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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.


Anonymous said...

Hi there,

Lots to read here will have to have a better look..
I often read Keri Smith's blog named as such..she is an illustrator but trys to view the world by looking at the 'everyday'and the 'ordinary' a little more closely..she has written books such as 'Wreck this journal' whereby the reader becomes the author -I guess..although I havent bought the book..


colin pantall said...

Hi Sian, have you recovered from Pen y Fan yet?

The Wreck this Journal is great and probably a more constructive and uplifting version of this series but for non-photographers.

Check out these artist's books here - these are great.


Fernando said...

I recently read this interesting post:


I was wondering if you know of any other photographer's "epiphany" moment?

Great blog.

colin pantall said...

Thanks Fernando.

James Nachtwey had his epiphany when he was photographing orphans in post-Ceausescu Romania, but I think alot of photographers have a gradual realisation rather than the road to Damascus thing, or their epiphany comes after the fact, once a body of work has been made. Some photographers even have a kind of backward career where the epiphany happens in reverse.

Any other epiphany suggestions anyone. Send your suggestions in here.

Stan B. said...

Many moons removed while still in my youth, I remember coming across an amazing little B&W image of some discarded Christmas trees. Up until then, I thought in order for photographs to succeed, they had to somehow capture something larger than life. It's a lesson I've repeatedly forgotten, ignored, and never fully incorporated- just as so many, many times during my life I've been blinded and reassured by the official story and party line that gets repeated over and over ad infinitum in every corner and crevice of our lives. It takes that much more energy, that much more effort, that much more insight to peer into our ordinary, little lives and perceive the wonder around us.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm a newcomer.

This post reminds me of Robert Capa's words - "If your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough." It was really common for me to photograph someting eye-catching rather than something "ordinary" in hopes of gaining more applause. But now I think this idea is quite skin-deep.

By the way, I'd say the "How-not-to" posts are definitely nightmares as they makes me realise that I'm not serious enough with photography. So thanks for these AWESOME posts.


mark page said...

umm, not sure about this one. I seem to see too many photo's of Mr Average. This for me ties in with your "Dead pan" post. I think too many photographers are so scared of the cliche of photographing the really skint or really rich that they will only photograph the middle line.
In the last decade the average family member has replaced the "Down & Out" and the really rich, Photographers parents, staring into the camera while wearing slacks in a nice house... Parr? perhaps the ordinary in extrodinary situations with a added dollop of surealism.

colin pantall said...

Hi anonymous and Mark - I think not being serious is a good thing, as long as you do it seriously if you see what I mean. Hardly anyone does not serious.

Mark - I think if you are honest with your photography it's easy to offend by simply being there(look at Parr and The Last Resort)and this raises lots of issues with both poor and rich.