Tag Archives: deadpan

What’s in a Face? Blankness and Significance in Contemporary Art Photography

My tutor suggested in her tutor report for Assignment 1, that I take a look at a journal by Julian Stallabrass, namely What’s in a Face? Blankness and Significance in Contemporary Art Photography. After much sleuthing on the internet I was able to track down a copy of this journal. Unfortunately the university where I work does not have MIT Press Journals in its database stable. I really wish OCA could get us online library privileges. The journal leaves one with much to think about and I am just making brief notes on my reading and understanding of it here.

  • A distinct strand of portrait photography has emerged that can be likened to ethnographic photography. There doesn’t seem to be any clear-cut definition of ethnographic photography, so from my readings I understand it to be photography that serves a social purpose, is the study of cultures and is used to study customs, beliefs and daily life. According to Mary Warner Marien (2014: 35) “ethonographers concoted a standard, “styleless” style to connote truth.” A certain visual vocabulary is present: subjects posed either face-on or from the side; neutral expressions of the subjects and plain backgrounds. This type of photography was used widely by anthropologists and during European colonisation in third world countries.
  • Photographers who shoot in this particular mode are: Rineke Dijkstra, Jitka Hanzlova, Marie-Jo Lafontaine, Gillian Wearing, thomas Ruff, Celine van Balen. Included to some extent in this list are also Joel Sternfeld, Adam Broomberg, Tina Barney and Hellen van Meene.
  • Ethnographic photography has been heavily criticized for its power relations in regard to surveillance and racial classification.
  • This brings us to questions around the representation of difference and identity. Objective or subjective?
  • The success of the deadpan aesthetic is largely linked to the “political view of the subject under neoliberalism” (Stallabrass, 2007: 72).
  • Deadpan aesthetic: “a cool, detached and keenly sharp type of photography. …emotional detachment and command on the part of the photographers. The adoption of a deadpan aesthetic moves art photography outside the hyperbolic, sentimental and subjective” (Cotton, 2009 :81)
  • Neoliberalism: “Neoliberalism is a policy model of social studies and economics that transfers control of economic factors to the private sector from the public sector. … Neoliberalism has been used by various scholars, critics and analysts, mainly referring to an upspring of 19th century ideas connected to economic liberalism that began in the 1970s and 1980s. …This approach has most famously been connected to various economic policies introduced in the United Kingdom by Margaret Thatcher and in the United States by Ronald Reagan.” (Investopedia, online)
Kolobrzeg, Poland, July 23 1992 © Rineke Dijkstra Photograph, colour, Chromogenic print, on paper
Kolobrzeg, Poland, July 23 1992 © Rineke Dijkstra
Photograph, colour, Chromogenic print, on paper
  • These photographs are the direct opposite of the usual red-carpet photos seen in magazines. The subjects depict no style, no overly remarkable characteristics. They seem anonymous. The viewer does not participate with their gaze. They appear to look past (or through) us, aloof. The only participation that is allowed is that of “self-presentation before the camera” (Stallabrass, 2007:84).
  • Most successful of these ethnographic photographers is Rineke Dijkstra. Her photos are straightforward, with hardly any intervention or composition. Her best know series is that of youths on a beach in Poland (see image above). She places her camera at a standard distance from her subjects and positions her camera low at waist level so that the subject is looking down slightly and thus dropping the horizon line down. This gives her subjects appear taller or larger than they are actually. She makes use of fill-in flash to illuminate her subjects thereby giving greater separation from the background. Her goal is to “get at the essential, human aspect” of her subjects (Stallabrass, 2007: 86).
  • Dijkstra’s work was heavily influenced by August Sander, Bernd and Hilla Becher and Thomas Ruff.
  • Irving Penn took breaks from fashion photography at various stages in his career to photograph “with simple means and simple people” (Stallabrass, 2007: 76). He used a twin reflex camera, natural northern light and a plain backdrop against which to frame his subjects. According to Penn his subjects took on “a seriousness of self-presentation that would not have been expected of simple people” (Stallabrass, 2007: 76).
  • Penn actively arranged the position of his subjects, preferring front on poses, unlike Dijkstra. He also favoured placing his subjects in the centre of the frame.

 

Cuzco Children, 1948 by Irving Penn
Cuzco Children, 1948 by Irving Penn

 

