Sunday, March 27, 2011

Unpacking the Myth of the Other And the Destruction it Can Reap

What is the other? If you were to ask some, they would say it does not exist; we are all simply a family of man, all the same and equal. However much people would like to believe this, however, it is simply not true. When viewing someone who is not you, or a group that is not your own, they inherently become “the other”. This, in and of itself, is not necessarily bad or dangerous, but when this fact is not recognized, the results can be truly devastating.

The glossing over of facts and realities as a means to unite all people, in other words, the normalization of things that should actually be normative, began to help spread the concept of universality. Universality is not real. [1] Nothing is “timeless”, especially not art. Art is a product, and in some ways it is also a victim, of its time and place of creation. Timelessness is a myth, and a destructive one at that.

In Jonathan Crary’s “Critical Reflections” piece for Artforum, he discusses the phenomenon of Globalization, and how it has dominated our lives since the early 90’s. “The inescapable yet continually evaded truth is that participation in the emerging information, imaging and communications technologies will never (in the meaningful future) expand beyond a minority of people…”(Crary, 3). With the spread of a supposedly global culture came the normalization of many ideals that led to a supposed worldwide equality. [2]

First and foremost, the idea of a world culture is a construct, not a reality or truth as it is often perceived.[3] The “world culture” that is often referred to in a vernacular way is actually that, most prominently, of white European males. They were the ones with much of the power at a critical point in history. Around the time of the scramble for Africa, it was the white European powers who were the ones scrambling.

The European nations were the ones to spread across the world, and colonize other nations as they saw fit. Being the ones who had both the technology and desire to do so, it became a contest to see which could gain the most territory, and in turn, the most power. In this spread, they brought with them their world-views, narrow as they were.

Seeing the native peoples of varied nations as backward and inferior, the Europeans cast their net of otherness over any whom were in any way different. Seeing these people as “primitive”, and inherently inferior to themselves, the Europeans placed themselves upon the higher ground to look down on their newly conquered colonies. The very idea of primitivism shows how skewed their view was, and in some ways still is.[4]

This is not the only example of how otherness has had an impact on culture, and in her article The Art Historical Canon: Sins of Omission, Nanette Solomon discusses the marginalization of women in the history of art, and the reverberating effect this has had through the course of history. In this article, Solomon brings to light the two main texts that are responsible for much of the damage done, H.W. Janson’s The History of Art and Giorgio Vassari’s Le Vitte De piu eccellenti Architetti Pittori et Scultori Italiani, with Janson’s text owing much of its inception and creation to Vassari’s earlier Renaissance compilation.

In this hierarchy, first presented by Vassari and later continued by Janson, the precedent is set for men being the artists, and women being the other. Men are the artistic genius, to whom all creative drive must bow and by whom all great masterworks of brilliant art are created. Women artists, the few included (only in Janson, never in Vassari), are either portrayed in an incidental/accidental way and/or their stories are dominated by the men with whom they were associated (and to whom they owed all of their success.)

The crux of all this is the power of Vassari’s original model. It was a hugely influential construct, and, as a result, has endured. This is where the danger comes from; anytime a construct like this endures without recognition that it is actually a construct, it becomes a paradigm. This paradigm then becomes canon, and canons are hard to even challenge, let alone actually change.

As a result, Vassari’s model has been applied long past the time in which it was relevant.

“Vassari’s creation of the artist, the critic, and the canon is tied to the economic and social conditions of his moment in history. While these conditions have changed, the deeper stratifications…continue to operate within the culturally expressed power relationships that he articulated,” (Solomon, 355).

Solomon’s point about the importance of recognizing constructs as constructs warns of the way people/groups are marginalized due to these constructs when not properly recognized for what they really are.

Since the dawn of the post modern era, the awareness of this lack of conscious consideration of the other, and the constructs that comprise it, have begun to come to light. Theoreticians have begun writing about the other, and how it factors into art, and people’s conception of that art, both past and present.

The gallery space and museum show have played a large part in the furtherance and ultimate integration of the concept of the other, and have been integral in its amalgamation from construct into canonized paradigm since the birth of the museum in the late 19th century.

With the origin of the museum, and the hierarchical systems of organization inherent to its process, came the organization and classification of objects collected. Things collected from around the world, in the beginning largely Africa, were reassigned from their original context and purpose, often which was never actually know to begin with, and re-designated with the moniker of “art objects”. They were then placed in museums for people to come and marvel.[5]

These very issues came to a head in the now famous exchange between Thomas McEvilley and William Rubin in their back and forth, published over the course of many months in Artforum magazine, about a show Rubin curated at the MoMA. The conversation between the two is a perfect example of conversation between Modernists and Post Modernists; namely the recognition of constructs as such.

