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Thursday, 12 March 2009

How not to Photograph #1: Monkey Art, Slight Plots, the Bechers and McGinley

Colin Pantall: Dead Pigeon #77 (from the project 100 Dead Pigeons)

In their book, How not to Write a novel, Newman and Mittelmark say that there are lots of books on how to write a novel, but none on how not to write a novel. With their blessed sarcasm, they say "...if reading Stephen King on writing really did the trick, we would all by now be writing engrossing vernacular novels that got on the bestseller lists." Which isn't the case, so Newman and Mittelmark decided to provide the service of offering observations on how not to write a novel.

It's the same with photography. There are loads of books on how to photograph. They will tell you how to use long exposures, how to be creative using fancy things like multiple exposures (double the exposure and double the meaning), how large format will really bring out the detail, and so on and so on. In other words, the simple functional How to... books of photography pretty much cover the heady world of art photography from top to bottomus.

It's simple stuff, but simple is good, especially in photography, which is basically a monkey art.
Writing isn't a monkey art. You can give a bunch of monkeys typewriters and it'll take them a squillion years to come up with the works of Shakespeare. Give a bunch of monkeys (or better still bonobos) an old Yashica, an unlimited amount of film (and some orang-utan assistants to change it) and presto, you'll have the works of Ryan McGinley in no time at all.

Ryan McGinley's work has been critiqued very nicely here on the grounds that his subjects are all a bit too young and white and well-to-do and perky in an androgynous kind of way.

Which is all true, and of course his work is about lifestyle and Water Babies and the Never-Never in more ways than one, but that is what makes it somehow memorable. His cast of characters are indistinct, they are uniform and have a shared identity, they are McGinley's Stepford children. Nothing about them is memorable and that's what makes them special, that's why they stick in our craw, why we can't just shake them off. They are anonymous nonentities slotted into these timeless, generic scenarios who fit with a time and a way of thinking, they are a fantasy, part of a bubble that has burst. They are already part of the past, a visual footnote to the boom before bust.

I personally despise McGinley's subjects for who and what they are just out of blind prejudice for young, white, rich (though not always ) Americans gallivanting around naked in water and fireworks and having more fun than me - and I think that is half the point of the work. We are supposed to have a little bit of envy because they are having such a fun and nice time and they are so young and carefree and seem so sweet and nice. Would I want to do the McGinley road trip if I were a little bit younger? Fuck yeah! Wouldn't you?

And the other big thing is McGinley does it in a way that breaks free from the charm-free earnestness that predominates in the art and photography world. And for that we should be thankful.

Anyway, back to Newman and Mittelmark. Their first observation on how no to write a novel is 'The Plot is too Slight'.

Which says it all really. This is trying to tell a story where there is no story, or not enough of a story or a story that isn't interesting to anyone except the writer, or in our case the photographer.

We can all think of examples of this. I photograph my daughter. This is interesting to me, but to others it may not be. Indeed, as a genre, photography of children is definitely a case of The Plot is too Slight. What is interesting about my child, how she plays, how she dresses, how she sees, how she watches television, is possibly only interesting to me. Maybe there is no story, so move on, find another subject, join the real world.

Take the Bechers as an example. The Bechers have a lot to answer for. They make beautiful pictures of industrial architecture. Their images resonate off each other, the care and attention paid to figure and ground creates a visual grid where the whole amounts to more than the parts, there is a reference point that extends into a mysterious ether where the formality dissolves into something quite different. Their pictures are interesting and beautiful because they are the Bechers.

Which doesn't mean your or my pictures are remotely as interesting, unless we have the same time, dedication and sectionable obsession to photograph the objects of our affection. Yes, we can photograph every kind of egg whisk, or bathtub, we can typologise every aspect of our waking and sleeping lives. We can capture the vernacular of consumption, of fashion, of the human, but ultimately who cares - the plot is too slight. A picture of an egg whisk is still a picture of an egg whisk and nothing more, and most times 100 pictures of egg whisks are just that, 100 pictures of egg whisks. Which is worse than just the one picture. Similarly a picture of a water tower is still a picture of a water tower, and nothing more, and 100 pictures of water towers is just a one way ticket to sleepsville. Unless you're the Bechers of course.


