Monday, 13 July 2015


I recently read Charlotte Cottons chapter on Deadpan from The Photograph as Contemporary Art. The Deadpan is a genre that I am finding myself drawn to more and more. This is at odds with some of my previous practice where I have used overt PP, especially with monochrome work to produce striking atmospheric work that relied more on the PP than the content. In our constant search for images there is a tendency to want to be different, so I guess we get noticed and that can deliver work that is without substance and relies heavily on style. Deadpan is a word that initially denotes plain. Plain what though ? A plain message or a plain looking image. A plain image I would say is one where there is a reduced palette, reduced contrast and a simple aspect ratio. A plain message needs a plain image. Cotton uses an example on page 80. A muslin girl who lives in temporary accommodation in Amsterdam is photographed with a deadpan pose, looking straight into the camera, simple side lighting and facial expression. There is nothing the girl can say as her presence in that society is detached with little to express. That is therefore the essence of what the photographer (Celine van Balen) has captured.

Cotton starts Chapter 3 by reminding us that deadpan aesthetic  is probably the most widely used in gallery spaces around the world and that the readers of the book are at the mercy of the medium in seeing the work differently and that the typically large prints with their breathtaking clarity one associates with the genre.

For the deadpan the photographer is emotionally detached. It moves the images outside of the sentimental and the subjective so that we cannot detect the photographer. The photography becomes a way of seeing and engaging with the subject that is beyond the limitations of individual perspective and beyond a single human standpoint. It is a genre where the photographs become highly specific and nuetral, with totality of vision and large proportion.

Deadpan's popularity began in the 1990s as a reaction to the previous decades offerings of subjective art making. The desire within art for new and the gallery demanding work that is commercial drove the genre especially with landscape and architectural images.

As a style Cotton says it is often described as "Germanic". This labelling is largely due to the key figures from that nationality being at its forefront. A number were educated under Bernd Becher in Dusseldorf where he encouraged students to create artistically led and independent work. This Germanic work of the 1920s and 30s led to a movement know as New Objectivity. Albert Renger-Patsch (1897-1966), August Sander (1867-1964) and Erwin Blumenfeld (1897-1969) were the earliest to adopt the style. I would also include the work of Karl Blossfeldt that I include in assignment 5.

Bernd and Hilla Becher were highly influential beginning in the late 1950s with a series of photographs of water towers, gas tanks and mine heads. Each building being photographed from the same perspective, in similar light which creates a "system" for the typology that moves towards the deadpan. Their work first coming to prominence in 1975 as part of the New Topographics: Photographs of the man Altered landscape. New Topographics shows an investment by photographers in topographical and architectural photography and the socio political implications this has for industry and the ecology of the landscape. As Cotton points out the significance here is that these issues are being raised as a conceptual discourse in the art gallery through a neutral and objective approach.

Contemporary deadpan is led by Andreas Gursky (b. 1955). Gursky through overtly large prints  produces work of extreme quality. With dimensions in excess of five metres they are imposing pieces of work that are immense in their detail and clarity. The work brings together the traditional use of large format film cameras with the post production and printing available in the digital environment. Unlike the typologies of Becher, Gursky creates photographs that are not part of a series and stand alone within his oeuvre. He does however work with connected themes and the images stand as discreet visual experiences with a consistency of quality that is sublime, all of which contributes to his critical and commercial success.  Gursky is not style over substance, as Cotton points out on p 84. when discussing his technique "It comes from his capacity to travel the world, find his subjects and then convince us that each scene could not have been more fully described than from his chosen perspective"  Gursky has within his style an ability to choose a viewpoint, often distant from the subject that places the viewer away from the subject,, remaining detached. We see the scene as a whole made up of very small ( but detailed) parts.  Within contemporary practice Gursky is in a dominant position although by no means does he hold the only position. Walter Niedermayr (b. 1952) and Bridget Smith (b. 1966) explore landscape and architecture within a paradigm of the topographer, resisting the photographer's intervention to glamorise or inject emotion into a scene. Similarly Ed Burtynsky (b. 1955) and his photographs of the oilfields of California show a manmade landscape that has been over run with oil wells as far as the eye can see. It is for the viewer to decide on the narrative as it tells of the rise in technology and the worlds need for oil and the riches it brings and the other is of the destruction of the  once barren landscape and the worldwide pollution as a result of burning hydrocarbons. The deadpan technique employed by Burntsky offers no hint of his position on the subject, he acts as observer and recorder without opinion. The only photographer intervention is the choice of subject matter and the possible viewer analysis.

Lewis Baltz (bb. 1954) first gained recognition as one of the contributors in the New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape in 1975. Since then and after his move to Europe he has moved away from the stark monochrome to colour images representing the high tech especially in a series of photographs within the clean environs of the power industry.

Cotton p. 93 looks at the work of Naoya Hatakeyama (b. 1958). It is here that I feel uneasy with where Hatakeyama's work in connection with a large construction project in Osaka is less than art and is in reality a record photograph. The record photograph is a document produced by either the contractor or the architect to make a visual record of how the work proceeds. Largely due to the fact that much of the construction gets covered up during the process there is a need technically and contractually to know what the works looked like on a given day. These images are deadpan and should be produced to the highest resolution, but generally they would be the work of a photographer with no art brief. Cotton does not say if the photographs are used in this context. Axel Hutte (b.1951) introduces an element of mystery into his deadpan photographs by making them at night. The presentation of the large transparencies and the night photography technique is to be questioned as it detracts from the banality required for deadpan to be be consistent as a genre. The same can be said for the night images of Dan Holdsworth (b.1974). The subject is out of town shopping centres with empty car parks, but photographing them at night introduces an artistic attitude that detracts from the functional use of the landscape. Cotton in this instance becomes somewhat subjective in her analysis and when asking " one might reasonably ask what took it rather than who" I feel she is struggling with her role.

The deadpan is a genre of contemporary photography. It may last another 20 years or it may end in 20 days, that is difficult to say. It is in fashion with the galleries and the art buyers and although there may well be other models of contemporary photography that excel it is fortunately/unfortunately (delete as appropriate) the one where the commerce of art is dictating the flow of work. This may sound as though I am cynical of the deadpan, far from it, as my practice has been influenced particularly by Baltz and Shore.

I will return to the subject at a later date and will discuss then whether my opinions have begun to modify.

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