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Thursday, 2 April 2009

How Not to Photograph; The Playing Possum Portrait

picture: Colin Pantall - Playing Possum #1 (from a series of 1)

These posts have an order, so after dawn of the dead and deadpan comes death. There is a great tradition of portraying death in photography from Victorian vernacular memento mori to the great work of Wisconsin Death Trip, Jeffrey Silverthorne or Walter Schels and many, many more.

Death features large in war, disaster and famine photography and for all the complaints (including the ones in this series of posts) made about its use in photography, the best portrayals of death punch through our fatigued retina to find their way into that tiny, tiny part of our lizard brains that tells us something that really matters is being shown to us.

That's why people come up with all kinds of reasons not to allow death to be shown in pictures, to censor images of death; because we don't like death, we know it's a bad thing and there's nothing like seeing it in pictures to tell us it is happening and showing us directly that it's a bad thing. And if we see it happening we can't pretend that it's not happening, especially when it happens to people who are close to us or people we have sympathy for. Surprisingly, most of us have sympathy for most everyone if we are allowed to - sympathy for people of all nationalities, religions, ages and all backgrounds. So when we see these people suffering, or dead, we feel sympathy for them and want to stop their suffering and death in some way. Which you think would be a good thing.

Mmm. That's one kind of death. The other kind of death is the staged death, the playing possum death. This also has a long, long tradition going back to 1840 when Hippolyte Bayard portrayed his own suicide by drowning. People were playing dead in photography before they photographed the pyramids, empty beds or shipbreaker's in Bangladesh. It is the oldest cliche in the book in other words.

Bayard's suicide by drowning is a classy picture, but he made it 169 years ago, with a 12 minute exposure, to express his grievance at not having his photographic process recognised as the bee's knees. Nowadays, it seems, playing dead has become a theme in photography designed to show.. to show... to show, I'm thinking hard here, but nothing's coming.

To show what?

Ok, the photographer's decided to have people in the picture, that's an advance at least on pictures of empty beds. Perhaps they've even tried a few poses where they tell the subject "to think of nothing" (see previous post). Maybe that doesn't quite work, or the subject is still a bit too unempty, so what comes next. Make them sick a little, tell them to imagine they have a sore belly, that they've had a donut too many. That's a strategy that seems to work for some photographers - making pictures where the subject stares into the very near distance with a pained expression that seems to mourn the fact that they had that extra donut, golonka, or tub of Ben and Jerry's for breakfast that morning - it's called the indigestion portrait and you see it everywhere.

But perhaps this isn't enough, perhaps a little gas pain doesn't satisfy the photographer's cravings to strip their subject of their last whisp of humanity. Then what happens? What happens then is the playing possum portrait. William Eggleston's woman on the grass picture is the supreme example of this, but this being Eggleston (deadpan in every way) you're never quite sure if she's not really dead after all.

Aside from stripping the subject of their humanity, what does the possum playing portrait achieve? It keeps the subject still, making them inanimate and so easier to photograph, especially if they close their eyes because everybody knows that the best corpses have closed eyes, unless it's Cindy Sherman playing dead. The dead person becomes an inanimate empty bed in other words. Photograph them in a real-life empty bed and it's like two empty beds in one. Emptiness abounds!

At the same time, playing dead is great fun, especially if you have kids because there's nothing kids like better than playing dead and it's one of the great ways of getting a bit of peace and quiet for a while. The game, Trappist Monk, does this as well (the winner is whoever stays quiet the longest), but you never get good pictures out of Trappist Monk.

You can extend the play acting if you stick a knife or blunt object near the body and pretend that your subject has been killed. Splash a bit of ketchup around and it adds to the effect.The danger if you do this too much is to find the right line between making something light and amusing and just becoming deranged and psychopathic. A whole line up of beautifully clad female victims, lying with their legs at right angles might seem a good idea as you like awake in the middle of the night thinking of your next big thing, but in the cold light of day when it's been photographed and titled (Ripper Victim #1, Son of Sam #2, and so on) you do just end up looking like a bit odd and we've all seen Peeping Tom and know where this kind of thing leads.

So there is a time and place for play dead pictures and that time and place is here - play dead pictures.

Send them there and save us all the trouble.


Veba said...

Interesting post...

"That's why people come up with all kinds of reasons not to allow death to be shown in pictures, to censor images of death"... Well, that seems to be a lost battle, death is in every picture.

I've been reading Sebald again lately. He uses photographs, and any photograph will do, to shows that the boundaries between the world of the dead and the world of the living is blurred, somehow misty.


colin pantall said...

