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Friday, 27 March 2009

How not to Photograph: The Fifth Flyover

picture: Colin Pantall - Empty Estuary and The Fifth Flyover

The Fifth Flyover is different to the typological approach but similar. It's about repetition within a wider theme, where the photographer feels the need to show us the same thing over and over again, but they think they are showing us something different each time. Robert Frank had juke boxes running through The Americans, Alec Soth had empty beds running through Sleeping in the Mississippi, but they were always different and always served the purpose of helping to illustrate the much more interesting aspects of human life which these photographers explored with their pictures.

Too often we find ourselves photographing an empty bed simply because we are attracted to empty beds, we know it'll make a nice picture and we think we can slot it into a wider body of work. Why not, everyone loves an empty bed, especially if it's stained and unmade, but nicely composed! If we are really attracted to them we might try an empty bed typology (which has been dealt with already in this series) which is always a bad idea because that will remind the viewer where they are heading after flicking through a few empty bed images.

Most times, the empty bed, empty building, barren flyover or sparsely vegetated field becomes a visual trope that resonates throughout a photographer's work. By the time we have seen the eighth one, we've got the picture. Empty buildings are really empty, barren flyovers are really barren, and sparsely vegetated fields are, er, sparsely vegetated and there are a lot of them about if you care to look for them. Critical mass is reached at an early point (scientific research shows us critical mass is reached at 8 pictures) and if we see any more than this number it is like having one, two or three drinks past the point where you are absolutely legless. Nausea kicks in and vomitus follows soon after.

The illusion is that the similarities of the emptiness/sparseness ( or whatever other lack or absence you choose to mention) will neutralise each other and illuminate the differences so that, if we look, really, really hard our visual understanding will transcend the tedium of what we are seeing. Maybe so, but who could be bothered. It's just not that interesting. Most of us would rather boil our ankles rather than look at work of such unremitting emptiness.

The only exception is when it's my (or your) own work - and then this kind of emptiness takes on a miracle transformation. It becomes endlessly fascinating and engaging. But only to me, which is no good at all, because I have an audience of one and I'm back in the solipsist nightmare of talking to myself, alone again in the darkroom of my soul .


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

3 words FAB U LOUS! Keep Going man, Keep Going. What's next, criticism of Stephen Shore perhaps? You are sooo on the money.

colin pantall said...

Hi Second Anonymous:

I love Stephen Shore (I love everyone) but yes, I thought of him as well. Nice to know there are some other Strictly fans out there - a few more sequins and the world would be a better place!