The argument between McEvilley and Rubin centers around the use of the museum space in the show at MoMA, and its lack of critical distance in dealing with primitivism and, in turn, the other. McEvilley claims that the“…difficulty with the truly contemporary and the truly primitive is that this exhibition is not concerned with either: the show is about classical modernism,” (McEvilley, 343).[6]

The banter back and forth between the two became sort of legendary, but in the end nothing was really resolved. Rubin held firm to his argument that he had done as best he could to portray the link between primitivism and Modernism in an accurate way, but McEvilley intoned again and again that Rubin was missing the point. The point, said McEviley, was not about portraying the tribal in an accurate way, but rather acknowledging that there is no accuracy or truth in the matter, only constructs.[7]

From the Post-Modern point of view, the show at the MoMA was guilty of a variety of offenses, but none so great as its own lack of self-awareness. Such is the trap that culture often falls into, where a norm becomes something that is normal, and where a construct is not recognized for what it actually is. With the ingestion of such ideas, it is easy to let these things happen, because it is always easier to compare similarities than it is to discuss difference.

Otherness is not about whiteness and the rest of the world, or about one specific group against the other, but rather it is about difference. In a productive way, it can lead to discussion and discourse about difference, and lead to greater understanding for everyone. In reality, however, this is most often not the case. When it is not recognized for being what it is, or even allowed the acknowledgement that it exists in the first place, the construct of otherness can breed ignorance and a lack of understanding that is detrimental to everyone.

[1] Universality is, in truth, the normalization of differences with the fake label of sameness attached to it. It is not recognition of difference. It is not followed by the overcoming/understanding and ultimate ascension beyond quarrelsome differences that it is made out to be in much of the dominating cultures of the world. It is rather the glossing over of important differences, and the sweeping under the rug of very important aspects of people and culture in an attempt to label everyone as “the same” or “equal”.

[2] Again, it is important to point out the difference between global and universal. Global means it accepts the faults and realities of a given thing. Universal, however, is the glossing over of inequities and other problematic elements.

[3] From the beginning of colonialism, and the start of the spread of “world culture”, there have been cultural trends that have become increasingly more problematic as society has developed. As is often the case, those with more power make the rules, and are usually responsible for the spread of more widely received cultural ideas and values.

[4] In truth, there is no such thing as “primitive”. Primitivism is a western construct, used to set in place and later reinforce an unbalanced power structure. It was used as reason and excuse, a method of keeping an order in place that favored the western world over the rest.

[5] These ideas and behaviors are very much tied to the idea of a type of universality in art and culture, and to Modernism itself. Modernism was all about a “universal” discourse, but that discourse was anything but. The universality of it really only extended to those who were male and white. This construct helped perpetuate the spread of “primitivism” and the other.

[6] Even the name of the exhibition, ‘Primitivism’ in Twentieth Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, suggests that there is acknowledgement of the myth of the tribal and the modern, but McEvilley claims that was not actually true in the show itself.

[7] In McEvilley’s view, the show should have stepped back some, and allowed for conscious acknowledgement of what it was: a show about a show, really. A Modernist show, however, does not accept that concept. Modernism is often accused of assimilating everything into its own frame, without responding to the origin of its intention.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Residency Summary Semester 3

This was certainly an interesting residency. Now in Group Three, I’m beginning to feel the pressure mounting as the gravity of the whole situation settles on my shoulders just a little bit more. Realizing I was entering my final semester of real studio work, and knowing I really need to be sliding into my thesis, I began to panic just ever so much.

To be perfectly honest, I started to feel myself tripping up a little bit as the residency began to get rolling. Coming in with the work that I had, I knew one of my largest obstacles was going to be shaving down the very large bite that I had taken. My issue is not necessarily that I don’t know what I want to be doing, but rather just exactly what angle from which to approach my work.

The whole pace of the residency was strange, and oddly punctuated by snowstorms, artist cancellations and, really, just general confusion and chaos all around. I think part of my own personal confusion and difficulty in defining and refining what I am working on arose, in part, from that general confusion.

Luckily, however, I only lost out on one crit that I was not able to reschedule, and the rest were all very valuable. I don’t really think that I had any great revelations or huge, ground-shaking epiphanies during this particular residency, but that it was more of a slow burn that began. Sort of a few embers that are smoldering in the back of my mind, and will start to burn more as the semester begins to evolve.

My first critique was with John Kramer, and provided some enlightening information. The group crit was designed so that I didn’t say anything about my work at the outset, but rather let the others in my group discuss what they saw in my work. The results were interesting.

People noticed the repetition of certain places, and began to ask questions about these places, wondering if they were in the same area, how close they were, etc. They also honed in on some of the broken qualities in a lot of the places I photographed. All of this is what I had wanted, so I was relatively happy with people’s initial reactions.

