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Thursday, 9 April 2009
How not to Photograph: Character of Average Height
picture: Colin Pantall - Mr and Mrs Average Get Dressed
So who gets photographed. Pretending that photography is democratic, that everyone has a voice and a right to be photographed is a mistake. It's a lie. It shouldn't be, but it is. Those who sit the extremes of a variety of scales get photographed much, much more, especially if they lie at the skinny-pretty end of things.
The same goes for income - they will photograph just fine if they are stinking minted and even better if they are stinking skinted. God help us if they fall in the middle income section because only the ghosts of Bill Owens and Martin Parr will dare to look you in the eye.
And if you consider appearance. Photographs of people of average height and appearance (to borrow from Howard and Mittelmark), photographs of people with no outstanding features, people who have with blank eyes and expressions are one of the great pointlessnesses of photography. They are nondescript and nondescription doesn't really do it for anyone. When was the last time you saw a magazine called Whatwasyournameagain Weekly or the Nondescript Times?
Our conceit when we show our ordinary pictures of ordinary looking people is that ordinariness is everywhere and deserves to be portrayed, examined and reflected on in great detail. Which is true but doesn't mean that our pictures should be ordinary, banal or boring.
Many of us have tedious, humdrum lives. We work too much, we don't get out enough, we interact with gadgets and machines rather than people. But just because we have humdrum lives doesn't mean we are average or have nothing interesting to say, show or share. Most everyone can transcend the averageness of their lives with a look or a glance, a dropping of the mask that people use to hide their hopes, delights and terrors from the camera. Parr and Owens photographed this beautifully in their different ways. They photographed the ordinary and made it extraordinary.
In other words, nobody is average, you just have to look close enough. If we choose to show people as simply average, that is really a reflection of our failure of imagination or our failure to understand the world we live in, it is a part of our pursuit of tedium and the average, not that of the outside world.