Anonymous said...

Poor McGinley, he's the pick-on of the month. I don't know if he has any obligation to anyone. Anyway, take David Golblatt, here we have something that goes way beyond the egg whisk is still an egg whisk problem. It's a life time of dedication and an opportune one. However, I think even documentary photography depends on the rarity of its documenting. Europe and America have flooded the system, only egg whisks are left.

Anonymous said...

McGinley seems to have a vaguely interesting take on nudity and a slightly interesting way of self-publicising (show the pictures and then re-show them in the gallery context, just to make sure we know that they have been in a gallery and therefore must be aaaart), but I do not really see any info as to who they are nor their socio-economic background.
So what?

Phillip, as for David Goldblatt I do not really get your point. Are you saying, well what are you saying exactly?
Maybe I am missing your point. I was at an exhibition of his last sunday and that body of work seemed to have most every element of good documentary photography; landscapes, portraits, architecture, wealth and the lack of it, mental health, politics, race relations and non-relations, religion, economic transition, political change, loss, suffering, joy, mediocre-boring-every-day-life, history, industry, handicap, unemployment, displacement.....perhaps there was more that I missed. On top of it there was also the fantastic light, the fine camera work, the editing, to give a lot but not quite enough.

Some of the most interesting images I have recently seen are form Africa, taken by Africans. Of which of course, Goldblatt is one.

For myself I think that good documentary photography is that which captures the viewer, and if that be egg whisks then so be it, so long as they include at least some of the aspects Goldblatt captures in his work.

Anonymous said...


I'm saying:

a - Yes we all (strike)hate(/strike) McGinleys work, but give it a break
b - Golblatt is great and rare (which I believe you and I agree on, unless I take you as you took me???)
c - documentary photography in europe and america is flooded making it difficult to stand out


colin pantall said...

Hi Philip and Simon - I like McGinley's work and think it combines the anonymous with the memorable in quite an ambiguous way. That was the main point of the McGinley part of the posting anyway.

Ian Aleksander Adams said...

The responses to that paper have been interesting (which was the point I guess) - and it wasn't unexpected that most people would equate it with hate. I actually like most of mcginley's singular images (and one of his models is a friend of mine) - but there has always been an aspect to the sort of cult surrounding them (and the photographer/lifestyle) that I've found vaguely disturbing and felt warranted some investigation.

Really, it didn't need to be his work, but it's the right person to look at now because of his popularity with young image creators/consumers. In my BFA program, he's mentioned almost constantly.

I think if his images were enjoyed as popcorn, they would be quite good popcorn. Better than average popcorn! A full meal even.

But since it's often mentioned (at portfolio reviews and in more critical contexts) as if it is a pinnacle of achievement - it's worth asking what exactly it is a pinnacle of. So that's the goal there - just asking, not hating. It's unknown at this point exactly how much of it is intentional, how much it matters, but I don't think it's malicious, really - in our society, it's as much caught up in the whirlwind as anything.

After all, the guy has taken my favorite picture of my pal Coley and McGinley's probably a good kid. Not worth hating when there are real assholes out there.

Not that I'm backpedaling! I want ideas pushed as far as possible. It's the only way they'll ever end up being pulled back into a good comfortable center.

Anonymous said...

Ian, I think it's great that you put the essay up - and it's good to be critical, it encourages debate and gets one to think of why one looks at a particular image in a particular way, and the prejudices and visual discourse that informs that looking.

It is all a question of balance as you say. It's a great question to ask what his pinnacle is... And if it's a popcorn pinnacle or something more substantial - I think it is a popcorn pinnacle (from a popcorn period) that will ossify into something more substantial. There is something oddly memorable about his work which is to do with its essential anonymity.

The important thing is to find that balance, with a little bit of flipping between extremes and that's what the whole How not to... series is all about. Because if you listened to it all nobody would ever get anything done. It would just be far too wrong.