Many people also took note of the fact that what I was shooting seemed to them to be “an urban place” that was “down on its luck”. They used adjectives like forgotten, desolate and messy to describe what they were seeing, and seemed to connect with these themes. They recognized my intentionality in not including people, and felt that it added an eeriness to the images that was a little unnerving to them. This is not to say that all reactions were the same, however, as some people were a little unsure what exactly I was saying.

This confusion for some was understandable, and also expected on my part; I knew that what I had come in with was a little convoluted and somewhat confusing. In this way, it was a reflection of the semester I had had. When I started the semester, I was very intentioned, and knew what I wanted. As the semester progressed, I started to wander a little from my initial rules, and ended up somewhat off the path.

I did have a few people hone in on the idea of conditional access, which was one of the many things that I had been rolling over in my head over the course of the semester. They seemed to link what I had done visually in my images with some of the concepts that were being visually portrayed. Some commented on the subject matter that was denying the viewer visual access into the image itself, linking it to the concept behind the partial access allowed by the actual subject matter.

Through the residency, there was certainly one main idea that emerged, and that everyone seemed to agree on: I need to tighten this body of work up over the coming semester. The ways in which they suggested I do this, however, varied greatly. There were suggestions that ranged from focusing more on the lighting and time of day of my images, to those whom said I should conceptually frame the work in a way that is more specific. I was also advised to set stricter parameters for myself, and work on my methodology while shooting. In short, if that’s the route that I go, pick my parameters, and them do not stray from them at all.

People also spent some time talking about the constructions I had made, and there seemed to be a split decision on those as well. As many who felt they were a viable option to explore over this next semester, there were an equal amount who thought it would not be a good idea. The idea of photoconstructions or assemblages is a bit of a slippery slope, and needs to be navigated carefully. I the end, I will not be working on these this semester, there is just not enough time.

Time, oddly enough, is part of what gave rise to these constructions in the first place. It was, in part, a way in which I wanted to reference our experience of time and memory, and to visually show that they are not truly linear experiences. Whenever we are in a given place, that space and time is informed by past memories we bring with us, and it also projects us forward, into places and spaces we may someday go. It is a function of memory that causes this to happen, and that is really important to me in my work.

Relating photography specifically to how we view and understand memory is certainly part of what I want to address in this body of work, but figuring out a way to do so is proving to be challenging. Choosing to photograph in places where I have specific memories is certainly important to the work I am doing; they are not just subjects that seem interesting to me, they are places where I have specific attachments and memories. Conveying that is part of what’s become the problem, though.

Combining a couple of the ideas that were generated this residency, I feel like I am starting to make some headway into actually being on the path that I want to be. Talking to Hannah Barett is when I started thinking more about memory, and how it relates to my work. In some ways, I think this is part of the key to things. As an exercise, Hannah suggested writing down the specific memories I have of the places I am photographing, and being very disciplined about doing so. Then, she suggesting going back and sifting through my writings to figure out what is relevant to my work, and what is not.

Having started trying this, it is already helping me form a clearer image in my mind as to what I want to be doing, and it is helping me be more intentional in my approach. I certainly can’t say that I have it all figured out yet, but I am definitely going in what I feel is the right direction. I had a number of other critiques in which many ideas arose as well. Some were very interesting, but ultimately not anything that will end up informing my work. Others, however, have sparked some interesting ideas.

One issue that arose this residency was the personal nature of my work. These places are inherently more important to me than to the viewer, and finding a way to bridge that gap will be important. Whether it is through text, which I am hesitant about and disinclined to include directly, or some other, more subtle inclusion. One thing that was mentioned to me was the inclusion of titles as a means to clue in the viewer a little more.

Ultimately, I think many of my answers are going to emerge only through a more stringent working process. I need to pick my photographic formula, and stick to it over this next semester. In the end, it became clear to me that I need to find a systematized way of dealing with the places I am photographing, and dealing with these quasi-natural controlled spaces in a way that expresses the tension that I want it to.

As the residency progressed, it became clear to me just how important it was to really hone in on what I am doing, and to really start to define my direction more. As this new semester is beginning, it seems daunting. All that is still standing in front of me seems enormous, and I am wondering exactly how it will al play out. A friend once told me something that was passed to him by his father. When you have to eat an elephant, how do you do it? Simple, one bite at a time.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Semester in Review

This semester began with a lot of expendable energy. I went full throttle for the first month, testing as many of my residency epiphanies as I could. For the most part, I was very excited about the results I was seeing. Before too long, though, I lost some serious momentum. It seems to happen each semester, and I will have to anticipate and plan for it in the next go round.

