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)..

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