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Tuesday, 31 March 2009

How not to Photograph: Deadpan

picture: Colin Pantall - I said be serious!

From Dawn of the Dead to Deadpan, the apparently neutral style used to describe particular kinds of landscape and, less commonly, portrait photography.

I don't know who first used the term for photography, but it certainly appears in Charlotte Cotton's handy book, The Photograph as Contemporary Art. I don't really like the word in the photographic field. It brings to mind stone-faced comedians like Buster Keaton and, er, well I'll stick with Buster Keaton. But the term does serve a purpose; you see a deadpan picture and you know it's a deadpan picture.

In photography, the great deadpan portraitists are August Sander and Rineke Dijkstra, though the emotional undercurrents in the work of both these artists is so immensely political and emotional that deadpan doesn't even begin to cover what they show.

The way they work is what matters though and that's where the choice kicks in. Dijkstra employed a look-this-way, click-and-that's-it strategy for her Beach Portraits, the power of the images coming from the subject herself and the situation she finds herself in.

That's the look-at-the-camera, I'm-not-doing-too-much-even-though-I'm-doing-a-great-deal work dealt with. And she is doing a great deal, especially when finding subjects who have a non-generic way of responding to the camera. Dijkstra's models are interesting in other words, they perform for the camera, and the way Dijkstra photographs makes them even more interesting. We want to know about these people.

The problem arises when the deadpan artist wants to impose his vision on the world, where control in all areas is paramount, especially the question of where the subject should look and how they should look and how to get the subject to look in this particular way.

And that's when you get the weird looks you find only in photography. The did-I-just-have-an-accident-in-my-pants look, the has-someone-farted look, the what's-that-coming-over-the-hill-is-it-a-monster look, the why-am-I-looking-over-your-shoulder look, the hurry-up-and-take-the-picture look and of course the this-is-not-a-look look.

All these looks are a simple combination of bad direction from the photographer and bad performing from the subjects. We all know when we see somebody acting badly in a film, but the same thing can happen in a photograph. We also know when this happens, but somehow people never mention it. Probably because it's not polite.

We all know these looks, we see them all the time in our own pictures and in other people's. We take pictures of these looks, wonder if we can get away with it and cut the pictures into pieces and throw them away when we discover we can't. Except for the ones that we don't cut up, because let's face it, a good have-I-had-an-accident-in-my-pants look is a rare and glorious thing and should be shared amongst the world.

Worst of all is the last look, the this-is-not-a-look look, the one where the photographer says something like "Be expressionless"or "Empty your mind" or "Think about nothing?" This is not the same as thoughtfulness or introspection or attendance-elsewhere, this is an attempt by the photographer to portray the subject/victim as an empty vessel upon which the photographer can project their own thoughts, ideas or desires.

To what end I'm not sure. There's not much happening up top for most of us at the best of times. This doesn't make us interesting people, quite the opposite. Emptying our minds of everything makes us even less interesting, even if we do it convincingly.

It makes us less interesting in real life and it makes us double-less interesting in a picture. Unfortunately, few photographers ever capture this look convincingly. It is difficult to empty one's mind, it takes years of training and fasting and pilgrimages to the Himalaya to be halfway believeable. But again and again and again we see this attempt at emptiness photographed, as though a feigned vacancy of feeling, thought and personality will reveal some inner truth about humanity, how we're all empty and vacant.

The only person in this scheme of things who is vacant is the photographer. Asking one's subjects to be empty reveals a failure of the imagination that can only come from somebody completely bereft of ideas who is trying to copy somebody else because that's always a good thing, right.

The only solution to this state of affairs is the removal of these people from polite society. A Thomas Ruff Memorial Retirement Home should be established. There, the photographer can stay with his/her fellow guests, deadpanning themselves to death by photographing each other and anything else that is empty - empty beds, empty houses, empty spaces, empty anything. And at the end of every year, they can have an exhibition of their pictures of emptiness, with massive prints and a cabaret and guest lectures by some of the giants of emptiness, and they can have print sales and slide show nights and portfolio reviews where people with earnest hair and serious faces can talk meaningfully about nothingness and nothing. And they can make a magazine with high production values and it will be called Emptiness and when can I book myself in because it sounds just perfect!


mark page said...

A friend of mine was photographed by Martin Parr last year for his terrible "Ten British Cities" thingy, and he told her to stop smiling! Anyway another good post I will have to re-think my morose teens outside identical semi detached flyover's in a war zone series, shit.

colin pantall said...

I'm always telling people to stop smiling - smiles hide so much don't you think. But I know what you mean.

Anonymous said...

Wait, what was this post about again? I thought you just described Japanese photography. Or any photography by or off most people under 45. Deadpan you say? Hmm... I have to look it up on Wikipedia...

J. Wesley Brown said...

Ha! I've been guilty of this too, directing models by saying , "Well in fine art photography you should be expressionless and even somber. Oh, and let your arms hang to your sides."

colin pantall said...

Thanks Wesley, you and me together. A lot of us are guilty of this. The problem is when it happens too much and then.. it just happens too much and it seems like there's no way out and the look is everywhere - in my pictures, your pictures, everyone's pictures and it seems like that's the only way to make pictures and nobody calls time on it, and the world becomes a miserable place full of miserable models with miserable faces staring into the middle distance. Aaarrrggghhh!

Brian J Morrison said...

Great post. I suppose as a photographer you owe the subject at the very least the respect to portray themselves as they see fit. However society has deemed, that once a camera is pointed in your direction a smile is what is required.

I guess it is our jobs to pick beyond the Barthes-esq mask and explore the slightly less false persona, below the obviously false exterior.

colin pantall said...

Absolutely, Brian - set aside the fakery, but if you do decide to photograph them as you see fit, then at least have something creative/honest/witty/beautiful/incisive that goes beyond the dead-eyed gaze so many of us love to do.

Flanegan said...

Great post!! Cos Im doing almost the same similar series now *grin*.
I only found out about Rineke Djikstra's beach portrait 2 months during classes when the prof talks about the cultures after I starts my series.
But for me I don't think the images make them look uninteresting thou.. It can tell their personal life from their body language and also the whereabouts environment.

Well.. thats my perspective..

*I love your blog and bookmarked it*

colin pantall said...

Hi Flanegan - I love Beach Portraits and think they are a rare example of really marvellous photography that will stay will us.

Byron said...

We all know that this resource has been abused in contemporary photography, but what about cinematographical photography as Lorca diCorcia, Simon, Crewdson, Wall? (I only like Di Corcia's and Simon's work).
I find deadpan very suitable for this type of photography, what do you think?

(sorry for my english, It's not my native language)