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Wednesday, 5 November 2014

The Dreck of Photographic Muzak

The most interesting picture I saw on the streets of Bath yesterday

I walked into town yesterday and looked at the photographs on view. I didn't see any for the first half mile or so, then got up the hill to Camden (in Bath, not London) and they were everywhere. It started with pictures of pot noodle and beer at Best One, bad food and bad drink, went on to images of a lost cat,  a bottle of Moroccan Oil and houses for sale and rent, The cat poster was the highlight. It didn't get better than that.

It was like a photo-festival with images in-situ on posters, on walls, in windows, on lamposts, cars, T-shirts, packaging, everywhere. It's a photo-festival that is happening in every economically developed town in the world. You can't escape this shit. It is everywhere.

It was a street-show that had an ideology of conformity at its heart; to consumerism, commodified emotion and a shared experience of pre-chewed sentimentalised joylessness disguised with a perfect-toothed smile.

Individually, the images are what they are. Photographers have to make a living. Collectively, this spittling drizzle of photographic normality and drab betrayed the fear, dishonesty and essential conservatism that lies at the heart of so much photography, art direction and buying; every one of these pictures was a lie. Not deep down a lie,  but on the surface a lie. A lie in the face, a spit in the eye, a stab in the heart. And the thing is they are not even interesting lies, they're boring lies that are scared to have an opinion or a feeling, These are photographs that are numb, with no emotion, no opinion and no value. They are empty pictures of empty food, empty drink, empty houses, empty clothes and, worst of all, empty people. Even the pictures on the music flyers are bland facsimiles of what it is to be a musician.

That's the visible photographic culture that we live in and it's terrible. It's everywhere and it has its own festivals, celebrations and manufactured happenings. Its blandness is offensive in the extreme. It's more than offensive. It has an effect on us all because it is so ubiquitous. We cannot escape it. It's Stepford photography that serves the needs of consumption. It kills emotion, opinions and social values. It's normal.

It's the dominant photographic culture. It's where you make money. The stuff I write about on this blog may be more interesting but it is extreme niche. I didn't see one piece of socially concerned photography on my walk to town, I didn't see one documentary project or a smokey meditation on a burnt studio. There were no photobooks (even in the bookshop windows). There was nothing that was angry or challenging or thoughtful.

Beyond the fact that I was deliberately stopping and thinking on my walk, there was nothing that made me stop and think. It was formless, vapid photography of people who have been photographed to look like they need a slap in the face. I'm sure they don't so it's an incitement to violence. No, I'm mistaken, it's not that good. It is visual Musak, that inadvertently lulls us into a state of thoughtless consumption.

The problem is this is how you make money in photography, as a photographer, an art director, a stylist, a whatever. I know plenty of people who make this kind of work. Most of the people who make really interesting work make this kind of work. And they are fully aware that it is 'this kind of work'. All of them expressly do 'personal projects' as a kind of antidote. Half the time you see 'personal project' on somebody's website, you can replace it with the words 'this stops me from slitting my wrists project'. Really. It is that soul destroying, it's that shite! Go on your local high street and look at the pictures of donuts from Gregs, burgers from Mickey P's, bags from Prada, or watches from Tag Heuer. It doesn't matter what the price tag is, it's all dreck.

If you are surrounded by a visual culture of an imagined normal it does get into your bones. It gets into my bones. It stops you having an opinion, or at the very least it makes you afraid to have an opinion, especially if it's a visual opinion that is going to piss people off. It might be too angry, or too sexual, but most of all it might be too true. And that's not just true of the commercial work we see on the streets, (which isn't bad because it's commercial. It's bad because it's bad) it's true of all photography. It seeps into our bones and we start making crappy typologies or empty space projects...

So please photographers or anyone involved in making photographs. Counteract this constant dreck we are constantly submitted to. Have an opinion, tell some truth, show some emotion.

(To be continued in the New Year)


jon roche said...

Interesting red, just so happened that i was in Bath yesterday passing through, and whilst waiting outside the post-office for the bus met a gentle(if not drunk)homeless man called Paul. In fact during the 20mins or so we were talking, he told me about his past encounters in & out of prison, aswell as granting me to take photos of numerous swastikas tattooed around his body. Now Im English mestizo and felt comfortable within Paul's company...let alone taking photos of his tattoos...other than that yeah bath's become really quite the dull ville...too many conservative closed minded folk there apart from Paul that is...shame

Anonymous said...

Dear Colin,
the post is great and comes as the way to express what we usually think but can't describe.
I think there's a problem with the people involved in photography, with photographers and artists. We (since I belong to one of these categories, shame on me) are pretenders. Personal projects are a different thing from an artistic research. Being an artist is often like being an art director and you do the same shit they do in advs only to get money.
The problem with such kind of visual culture is that it is a mirror.

Sorry for the bad english, but this is something we usually talk about here in our studio :)



Stan B. said...

Thanks for the potent call to arms, Colin! We need so many more of them, from: galleries, publishers, editors- you name it.

Unfortunately, if ya wanna get paid, ya gotta do what ya gotta do. I can at least... understand that. But there's no excuse whatsoever for the other so called "art" stuff that can be equally meaningless, trite and lethargic.

Fellow Lost Pet Photographer

colin pantall said...

Thanks everyone. Paul, I know your bus stop - I had the best conversation with a stranger there - he'd been a guard at the end of WWII on trains transporting Italian POWS around Somerset and told me how he smacked someone across the face who'd been abusing them. So there are still great people in Bath, but it has it conservative side to be sure.

Thanks S and Stan - it's a problem that cuts across all genres of photography - I like the definition of personal projects, S. I think sometimes this blog is a personal project (this post is to be sure) when you don't give a shit what people think, you just do it.

And if you do give a shit what people think, in documentary, in art, in fashion, in advertising, in anything - then you end up without a voice producing generic musak.

Thanks for commenting. I'm glad I struck a chord. Well, I knew I would strike a chord because I talk to lots of photographers and they all say the same thing - that if you do the same thing over and over, it's soul destroying. And that has an effect on the people for whom this photography forms a background noise...

Daniel said...

"Have an opinion, tell some truth, show some emotion." Wise words. Sadly, it seems that contemporary photography is going in the opposite direction. In this ironic world, emotion and truth are considered dirty words. So, we end up churning out the same trite and cold photographs.

susana said...

Along a similar vein, it's almost a badge of honor not to have a huge instagram/fill in the blank following, because the crowd gloms towards the most banal tripe it does make you want to self-immolate in despair. So much for our increasingly sophisticated visual culture.

slidelines said...

Unfortunately it seems that much of the work that comes under 'serious photography' could be described as photographic muzak. Repeat until what is being made is set free from the galleries and collectors and is made from the heart as opposed to the wallet. As the old cumdgeon critic Robert Hughes said a lot of the stuff labelled as fine art is "vacuous picture making designed to sustain the market with no critical value. I mean new formalism…really.