoid bumping into furniture.

But the essential fact of a two‑dimensional surface is that there are no gaps, and space in that sense is something more like you read it rather than venture into it. You just don't enter and wander around like you do with depth. It's more of a continuous membrane.

I used to use this example: Think about a tree in the winter against the sky. If you see just the limbs, and the limbs are the only thing responsible for the limbs being where they are, you are only seeing partially. If you see the shapes of sky pushing the limbs apart, that is perfect for drawing it or painting it.

JZ: Or the sky seen between two buildings?

RH:  That reminds me of the first time I went to New York. I was absolutely struck by the way the sky split those huge buildings apart. It was like powerful wedges coming down and absolutely shoving them apart. Man, that was powerful. The sky was anything but a background. It was responsible for positioning those buildings.

JZ: Dean Smith, who took your class at Berkeley, told me a story about how you had all the students get up and come to the window. He said you asked them to look out the window and to focus on something, like a tree. You asked them to focus on an object out there. You said, "Look through this glass. That's the world. Now bring your attention to the glass itself, focus on seeing that plane of glass. That glass is your piece of paper."

"Now look back out there at the world, at the tree. Now try to bring the tree flat against the glass and keep your awareness on the tree that's out in the world and on the plane of glass at the same time. If you can do that and hold it for awhile, that's pictorial space."

RH:  That sounds right. For example, look at Cezanne's landscape painting, especially of Mont Sainte‑Victoire. Usually he had trees, and the trees were near, and the mountain was way, way, far away. Except it wasn't. If you really look at it, the mountain and the sky are right up front with the trees in terms of how they define each other. The trees aren't discrete objects set against a background. To say that pictorial space abolishes background might be a way of thinking about it.

JZ: We talk a lot about figure‑ground relationships, foreground and background, and what’s in front and what’s behind in a painting, what advances and what recedes, or shapes can be made to flip-flop back and forth. But there are always two things involved. But what you're talking about is a space that is singular, unified, and simultaneous.

RH:  Yes. It's a coming together rather than a separating.

JZ: The pictorial space you are talking about is not flat.

RH: No, not at all. It’s simply not broken. It’s not full of gaps. Consider a partially inflated large balloon. And imagine yourself with 10 arms and you can push in the balloon to different levels with all your arms, so no two levels are the same. The balloon maintains a constant unbroken surface, but the spatial position of each arm is different.

JZ:  This sense of plastic space, plus simplicity and economy seems to guide your photographs as well, as if you're looking for the most simple and suggestive way to express the most complex visual experiences.

RH:  Yes, and that's probably where the 30+ years of painting is affecting what I choose. But it's not at all directed towards making them look like paintings. That's foolish. Why would I want to do that?

JZ:  I keep thinking about your pancake analogy.

RH: Yes. In saying that an edge comes into existence because of the equalizing of forces, if you consider a pancake, you don't build a circular fence and then fill it with batter. You pour the batter from a pitcher, and the pancake starts in the center and expands out as you keep pouring, so that there's force being exerted out from the center until you stop pouring. When the force stops, the edge of the pancake occurs. What could be more logical? That's how I do edges. Pancakes are a good analogy for how edges form.

JZ:  Exactly. You once told me that objects are not the owners of their edges.

RH:  Right, yes. I hate to say the word advertise, but we were asked to give a brief statement about the nature of our course in writing so that a student could look at it. One of the lines in my spiel for the Beginning Drawing was "Learn how pancakes reveal the secrets of the universe" or something like that. [end]