Thursday, 16 April 2009
How not to Photograph: All White People look Alike
picture: Colin Pantall - All white people look alike
Another popular choice in choosing subjects is the one where everybody looks the same. In Ryan McGinley's case, this means everyone is young, skinny and white and up for a fun time gallivanting around picturesque parts of the USA in their holiday Scooby Vans.
Everybody looks the same, everybody is the same, nobody is memorable but the things they get up to make up for it. McGinley's world is Norman Rockwell sorted for Es and whizz. McGinley's endless summers stick with you in a way that indicates that something else is going on beyond the all-white-people-look-alike schemata he's working with.
Imagine if McGinley's models didn't have quite such a fun time. Imagine if they stayed at home, hanging aimlessly around their oversized and tastefully decorated homes. We can pose them how we like, pretend they have indigestion or mild depression which the pills can't quite cover up. We can ask them to look vacant, scatter them around the oversized room like chess pieces and try to set up some kind of dynamic of glances that will convey an air of mystery about our subjects.
But at the end of the day, after we've gone to bed and have nothing better to do than think about the pictures we have taken, we will realise that the significant glances aren't so significant after all, that there is less dynamism in our pictures than there is in the bag of old socks that we photographed for our typological metaphor of our feelings of inadequacy and loss.
It doesn't really matter who our group of people are. If they are portrayed with one common, overriding feature that defines them above all else (and especially if the photographer shares that common feature), whether that feature is class, age, gender or income level, then we end up with a series of images that are no better than waxworks of stereotypes trying to look good for the camera.
Which is no good at all because the photography then becomes an exercise in self-congratulation. We show these people as we like to be seen, they become an extension of us, a glorified self-portrait even if we try to show the little cracks behind the facade of civilisated decency they portray. We're telling photographic fibs in other words. Nothing wrong with that, if they were no photographic fibs, every photographic industry would collapse overnight. But if we're going to make the effortto tell a lie at least we should do it convincingly and show the real cracks beneath the surface, the real neuroses, the real psychosis and not just our pretend anguish and fake irritation. Just because fake rhymes with cake doesn't mean it's a good thing.
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