I have spent this semester considering many different aspects of my work, and trying to give each the time it requires. I started off by focusing more on some of the aesthetic choices I was making, and how they may or may not relate to the themes I was discussing. There was a certain somber quality I wanted to convey in my images, and a sense of grief or loss as well. My chief concern, however, was not to go too far with this, and have the images come off as too sappy or overly emotional. I found a solution to this in some of my aesthetic choices.

In researching for one of my papers, I started to really focus in on the concept of the deadpan aesthetic in contemporary photography, and how other photographers have used it as a means to convey a sense of neutrality in their images. In these cases, where the images are made to appear impartial and unbiased, it becomes a strong tool to combat a potential over sentimentality or sappiness that can often occur.

After the June residency, I began to delve deeper into some of the subject matter I had already been exploring. Specifically focusing on my backyard, I wanted to fine tune what I was doing a little more before venturing out into my community too much, and really get a feel for how I wanted my images to be. It was a process of starting to understand not only what I wanted to accomplish, but also to explain why this is what I wanted to be doing.

I knew I wanted to document more of Melrose, and focus on the parts that were important to what I was saying, but it was becoming harder to define why what I felt was important actually was. I wandered the city without a camera trying to find areas that I wanted to photograph, and decided this was a good way to slow myself down and become a little more deliberate about what I was doing.[1]

Working with Shellburne this semester has been an invaluable experience, and help guide my in the direction I want to be going. In branching out more into Melrose I began to cover some of the topics that I knew I wanted to, but my thinking also began to change some. I had approached the city from the point of view of somebody who had grown up there, but was now essentially an outsider. It has become a community that is very concerned with its image and standing, and wants to be perceived in a certain way. The reality of what the city actually is doesn’t seem to matter much, but how people and other communities perceive the city is very important to it.

As I worked more, there were certain patterns I began to recognize and couldn’t help but explore. The way the city sections itself off and creates spaces, delineating itself from itself with fences, walls and other barriers are fascinating to me. In some cases these objects were attempts to keep things either in or out, and in other cases they were simply the result of boundaries colliding.

Thinking about the work of photographers such as Lewis Baltz and the New Topographics movement, these collisions and unnatural boundaries began to intrigue me even more. In the city, I have been finding spaces that are somewhat accessible, but not unconditionally so, creating an alienated landscape of sorts. This alienation is interesting in both its roots and repercussions.

The ideas that first drew me into photographing Melrose revolved around its residents and image. A city that very much wants to be perceived as a high end community, family friendly and perfect to live in is consumed by many. It sells this image in an attempt to draw in a new breed of citizen, and it is working. The result, however, is a raise in cost of living, and exorbitant amounts of money being spent on programs to uphold and further this image.[2]

As I continued throughout the semester, I began wondering how these issues could really manifest in my images, and that is how the more alienated landscape mixed with deadpan sentiments came to be. To be sure, this work is personal and emotional, and consists of images of places to which I have attached specific memories. Approaching them in a way that will separate the images from my own personal meanings and open them up to a wider audience became a paramount concern for me.

This, in turn, helped give rise to my interest in barriers and obstructions that occur in the city. These spaces that deny unfettered access, and set some form of terms or conditions in which they can be accessed have become visual metaphors for the hurdles one must traverse to find a place to exist in this city.

In addition to the work I have been doing in my Melrose images, I have continued to explore all of the developments and changes in my backyard. After last residency, and the response to some of the images I made in my backyard, I really wanted to make this an ongoing part of my project. It started as a convenient place for some trial and error, a proving ground of ideas to bring with me out into the city at large.[3] I have found I work better when I have more than one project happening at a time, and these two are certainly not mutually exclusive, so it seems like a good way to do things.

Working with Shellburne Thurber this semester has been an amazing experience, and has opened me up to many new theories and ideas. In talking with her, I was introduced to the ideas and work of Jane Jacobs, who was instrumental in stopping some of the development that was supposed to have leveled parts of New York in the 1950’s and 60’s.

These ideas started me thinking about the concept of the city. I have become interested in what the concept of city means to people, and how it functions with/for/against its inhabitants. I have also started to think about how the destabilization of the city/society affects people and how the inverse could also be true. These thoughts, however, have only very recently started to form, and are very young yet. It will be interesting to see how they develop, and how I could potentially integrate them into my work.

As the next residency approaches, I have begun to mull over how I want to present my work, and started to look forward to next semester. I have struggled with a way to make my images work independently of either diptychs or series’, and in this vein I have tried to fit more information into every image. Having images that work as a series is fine with me, but I want the images to function independently of the series as well. I am still not positive how to resolve this totally, and believe it will take some more trial and error.

