I was commissioned to write this a few years ago for the Central European House of Photography in Bratislava (and thank you to all the photo...
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.