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.