Considering that I have only one semester until I begin work on my thesis, and how fast these semesters seem to clip by, I am starting to feel the pressure even more acutely than before. It is intimidating to think that there is only one year left, and that I am halfway through the program already, but find comfort in looking back on how much progress I have already made. I look forward to seeing how my work continues to take shape over the coming semester, and to the further development of my thesis.

[1] Last semester I had taken a more rapid fire, sort of shoot first ask questions later sort of mentality, and it worked well for me. Now that I’ve gotten to the point where I have a little more direction, and I am no longer trying anything that might pop into my head, I knew that I needed to temper my shooting some, or risk getting lost in a sea of too many options. By slowing down and being more deliberate, I was able to delve deeper into my subject matter and be more methodical in my work.

[2] What is happening, however, is that a large swath of the population in Melrose is finding it difficult to live here now. I myself live here, but only because I am at home during the duration of school, in an attempt to save some money. When I move into a place of my own, there is no way I, or anyone in my age group really, would be able to afford to live here. I will, for all intents and purposes, be forced from my own home upon graduation. Though this is where my interest began, with the duality of the nature of this particular city, and how it may relate to other places, my thoughts are changing some the more invested in this project I become. I am less concerned with the city’s public image, and how it is portrayed, and more concerned with the results of that dichotomy.

[3] As the semester progressed, the ebb and flow of the objects I found behind my house were really intriguing to me, and I noticed as things came and went, it created a sort of tide that would wash in, and then a week or so later wash back out. I envision this as being somewhat self-contained, but not wholly unrelated to my main body of work., and perhaps being printed smaller and presented in a grid of some sort.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Ubiquitous Experiences: Photography’s Relation to Memory

As people we are linked, inexorably, to memory. Our memories become a part of us, and also play a part in how we view future events. We internalize feelings, events and memories; then store them in our psyche to be called upon at a later date. There are some memories that are fuzzy and barley perceptible, more basic impressions of something from earlier in life, and there are memories that are forever burned into our brain, part of us until we die.

Culturally, photographs have also taken on meaning in very unique ways. They “have always served our desire to understand the past, preserving for our view people, places, and ways of life that have long since vanished” (Savedoff, 209). Used as reminders of memories, information on times long before our own, or even as surrogates for memories we no longer have, photography has become as linked to the concept of memory as the memories they often represent. Photography and memory have become so intertwined, that it can be hard to tell where the photograph begins and the memory ends.

Since its invention, the camera has becomes an instrument of creating and retaining memory. It “is an absolute dictator. It shows us a face when we are to see a face, and nothing else…When the camera moves we move, when it remains still we are still,” (Sontag, 244). The subject contained within the frame of a particular photograph is all that that specific photograph can literally reveal, however it may not be all that it suggests. Photographs serve as references to other times and places, and can also contain allusions that reminds us of something totally unrelated to the content we are seeing, creating a chain-reaction of memory.[1]

Photography is also used in a cultural way as a means of verification, as well. “After all, we have come to rely on photographs for identification on licenses, passports, and numerous other documents,” (Savedoff, 88). In this way, when used in conjunction with the official documentation that goes with them, photographs are literally the way we attempt to prove who we are. We are so linked to these images socially, that in many societies it is impossible to function without much of this official documentation.

Being so linked to photography in so many vernacular ways, we have come to accept it as part of our existence, to the point where the average person probably doesn’t give it much thought. Its emergence as both a record keeping tool and an art form were significant in the development of modern culture, and have led to photography’s internalization in our culture.[2]

This level of accepting and internalization of images is part of why photography is able to function the way it does for us.

The familiarity of certain photographs builds our sense of the present and immediate past. Photographs lay down routes of reference, and serve as totems of causes: sentiment is more likely to crystallize around a photograph than a slogan. And photographs help construct – and revise – our sense of a more distant past, with the posthumous shocks engineered by the circulation of hitherto unknown photographs (Sontag, 85)

Photography has achieved a certain familiar ubiquitous quality and comfort level with the average person that allows us to accept it as an everyday part of life. There is something inherent in the very photographic process, however, which also lends to photography’s strong link to memory.

Much of why photography is linked to memory is, in fact, embedded within its very process. “Unlike any other visual image, a photograph is not a rendering, an imitation or an interpretation of its subject, but actually a trace of it,” (Berger,54). As far as art forms go, a photograph is the only one that can actually be considered to have been created, in a way, by the very subject it is capturing.[3]

As light reflects from a subjects surface and burns its mark onto a light sensitive material, . “The photographic image, however, insofar as it is mechanically produced, is not tied in quite the same way to intention and gesture (as other art forms tend to be)” (Savedoff, 47). The whole process being mechanical sometimes makes people tend to see it more as a document, and less of a representation.[4]

This potential trust is from where some of photography’s power is drawn. The camera appears to see the way our eye sees, and that is something to which people with sight strongly relate. What the camera does, however, and what the eye in itself can never do, is to fix the appearance of an event. It removes its appearance from the flow of appearances and preserves it, simultaneously freezing, isolating and preserving that moment in time (Berger, 54). As the human memory can do, the camera can also compress many instances into one single image, both compressing and expanding the time contained within.

