Robert Heinecken, 74; Pioneered Use of Commercial Photographs to Create Art

Times Staff Writer

Robert Heinecken, an artist who was instrumental in changing the way photographs are considered in the American cultural landscape, died Friday at a nursing home in Albuquerque, N.M. He was 74.

Heinecken, who had relocated to New Mexico after living and working principally in Los Angeles for more than 50 years, had suffered from the effects of Alzheimer’s disease since 1994, according to his wife, Joyce Neimanas.

In the 1960s, Heinecken began to develop an approach to photographs that was distinctive in the history of the medium. He sometimes described himself as a para-photographer, because his work stood “beside” or “beyond” traditional ideas associated with photography.

Essentially, the artist decided that in the wake of the media explosion that had come to characterize contemporary life, enough photographs already existed. Rather than make more, he would manipulate existing ones. His art became an attempt to clarify, reveal and sometimes confound the subliminal social, political and artistic codes they contain.

Heinecken was among the first to consider himself an artist who used photographs, not a photographer who made them. Today that approach is common. But in the late 1960s, when Heinecken published an influential portfolio of 25 prints titled “Are You Rea,” the radical nature of the experiment was largely unprecedented.


“Are You Rea,” featured in a major traveling retrospective of Heinecken’s work that was shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2000, was made after lengthy analysis of hundreds of commercially published news, fashion, lifestyle and other magazines. Heinecken found that, when magazine pages were placed on a light table, the images on both sides of the sheet visually merged in unexpected ways.

Sometimes the resulting montages, although not planned by the layouts’ designers, were pictorially and conceptually stimulating. In one, the text of a cigarette ad declaring “More than a million people like what Lark does” was overlaid on an iconic, Christlike figure draped with beads and of indeterminate sex. In another, a monstrously deformed portrait emerged from the fusion of a patterned dress over a grinning face adjacent to the text “Lynda Bird Johnson’s Hollywood Beauty Treatment.”

The title “Are You Rea” came from a brassiere advertisement that originally spread across two magazine pages. On the single page Heinecken chose to work with, the word “Real” or “Really” was truncated. The resulting wordplay has multiple layers.

“Rea” is an anagram of the first word in the title, and only “You” separates the two words from each other. “Are” is a plural form of “to be,” the verb that establishes a person’s vital identity. Heinecken’s portfolio of layered prints proposes that, in the modern flood of commercial imagery, any notion that you are human inevitably gets scrambled. His art is partly an attempt to cut the Gordian knot of mass media.

“Rea” can also be pronounced “ray.” The black-and-white images of Heinecken’s innovative series pay homage to photographer Man Ray, the Surrealist artist who was among the innovators of an early technique for printing photographs made without a camera. Ray instead placed objects directly on a negative and exposed it to light.

Similarly, Heinecken treated the two sides of a magazine page as if it were a found negative, which he then exposed directly onto an offset printing plate. The result was a layered black-and-white image, in which the original areas of dark and light were reversed. The portfolio, in addition to acknowledging the artistic legacy of Man Ray, had the appearance and function of a social X-ray.

Robert Friedli Heinecken was born in Denver on Dec. 29, 1931, the son of a Lutheran minister. The family moved to Southern California in 1942, and he was raised in Riverside.

In 1951 Heinecken entered UCLA, but he did not graduate until 1959. He enlisted as a Naval Aviation Cadet in 1953 and the next year was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps. Discharged four years later, he returned to college but remained in the USMC Active Reserve until 1966. By then, a growing interest in developing his art, coupled with opposition to the war in Vietnam, made military duty untenable for him.

Married in 1955 to Janet M. Storey (they separated in 1975 and divorced in 1980), Heinecken finished graduate school at UCLA in 1960 and immediately took a position on the art department faculty. He taught at UCLA for the next 31 years, accepting an emeritus position in 1991. Among the notable students he mentored in the photography program that he started at the school were John Divola, Judith Golden, Jo Ann Callis and Patrick Nagatani.

At a 1964 meeting at George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., Heinecken met an influential group of photographers, critics and historians. Among them were Van Deren Coke, Minor White and Beaumont Newhall. The group established the Society for Photographic Education, which became an important forum for changing the way photography was taught in American art schools and university programs. Before the SPE, whose board of directors eventually elected Heinecken as chairman, commercial rather than artistic applications of photographic practice commonly dominated curricula. By the time it disbanded in 1973, photography was a familiar pursuit in the nation’s art schools.

In 1976 Heinecken met artist Joyce Neimanas, an instructor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, whom he would later marry. Over the next 16 years, they fashioned a domestic arrangement whereby one or the other would take a leave of absence from his or her job to live and work in the partner’s city for a year or two. In 1996, Heinecken moved to Chicago.

Throughout his career, Heinecken continued to work with found images, including undeveloped rolls of pornographic film salvaged from the many commercial graphic houses in Los Angeles, usually in an effort to articulate the social and sexual mores of the time. “Some of my enthusiasm for the [found] photograph,” he once said, “was based on the fact that there was some residual illusion of reality in it always, no matter what I did to it.”

This approach to photographs, along with Heinecken’s frequent effort to coax poetic meanings from juxtaposition and layering of images, owed something to his friendship with the influential and charismatic Los Angeles assemblage artist, poet and small-press publisher Wallace Berman. He met Berman in 1962, just as Heinecken was launching the photography program at UCLA.

Heinecken also experimented with the Polaroid SX-70 instant camera system and made several series by photographing newscasters and political figures off his television screen. Perhaps his most aggressive yet personal body of work was made in 1969, when he bought a stack of Time magazines at his local newsstand in Culver City, altered them and then surreptitiously returned them to the sales rack, there to be purchased by unsuspecting consumers.

The pages of Heinecken’s guerrilla “special edition” included superimposed lithographic prints of a recently published photograph showing a smiling soldier holding the decapitated heads of two anonymous Vietnamese youths. The shocking image was repeated indiscriminately over fashion advertisements and editorial news copy throughout the magazines. Between 1969 and 1994, he made 37 editions of variously collaged and overprinted magazines.

Heinecken’s work is in the collections of numerous art museums around the world, and examples are included in the large survey exhibition “Los Angeles 1955-1985: Birth of an Artistic Capital,” currently at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. His archives are held at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, Tucson.

In addition to Neimanas, he is survived by Geoffrey Heinecken, Kathe Hull and Karol Mora, his children from his first marriage; and by three grandchildren. The Robert Heinecken Memorial Fund has been established at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.