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Tuesday, 7 April 2009

How not to Photograph: Genre Switching

pictures: Colin Pantall - Kiss, Patsy and Fantasy from the series Empty Beds and Flyovers

Roger Ballen, the American photographer of South African weirdness says that he shoots square. because you don't have to choose between landscape or portrait and that's one less choice to make.

The idea being the less choices the better because photography is infected with choices; who, what, where, when, why, how. Large format, medium format, 35mm, digital or analogue, colour or black and white, deadpan or daidopan, art, fashion, editorial, commercial. And who are your pictures for, or are they just for your family, or yourself? And if they are just for yourself or your family does that make them any worse than if they are for your gallerist, editor, art director or your assessor? Why are you making the pictures you make? Why am I making the pictures I make? And are we doing it for love or money, or love and hoping a bit of money will eventually follow, or money and hoping the love will follow, or are we just complete whores and doing it for money and no other reason; one of the lucky ones who is rolling around in photographic lucre from a photographic day job while the rest of labour teaching/writing/serving/cleaning all week, with the project on the side we do in the evenings and on the weekends in the hope it will get us somewhere?

Choice is important because photography is a promiscuous art. We don't have to make choices if we don't want to, we can just point our camera and shoot away, have a drink, swap cameras shoot some more then drink some more, find another camera and imagine that we can make the choices later and a messianiacal coherence will shine through.

Sometimes we shoot with a Rollei and then with a Ricoh and a Holga. We make a little bit of black and white and then a little bit of colour. Some people make something for our commercial portfolio but then they are artists too, goddamit, so they need the project on the side. And we imagine that we can make the choices later.

And then we start making those choices but it is so difficult because either

a) We haven't got enough that's really good/really fits

b) We've got too much that we think is really good/really fits

c) We don't really know what's really good/really fits

d) An unholy combination of all of the above

So we edit a bit and then edit some more, and break it down until only our darlings are left but we still have a problem because we just love these pictures and they're colour but there's this black and white one and it's so great and it adds a special something. So we slip that one in, and then we slip in something experimental because we like that one and we want to show that we can do that, and then we have a few from of the family album, the vacation slide show, the empty bed typology and that time we tried doing cupcake photograms on the flatbed scanner and before we know it, we have a big, fat mess that doesn't make sense and just plain hurts the eyes.

There are places for this sort of chaos. Blogs are a good place because they are semi-written and random places full of semi-written and random thoughts, and so are scrapbooks which are essentially higgledy-piggledy artist's books where a little bit of typography and design can go a long, long way - and where the more rules you ignore, the better. Even if you don't get the scrapbook right, you still have a book that speaks to yourself. That might be a case of photographer's solipsism but so what, it's a good thing.

But there are also places where this genre switching doesn't work, where the message is confusing and disorienting, where our train of visual thought is flung hither and thither on a slew of mixed-up pictures, themes and messages. And those places are everywhere else.

The only thing worse than genre switching? Genre monogamy!


Chris said...

Very interesting post. I'm a mere student at the moment, however, if there is one thing that I've gotten my head around in the last few months, it's that consistency is the goal, the holy grail (at least if my lectures are anything to go by).

Doug Boutwell said...

Amen and hallelujah.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous #2 here. Just want to say that as far as the value of cool things I experience go, two of my favorites happen to be from England, my 1972 Triumph Daytona and your blog. I have been enjoying both to quite a privileged level lately. My wife is even in London today, so the British Karma is really shining for me right now. Thanks, more than anything, for your energy to dump your brain, so eloquently and coherent for us all. I hope you recognize how incredibly valuable this is and will be. Thanks Beyond.

Rob Hann said...

I think you might be right!

colin pantall said...

Thank you everyone - it is something I do all the time, and I know it fails but I still try to do it.

Consistency is the key, mixed up with originality. Glad it's of use anonymous #2 - where do you teach by the way and what do your students make of it?

John Mitchell said...

Colin: How did you know that I have a Rollei, a Ricoh, and a Holga? I squirmed in self-recognition when I read this piece and I think it offers something for me to consider seriously. Thank you for this series.

Baris Ilktac said...

A good read, thanks

colin pantall said...

Thanks Baris - Hi John, I know that you have a rollei, ricoh and holga because I have a rollei and ricoh (except the ricoh's broken) and want a holga and a large format and a nice Contax T3 and definitely the 6x6/6x7 medium format Voigtlander oh yes. One for every day of the week is about right, even if it does get confusing.

Rachel Molina Manning said...

Thanks for the extremely valuable advice here. I've just come across your blog and am having great fun reading it. I particularly enjoy your "How not to photograph" series because it's not only spot on, but it's also hilarious. I'm an amateur hobbyist and am trying to find my own world in photography. I had quite the chuckle when I read this post because hmmm let's see, I own one of each camera: Holga, Diana, Blackbird Fly, Golden Half, DSLR, Cybershot, Canon AE1. Can I make it any more complicated for myself? Here I think I'm simplifying by not bringing my huge DSLR on a hike or to a concert, but instead I bring two film cameras and my point and shoot. I've coined a new term for this: simplicated.

colin pantall said...

Thanks Rachel - Simplicated is great - I definitely need simplicating.

I don't know really, the more the merrier is also true as long as you can put it all together at some point in a way that makes sense. But seeing how difficult I find that using just one camera, maybe the multi-camera approach would make it easier. Mix and match and be free!