“The camera saves a set of appearances from the otherwise inevitable supercession of further appearances. It holds them unchanging. And before the invention of the camera nothing could do this, except, in the mind’s eye, the faculty of memory,” (Berger, 55). The way the camera works compared to the way the human mind works is an interesting concept. The human eye sees something that is unintelligible on its own, but is then interpreted and deciphered by the human brain. Similarly, the lens captures an image, and records it on a media. Further work is then required to produce an intelligible image.[5]

Before the photograph, as mentioned above, there had been no device quite like the camera that could do what it is capable of.

What served in place of the photograph; before the camera’s invention? The expected answer is the engraving, the drawing, the painting. The more revealing answer might be: memory. What photographs do out there in space was previously done within reflection (Berger, 54)

Photographs take a literal time and place, and condense them into an easy to view package, able to be called upon whenever one desires. They condense several moments down into one, and create a reference out of the information gathered at the scene of the image taking. This reference will exist as long as the media it is captured on, and has the ability to be reproduced over and over again.

The implications of photography’s relation to memory are also important, and, in a cyclical sort of way, help to both inform the link between the two and further strengthen that very link. The fact is, people generally want to remember, good things at least. Remembering through photography roots us in our history, grounds us in our present, and offers us glimpses into worlds we were unable to experience first hand as well.

There is more to it than just this, however. There is something within us that wants to remember for perhaps deeper reasons, as well. “Memory implies a certain act of redemption. What is remembered has been saved from nothingness. What is forgotten has been abandoned (Berger, 58). No one wants to be forgotten, and no one wants to fade into nothingness. To see images, especially those that clearly demonstrate times gone by, or people no longer living, reminds us that these things were real. This remembering in and of itself can be a redemptive act, and help to link us to our world and each other.


Berger, John. About Looking, New York: Vintage Books, 1980.

Cotton, Charlotte. The Photograph as Contemporary Art. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2009.

Savedoff, Barbara E. Transforming Images: How Photography Complicates the Picture, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000.

Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation. New York: Picador, 1966.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Picador, 1977.

Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador, 2003.

[1] Photography has been used as a sort of treatment in the cases of people with diseases like Alzheimer’s that affect the memory. In many cases, when a patient starts to lose their memories of people, and begins having trouble identifying them, photographs of those people can be used as surrogates for their actual memories. Though they cannot always remember the people the way they once did, new associations can be formed with the images of them. Knowing people that this has happened to, it is interesting to see how the mind works to associate images of people to the people themselves, and how the photographs can serve as memory for the people who have trouble with their own.

[2] There are certain images that have become iconic, and are associated with whole generations. The first that come to mind are images like the sailor kissing a girl in times square, the flag raising on Iwo Jima, or Russian forces replacing the flag on the German Reichstag after the fall of Berlin. These images helped to define the generation that came of age around World War II, and are now part of our vernacular. Everyone has seen them at some point or another, many to the point where they have simply become clich├ęs and aren’t taken as seriously anymore. Those who were not alive when they were taken only have the images themselves to go by, and they don’t stimulate memories of those times and places. However, they may have their own unrelated associations that people have developed with them as they have still grown up with them.

[3] When a photograph is created by light condensing time into a single two-dimensional object, making an image of a place, person, event etc., however mediated by the photographer it may be, it is still the result of that very light bouncing off the subject and burning into a light sensitive media. With it, there comes a certain status and knowledge that photography holds in the minds of most people. Due to the nature of its method of creation, a photograph can still convince people it is actually true in a way something like a painting never could.

[4] This is part of the strength of photography’s link to memory. However far some photographs may stray from what they are capturing, or however altered they may be, there is still a vein of vernacular photography that runs through our culture and is seen as documentary. In every posed snapshot, or family portrait, there are captured memories. People and places that may be gone remind us of what has been and what has changed, and the visual representations of things we can no longer actually see in reality have a certain amount of gravity to them.

