Celine van Balen: Muazez, 1998
This is a short review of the chapter titled Deadpan in The Photograph as Contemporary Art, by Charlotte Cotton.
Although I was conscious of the “deadpan aesthetic” (as Cotton puts it), I was under the impression that it applied to portraiture – hence the term “deadpan expression”. From reading this chapter and some other references, it became clear to me that the deadpan approach applies much more widely than photos of people.
The chapter opens with the above photo by Celine van Balen. Van Balen took portraits of residents in temporary accommodation in Amsterdam which included head and shoulders portraits of Muslim girls. Cotten states that “her choice of the stark, deadpan aesthetic to represent the girl emphasises the self-possession with which they confront the camera and their presence in contemporary society”. I found the choice of phrase “self-possession” to be intriguing and came to wonder what that might really mean, given the subject and the limits placed on females within Muslim society. I also came to wonder about whether such photos were difficult to take, even back then in a pre-2001 world.
Cotton describes the deadpan aesthetic as “a way of seeing beyond the limitations of individual perspective, a way of mapping the extent of the forces, invisible from a single human standpoint, that govern the man-made and natural world”. Well then, it’s now quite clear, isn’t it?
Picking through the dense academic language, looking for clues of everyday meaning and application, I come to the conclusion that what Cotton really means is that the deadpan is a neutral, uninvolved (cold?) view.
Cotton points out that although the deadpan aesthetic became popular in the 1990s, the front-ranking practitioners were working in this way for a considerable time before. She makes the connection with the “Düsseldorf school” – the photographers taught and guided by Bernd Becher at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf. Many of the photographers who were influential in shaping deadpan photographers were students of Bernt Becher such as Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth.
Andreas Gursky: Chicago, Board of Trade II, 1999
Cotten spends little time on portraiture before moving onto other photographic subjects introducing Andreas Gursky as the “figurehead of contemporary deadpan photography”. She states that “his works make for very imposing objects, pictures to stop you in your tracks, and he has become synonymous with work on this scale”.
Having never seen a “Gursky”in the flesh, I can only imagine what it must be like to see a photo 2m high and 5m high. The effect must be quite dominating in the same way as a Rothko painting. The size, vibrant colour and level of detail must be breathtaking.
Ed Burtynsky: Oil Fields #13, Taft, California, 2002
Cotton cites the oil fields work of Ed Burtynsky as providing a “neutral photographic stance” and as “objective evidence of the consequences of everyday life”. She argues that, even though some people might see such photos as evidence of man’s intrusion on the landscape and exploitation of natural resources, “it appears as if this information is given impartially”.
I think the word “appears” is important here. It’s hard for me to imagine someone taking a photo of what, for most people, is quite ugly with any degree of impartiality. Can the photographer ever be removed from the photograph? I personally doubt it. Someone has to stand somewhere and push the button, to paraphrase David Hurn and Bill Jay (2001) – even surveillance cameras are setup by people initially.
Beauty vs. Deadpan
Alexander (2014) discusses the use of “deadpan” in landscape by mentioning how many of the photos in the New Topographics exhibition in 1975 were taken on days when the sunlight was diffused: “for some of these practitioners, this was an attempt to strip the images of emotion or artistic expression reducing them to a deadpan factual state”. Later, Alexander quotes William Jenkins, the curator of a show by Edward Ruscha (Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations) as stating that the pictures had the effect of “eschewing entirely the aspects of beauty, emotion and opinion”.
Robert Adams: from The New West
Surely Robert Adams (1996) would disagree. In the title chapter of his book, Beauty in Photography (see blog item here), he makes it quite clear that, for him, the proper goal of art is beauty and he states that “its very centrality accounts, in fact, for my decision to photograph” (p24). And yet one could argue that much of Adam’s work fits very nicely into the deadpan aesthetic. Adams argues that the beauty he talking about is specifically the beauty of form. For him, form provides the antidote against the feeling that everything is chaotic and suggests that there may be meaning in life. So, form is beauty, beauty is form, but deadpan is also about form …
Boo Moon: Untitled (East China Sea), 1996
Does deadpan really preclude beauty, as Jenkins suggests? Plainly not, as many of the photos in the chapter (such as this one by Boo Moon) are beautiful, by any standard.
So let’s set aside the beauty aspect and work with the aesthetic as “eschewing entirely the aspects of
beauty, emotion and opinion”, which seems to work well enough with Cotton’s definition. It is about a neutral view, devoid of emotion and opinion. Does this really exist? At what point does the photographer become an automaton?
Size is Important
A point which Cotton touches on (initially with the work of Gursky), but doesn’t really develop, is about the “monumental scale and breathtaking visual clarity that predominate when one experiences the photographic print”. She makes it clear that the sheer physical size of the prints is a common factor, at least with some of the earliest practitioners of the deadpan.
So, is it necessary that photos made according to this aesthetic be large? If so, what does that really say about the deadpan aesthetic? Can the aesthetic work without size, or is size absolutely essential? There’s much food for thought here.
Thomas Ruff: Portrait (A. Volkmann), 1998
The chapter was quite unsatisfying for me. Personally, I feel that the deadpan aesthetic is on safest ground when applied to portraits. Good examples include the opening photo by Celine van Balen and those that Thomas Ruff began producing in the 1970s. We all know a deadpan expression when we see one.
Cotton points out that “Ruff’s objectively styled pictures dramatically curtail out expectations that we can know anything essential about a person through their photographic image”. So we have the somewhat interesting situation of a photo which doesn’t tell us much, doesn’t say much. What are we left with, then? That doesn’t seem like a good situation to be in, but then again, I’m not famous like Ruff or Gursky.
When we try to apply the same label to non-portraits, I think we are on very shaky and subjective ground because plainly one person’s deadpan is another person’s beauty. Where one person sees a banal housing estate, another see the beauty of architecture and the potential for new homes and happy families.
Finally, I seriously question whether it is possible for a photographer’s “emotion and opinion” can ever be separated from their work. And if so, is that a good thing? If art is devoid of emotion, surely something has gone badly wrong?
Adams, Robert (1996) Beauty in Photography. New York: Aperture
Cotton, Charlotte (2014) The Photograph as Contemporary Art. 3rd ed. London: Thames and Hudson
Hurn, D. & Jay, B. (2001) On Being a Photographer: A Practical Guide (3rd edition). Washington: LensWork
Alexander, Jesse (2014) Perspectives on Place: Theory and Practice in Landscape Photography [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.com (Accessed on 29.09.15)