Hi Veba - it depends where you come from? Here in the UK, there's a great reluctance to show pictures of anyone who has died in wars Britain is involved in overseas. There's a huge absence of death in pictures here.

I like the ideas of the boundaries of the two worlds being blurred and the idea of a unified time, but, but, but...

Love your pictures by the way. Be sure to check them out, readers.


Anonymous said...

Anonymous #2 here. Please don't forget the "Ophelia" theme too. I always think that is a variety of the death pose as well. Floaters with their eyes closed kinda thing. What's next, Tableau? More please. You have created quite a nice little antithesis to Charlotte Cotton's book and I recommend both your blog and her book as simultaneous reading for my BFA students. You have been able to articulate exactly what I have been unable to very precisely.I would love to buy you a beer sometime.

Anonymous said...

How not to photography; pictures of your daughter over and over

Veba said...

Colin... thanks.

I come from Sarajevo, Bosnia. Lived there through the siege and the dead were all we could see at the time.

1:0 for the dead over the living.

I've been in Montreal for the past 10 years. Now I have a better chance seeing dead person walking on the street than seeing him/her in a picture... unless I count people that are dead already but they do not know it yet.


hm... and FC Liverpool takes the title! YES!


Anonymous said...

yeah im with the other anonymous guy, 'how not to photograph'-taking the same picture of your daughter over and over again...

your work tells me the following about you

-your boring

-you use words instead of a camera to give meaning to your photographs

-your an elitist

-your a hypocrit

-you probably havent had sex in a while

the only thing more ridiculous than you claiming not to have the 'time, or money' to do whatever it was you were talking about is that other fool J. Colberg's blog Concientous which is what brought me to your 'how not to' nonsense..

there are no pillars or gods in contemporary art. thats what makes it contemporary. it takes time to figure out just which artists were closest to what can be considered as 'purity'. for you to say the work of Alec Soth, or robert frank, or stephen shore, or dead pan, or peopleless pictures are tired and all used up is, as a conversation, tired and all used up.

your work is boring.

colin pantall said...

Thanks Anonymous #2 - sure you can buy me a beer sometimes. I'm glad it hits the spot for some people at least.

Anonymous #3 - that is at least part of the point of the posts, how to reduce my own work so it's not the same old pictures over and over.

Anonymous #4 - er, not too sure about you because the posts are saying that Soth, Frank, Shore etc are very good, but that there are no Gods in photography - and that if we try to copy these people (which we do), if we just regurgitate other people's ideas, then we just end up producing stale, repetitive, tedious work in vast quantities over and over again.

colin pantall said...

Anonymous #2 - I like the Charlotte Cotton book but it can definitely be used as a kind of handbook. So tableau are coming up sometime, found photographs, the archive, the incidental archive, night time, freak shows, noble savages and so on.

Cheers Veba!

Tom Johnson said...

Hooray the anonymous assholes have arrived. I was wondering if there were any photographers reading these posts because no anonymous douchebags had bothered to tell you how badly you suck so obviously there are no photographers reading but now all is right in the photography world because the anonymous asshole, douchebag, bitter photographers have arrived.

simon anstey said...

Hi Colin,
AWESOME! Some lovely comments here from various Mr. Anons. Still, at least they only called you boring and not a paedophile, so thats something I guess.

Who is the BFA anonymous?

I wonder if you have ever read Secret knowledge by David Hockney? Great book. There is a double page spread with two images facing each other, the first is a Byzantine mosaic portrait of a man, facing him is a portrait by Van Gogh. And the main difference between the two images? A couple of thousand years..........

Anyway, it's too early on a hungover saturday mornign to comment on the various anonymous and derisory comments, but could they not just fuck off if they don't like what they read?


J. Wesley Brown said...

I wholeheartedly agree with Tom.

As for the post, asleep vs. dead perhaps?

Melanie Pullen's High Fashion Crime Scenes came immediately to mind when I was reading this.

colin pantall said...

On the money with Melanie Pullen, but then I wonder if I don't take all that stuff a bit too seriously - it is fashion after all and those scenes appear all over the place in film or television or novels. The picture that kills me in the crime scenes series is one that recalls a Philip Jones Griffiths picture of a napalm victim in Vietnam. As Baloo the bear would say, That's going to far!

colin pantall said...

Anonymous #2

More on the Ophelia theme at this exhibition in Arnhem, the Netherlands

Ophelia: Desire, Meloncholy, the Death Wish

Hamlet's famous soliloquy To be, or not to be was directed to his tragic beloved Ophelia. Many writers, philosophers, cultural scholars and visual artists since that time have found inspiration in the mystery of Ophelia's death. It is therefore an opportune moment for a cultural event which updates this idea of Ophelia as a romantic muse.