[5] As soon as this happens, the moment enters the realm of memory, is stored in its short -term area, and is either kept at the ready for easy recollection or stored away in the annals of our mind. This relation, in a way with the camera the model of the mind, lets us see the result of each set of circumstances. The mind produces intangible memories, visually unapproximated; the camera, however, yields a physical and visually existent image to be viewed or easily shared with others. In a sense, the camera gives us proof of the moment captured, something more than an internal thought or feeling to remember what happened. Photographs help to heighten our memory of particular events, people, places and even more.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Downfall of the Hyperbolic: An Exploration of the Deadpan Aesthetic in Photography

The evolution of photography has led us to question what we think we see in images. A style has emerged in photography, however, that addresses some of the concerns raised by approaching their subject mater in a more straight-forward way. With very little manipulation of the images, and as much subjectivity filtered out as possible, these images attempt to show the viewer their subject in an honest to life sort of way, free of the bias and influence of the photographers personal wants, beliefs or desires.[1]

In an age that includes the marked rise of abstraction and the ubiquitous confluence of the digital manipulation of photographic images as a means for photographers to convey sentimental or subjective ideas, it has become difficult to know what is real, and how much is set, staged or created when viewing a photographic image.[2] Deadpan photography offers a contemporary counterbalance to all of the more narrative, text-laden or sentimental images so prevalent in current photography.

These images still engage with emotive subject matter, in some cases the subject matter is highly emotive, but it is done in a way that does not instantly reveal what the photographers emotions about the subject may be. “The adoption of a deadpan aesthetic moves art photography outside the hyperbolic, sentimental and subjective.” (Cotton, 81). Due to their presentation of subject matter, one is directly confronted with the subject of a given image instantly upon looking at it.

The roots of the style can be traced back decades, and is linked to photographers such as Diane Arbus, Candida Hofer, and Bernd and Hilla Becher. Fueled by the New Topographics exhibition of the 1970’s, and spearheaded by such artists as Andreas Gursky, the movement gained momentum in the 1980’s, and was really only acknowledge by the artworld in the early 90’s. “Photography that offered an objective and almost clinical mode had a renewed freshness” compared to the neo-expressive painting and subjective art making of the 1980’s. The increased clarity and scale of the prints helped to both bring photography into the same realm as painting and installation art, but also command more physical space and presence in galleries and exhibitions (Cotton, 81-84).

Part of the power of deadpan photography comes from both its acute visual clarity, and from the huge scale in which they are most often presented. The emphasis is on removing photography from the realm of the individual photographer, and opening up to a much broader world. It attempts to break free of the “limitations of individual perspective”, and instead, “map the extent of the forces, invisible from a single human standpoint, that govern the man-made and natural world” (Cotton, 81).

A variety of photographers have made use of this particular aesthetic, and have used it to cover a wide range of subject matter. From landscapes and portraits to more obscure images of rooms and neighborhoods, it is an aesthetic style that can certainly cross genre, and has been harnessed for a wide variety of subject matter.

Street photography, a favorite framework for deadpan images, offers an interesting set of circumstances for photographers to explore. Joel Sternfeld makes portraits of strangers he meets in the streets, but with the careful care and execution of a well thought out commercially commissioned portrait. His images show people at a respectful distance, and imply to the viewer all that has transpired. They suggest the interactions that have taken place between photographer and subject, and show the subjects reaction to having their impromptu portrait taken (Cotton, 108).[3]

Some of the images that do not include people, but rather focus on either landscape or stationary objects. Some of Lewis Baltz’s images in which he utilizes the deadpan aesthetic are especially engaging due to the seemingly neutral portrayal of his subject matter. In his Power Supply series, Baltz created images of the inside of high tech research laboratories and facilities. Focusing on the clean and ordered presentation of these spaces, one is confronted by the strict geometry of forms presented in the image (Cotton, 89).

The underlying subtext of what these spaces actually represent is only found upon deeper investigation of the image. Unlike many of his other more narrative images and series’, in this instance, Baltz chooses to let the viewer decipher the image on their own. Without any direct attempt to guide the viewer in a specific direction,

Another photographer making use of the style in the late 90’s was Japanese artist Takashi Homma. His choice of subject matter is that of newly built suburban housing in his native Japan, and the landscape that encompasses it. Takashi is certainly influenced by some of the early work of photographers like Baltz, emphasizing how everything in these developments is strategically placed, and nature carefully controlled. The fact that Homma chooses to photograph these scenes from a low camera angle, and only when no people are present adds to the sinister feeling created by his images (Cotton, 88-89).

The choice of alienated or desolated landscapes and cityscapes seem an especially interesting choice for these deadpan photographs, while also opening the whole aesthetic up to a more broad interpretation. “To be sure, a cityscape is not made of flesh. Still…buildings are almost as eloquent as bodies in the street,” (Sontag, 8).[4] There is something to be said about the links we, as people, make to desolation and degradation, whether people, buildings or simply barren landscapes, we cannot help but make connections to our own frailties and wounds.

With the goal of this style an attempt to reach a broader and more universal truth, the seeming neutrality of the photographer is important to keep intact.

