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Monday, 30 March 2009

How Not to Photograph: Dawn of the Dead

picture: Colin Pantall - Where have all the Golfers Gone?

The Fifth Flyover was about how empty beds, empty buildings, barren flyovers and sparsely vegetated fields can be overused. This is especially true when all the empties come together in one body. Everything is empty; the streets, the parks, the shops, the houses, as if nobody lived there, as if the whole town or village or country had been denuded of people in some kind of Dawn of the Dead zombie flick.

Where have all the people gone? They can't all be in the Mall, because if there are pictures of the Mall, that'll be empty too, and they're not under the electricity pylons because there's never anyone there. Either the photographer has a nasty smell about him or the absence of people is very deliberate. Most of the time it's the latter. Unpopulated landscapes become a synonym for a visual fascism, a way of seeing that makes people invisible and removes them from the interplay of the environmental, social and economic equations that make a place what it is.

Why is this? It used to be that people would pick up a camera to overcome their shyness, to give them an excuse to talk to girls or boys, to engage with the outside world. Marc Riboud used to be shy and but he started snapping people and was transformed into a maker of iconic images. Alec Soth used to be a nervous wreck who could barely look anybody in the eye, but give him a large format about and he had everybody getting their kit off in no time - himself included.

Now it seems that picking up a camera is an excuse, not to engage with, but to retreat from the world. We show the lived in environment but without the living, we show the built environment without the builders, the houses without the inhabitants, the roads without the cars and so on all the way down the line; we show a world in which life has been exterminated, as though it's been hit by a photographic neutron bomb.

What is the source of this anthrophobia? Why are so many photographers so scared of photographing people? Are we such a bunch of shrinking violets that we flinch whenever a human enters the viewfinder? Do we find the notion of digital or chemical interaction with human form so repellent that we would rather photograph a world of interiors and peeling paint? Has our lack of social skills and general dysfunction reached the nadir where we would rather lock ourselves in the cellar than be mocked and abused by the outside world.

Or could there be another reaon? Could it be that photographing empty things is easy, and photographing people is hard. Houses don't move, empty beds stay still, they don't jump up and down, pout or smile inappropriately. Flyovers don't tell people where to go, suburban houses don't stare menacingly however many pictures you take. You don't even have to talk to them, they stay in the same pose, unchanging, unmoving wonders of emptiness.

So it's laziness that makes us do this, a collective case of boneheaded idleness reinforced by corner-cutting professors and copycat curators. We can rationalise it away however we like, but we all know it's true - we should try and get out more and meet some people.

The sarcasm of these How not to posts is killing me. So is the cynicism. I'm on a rollercoaster of doom with this series. There is no hope! But alas, I was daft enough to get on and now I can't get off, so the sarcasm and cynicism will have to continue for a few more months before I can return to my rightful place and lighter things like Origami Cats.


mark page said...

I like this Colin!

Stan B. said...

You were being sarcastic?

colin pantall said...

Thanks Mark - this post isn't especially sarcastic but there is a general air of sarcasm in the posts.

Doug Boutwell said...

Love reading your thoughts about things, but alas, I fear we'll all need a good bout of therapy or a horrific drinking binge in order to be able to make pictures once you're done! I'm afraid that everything I believe will be undermined by doubt, and annihilated under the relentless assault of cynicism. But part and parcel of making art is being able to tear down what you believe and build it back up again, leaner and stronger.

It's especially relevant since your last couple of posts take a spike right to the heart of a series I'm working on at the moment... but if I can't overcome a little doubt, placed in my mind by well-argued ideas about what a photograph should consist of, then what the hell business do I have taking myself seriously anyway?

Either way - thanks for taking the time to write these thoughts down, even if they do tend to erode the resolve I have about the images I'm currently making.

colin pantall said...

Hi Doug - I wrote somewhere that the cynicism is a kind of mental spring cleaning - the way it's going it will be spring/summer cleaning. Which is a good thing, but not something I could live with all year round.

So you're right when you say part and parcel of making art is tearing it all down and being super-critical. Part of it is also completely ignoring all those doubts and rules and the cynicism and make the best work possible. What's the series?

Anonymous said...

Sounds a litytle like Soth's post

Where have all the people gone?

It is so much easier to photograph a car park than a human being, who looks you in the eye and wonders why the hell you're interested in them!

Doug Boutwell said...

Oh, just a bunch of photos of a place that's already been photographed to death - http://tinyurl.com/cf58bb

colin pantall said...

Hi Anonymous:

I brought it forward from a comment by Diane Smythe at the BJP who mentioned the no people syndrome, but it's a lot like the Soth post, which came from a Julius Shulman profile. Some great comments here.


Doug, tough one to do. The Salton Sea is right up there with ship breaking in the subcontinent and sulphur mining on the Dieng Plateau, but it looks great and you're putting your own angle on it. Keep on, keep on.

Guy Batey said...

Ouch ouch ouch

[scurries off to find some people to populate his underpopulated world...]

colin pantall said...

The Kawah Ijen that should have read, Doug, not the Dieng Plateau.

There's still a place for unpopulated worlds, Guy, but it would be nice if there weren't quite that many of them. That's hurting me as well - I love photographing random stuff like peeling paint! I really do, but at the same time realise it is of no interest to anyone except myself and is a waste of time, money and film and has to stop.

Dismalist said...

"I love photographing random stuff like peeling paint! I really do, but at the same time realize it is of no interest to anyone except myself and is a waste of time, money and film and has to stop."

What a bold statement. What exactly are you taking pictures of that isn't a waste of time, money and film?

colin pantall said...

Tough one, Dismalist, and what a fabulous name you have. I take pictures of lots of things, but the ones I like are the pictures I take of my daughter.

Making that work coherent and stick together is very difficult, especially when I'm trying to tie other elements (like peeling paint, empty beds, flyovers - all the stuff that illustrates the posts) in with it.

I think this work is worthwhile and not a waste of time or money, but I could easily have a posting on why it's not. I think I have done already. These postings are a kind of mental spring cleaning to be a bit more rigorous, and also just to get a few critical cobwebs out of my brain. Everyone is very positive on the whole in the blogosphere, but not in real life - which does get repetitive. So this is redressing the balance - for a little while at least. And then I will return to Origami Cats - which are definitely worthwhile and not a waste of time or money.


smith said...

Y'know, I've only given this a minute of thought, but I bristle a bit reading it, as it reminds me of my own photos. I do have a strong social phobia, and it pains me to think of how many good photos I've missed because there were too many people for me to feel comfortable. All the same, my immediate reaction is that still subjects are in fact harder to photograph - it's exactly as you say it: a human is in motion!- saying things, doing things, constantly shifting. Getting a good landscape requires seeing motion that is too slow to see.

colin pantall said...

Hi Smith, good points all around.

I think most people, myself included (include myself in all these posts - that's why I'm doing them) miss pictures because of social mores/phobias/inhibitions.

Shane Godfrey said...

I think your nostalgia for the good ol' days of using a camera to go meet people never really existed. You are specific in choosing your references here, but for the most part there has been quite a bit of both. Unfortunately right now we are obsessed with this idea of the internet ruining all human interaction and as a result empty playgrounds, unused basketball nets, empty streets, and pictures of bushes are the result. It's not that I don't agree with you about some points, but using the camera to escape the world is nothing new, and has been around since art with a capital 'A' has been in existence.

colin pantall said...

Thanks Shane - the examples are very selective, but I think photographing people is not something from the good old days, but something that is still around. The large format representation of empty landscapes is definitely something from the good old days though, which has found new life in the last 40 years, but should now wither and be cut back a little I hope. There's still a place for it, but not quite such a big place.