“This is one of the major uses of what, to a contemporary eye, looks like a distinctly neutral photographic stance. Polemic narratives are raised for the viewer, but it appears as if this information is being given impartially. Deadpan photography often acts in this fact-stating mode: the personal politics of the photographers come into play in their selection of subject matter and their anticipation of the viewer’s analysis of it, not any explicit political statement through text or photographic style (Cotton, 88)

The use of this aesthetic puts power back in both the hands of the images, and of the viewers. In a contemporary context, it arose, in part, as the answer to the use of text and series as a way for photographers to communicate something to the viewer.

Though these images often function in series, they are each also strong enough to stand on their own. They may fit into larger narratives, but do not require that larger narrative to function. Each individual image draws one in through often starling confrontations with their subject matter, and forces them to break through that discomfort to find the truth a bit deeper down in the image.

This is not to say these images lack emotion, however. As stated before they often deal with very intense and emotive subject matter, like many of Richard Misrach’s images of the Salton Sea in Southern California. Damned and ruined landscapes and former cityscapes are enveloped by an eerie calm, shown still and lifeless. The disturbing beauty that emerges as a result of the ruinous landscape is very provocative, and begs many questions of the viewer. “With his objective stance, he [Misrach] has borne witness to a site that has its own story to tell, a site that only photography lacking the overbearing hyperbole of a strong personal signature could visualize effectively” (Cotton, 96).

The removal of the “overbearing hyperbole” in this strand of contemporary photography is a large part of its appeal. Without text or other means of additional information that stress meaning to the viewer, the more subtle statements being made by many artists using the deadpan style seem somewhat understated compared to much of contemporary photography.[5]

Much of the power of deadpan photography is harnessed through the medium itself. It is the only medium that can still be considered to “capture” a moment, or to convey something as it actually happened. “Ordinary language fixes the difference between hand made images…and photographs by the convention that artists ‘make’ drawings, while photographers ‘take’ photographs,” (Sontag, 46). Whether bias or subjectivity is actually present or not, the appearance of neutrality is in large part from where these images draw their power. With the appearance of neutrality comes the implication that what is presented is actually fact, not interpretation. This makes us want to believe what we see, and encourages us to explore the image in an attempt to discover the truth located within.

Richard Misrach Stranded Rowboat, Salton Sea, 1983

Lewis Baltz, Power Supply, 1989-92.

Joel Sternfeld Attorney with laundry 1988

Takashi Homma, From the series Tokyo Suburbia 1995-98

Axel Hutte, Atlanta, CNN, 2005


Batchen, Geoffrey. Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1999.

Cotton, Charlotte. The Photograph as Contemporary Art. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2009.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Picador, 1977.

Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador, 2003.

[1] Though it is probably impossible to filter out all of the subjectivity passed from photographer to viewer, in this style of image making, as much of that is done as possible.

[2] The question often arises if anything in photographic images can actually be considered “real” or “truthful”. The answer to that rests, to some degree, on how what is considered to be real has been defined throughout the course of photographic history. In large part that seems to be tied into the manipulation of images; the less altered an image is after its initial capture, the closer to reality, and, in turn, to truth it remains.

[3] Showing his subjects in this way captures and freezes a specific moment in time, but hints at a much larger story. This moment, merely the duration of the shutter on the camera opening and closing, reflects on much more than a single instant, however. This can be said of a lot, maybe all, portraiture, but what is different in cases like this is the mediation taking place due to Sternfeld’s choice of a deadpan aesthetic. With the subject showing no distinct or truly overt emotion, one is left to wonder what they are truly feeling. They are not smiling or frowning, but somewhere in between. The photographers choice to portray them in such a way liberates them for just this moment, or his reaction to it, and offers paths that lead in many different directions.

[4] Though the attempt is made on the part of the photographer to be totally neutral, one cannot help but consider choices being made such as camera angle, time of day and the lighting being used. Though all are utilized in a way that attempts to neutralize the photographers’ own opinion or bias, one must question how much these very choices actually infuse those images with opinion and bias. Though these elements are always considerations to be made, with subject matter such as these landscapes, it seems especially pronounced. Often times there is no definitively “straight-on” view of the subject, and the selection of camera angle becomes even more important.

[5] In the work of Axel Hutte for example, we see nightscapes of cities. His method of presentation brings the photograph out of the realm of strict documentation, however, and shows us something more. “It is part of deadpan photography’s presentation of things we cannot perceive with the naked eye” that is so intriguing. Hutte’s night photographs are printed as very large scale transparencies, and mounted on light boxes that allows the light to shine through the thinner parts of the images. The result is a sort of living glow that emanates from a still picture, giving his images even more life and depth (Cotton, 94)..