  • Like Penn, Avedon also took breaks from his fashion photography and toured western America looking for “others”, the very opposite of what he photographed every day.
  • Avedon would put up a white paper background and shoot in diffused natural light, preferring flat light.
  • Not all of Avedeon’s subjects appear to be centrally positioned and this is because Avedon stood beside his view camera while causing his subjects to revert their gaze from the camera to him. The slight off centre positioning hinted at marginality, instability (both social and mental) and disaffection. He varied his distances from his subjects and also used reflectors to bounce light. Avedon also directed his subjects.
  • Avedon found his subjects at country fairs, gas stations. Kozloff states: “he wants to portray the whole American West as a blighted culture that spews out casualties by the bucket: misfits, drifters, degenerates, crackups, and prisoners-entrapped, either literally or by debasing work” (Kozloff: American Suburb X).
  • Both Avedon and Penn’s non-fashion work are the very antithesis of their fashion photography. As Kozloff points out in his article, fashion photography requires the viewer (and the photographer) to admire the beautiful model/clothes. There is an element of narcissism involved and probably a sense of adoration too. There is not of that involved in their “other” work. Here the facts are presented coldly, almost brutally with no artifice whatsoever. No adoration is involved. There is more a question of “them” and “us”.
  • It is clear that most ethographic photographs are printed very large at a high resolution and the details revealed in the portraits  help to compensate for the lack of expression and artistic freedom, relying on the immense data to overwhelm the viewer.
  • In these ethnographic photographs the viewer might see his/her own faults and flaws in our efforts to conform with society’s expectations. We just have to look at Hans Eijelboom’s work to see examples of this.
  • In the past ethnographic photography applied more to the “other” – those not like us, where people were photographed in order to show their ‘strangeness’ to the world. One thinks of Diane Arbus and her freaks, Edward Sheriff Curtis and his work on the Native Americans.
  • Now this deadpan aesthetic is used on subjects who are not “other”. In this globalized society that we live in today, who is the stranger among us, who is the odd one out. I have only to look at my own city to see how complex this issue of identity can be. Here we have so many nationalities represented, all of whom have become Canadian citizens. Past identities merge with new ones as a person grows from child to teenager to student to father to immigrant to citizen to grandfather … The permutations are quite endless. Identity is an unstable state.

Class is after all written deep in these apparently postclass images. They bear the mark of fundamental deficiencies in democracy, that permit the general population to be plausibly viewed through an ethnographic lens, and above all the disregard of democracy that lies at the heart of neoliberalism.

Stallabrass (2007: 90)

Reference List

Cotton, C. (2009). The Photograph as Contemporary Art. London: Thames & Hudson

Kozloff, M. (2011) Richard Avedon’s ‘In the American West’ [online] American Suburb X. Available at: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2011/01/richard-avedon-richard-avedons-in.html [Accessed 29 July, 2016]

Neoliberalism Definition [online]. Investopedia. Available at http://www.investopedia.com/terms/n/neoliberalism.asp#ixzz4FlxnxJMV
[Accessed 28 July, 2016]

Stallabrass, Julian (2007). What’s in a Face? Blankness and Significance in Contemporary Art Photography’. In: October Magazine, Ltd. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Fall 2007, No. 122, Pages 71-90. Available at: http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/octo.2007.122.1.71?journalCode=octo#.V5mhQDXvn-V [Accessed 27 July, 2016]

Warner Marien, M. (2014) Photography: A Cultural History (4th edition). London: Laurence King

Images

Dijkstra, R (1992) Kolobrzeg, Poland, July 23 1992. Photograph, colour, Chromogenic print, on paper. Tate. Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/dijkstra-kolobrzeg-poland-july-23-1992-p78329 [Accessed 27 July 2016]

Penn, I. (1948) Cuzco Children. Platinum/palladium print online. Available at: http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/art-object-page.125440.html#relatedpages [Accessed 28 July, 2016]

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Paul Matzner

I was browsing through Lenscratch searching for some inspiration in preparation for Assignment 1, when I came across Paul Matzner’s work. Matzner is a photographer from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Lenscratch ran a feature on his latest project Facing You/Facing Me which is a series of headshots he has made of people out on various streets. His project statement reads as follows:

We pass people on the street every day without making eye contact or even acknowledging their presence. We are connected to our music, our phones, our technology, but not necessarily to the people around us. I have chosen to share a momentary, public intimacy with those passersby so that I can gaze longer at their faces and value their humanity. We need each other in this world. Awareness of the people around me is the first step toward appreciation of who I am and who they are, whether those relationships remain anonymous, or become more revealing over time.

Paul Matzner

This project seems to be one quite long in the making as Matzner has created a portfolio for every street he has photographed in. He has faces of Michigan Avenue, Chicago; 5th Avenue, Harlem; Brady Street, Milwaukee; Mitchell Street, Milwaukee; Delancey Street, New York; Smith Street, Brooklyn; Devon Avenue, Chicago;  and Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee.

Upon closer inspection of the sets of photographs it seems that Matzner shot most of the images at the same location on each street. Although the background is very blurred and all context removed, one can recognise the shapes and background colours. It is also interesting to note that only three streets (Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Delancey Street in New York and Smith Street in Brooklyn) feature a cosmopolitan cross-section of the population. All ethnicities are present. In 5th Avenue, Harlem mainly African-Americans are featured with a scattering of Latinos and Caucasians which contrasts sharply with Brady Street and Wisconsin Avenue in Milwaukee which feature mainly a Caucasian population. Devon Avenue in Chicago is clearly home to a large Middle Eastern and East Indian population while the Faces of Mitchell Street in Milwaukee were a bit more difficult to pinpoint and left me feeling rather ambiguous.

The photographs are all taken quite close up to the subject. In most of the photographs, the top of the subject’s head is cut off and in some even the bottom of their chins. What is compelling throughout the entire series though is the gaze. All the subject look directly at the photographer (and viewer). Matzner allow for many visual clues to be visible on his subjects. We only catch the tiniest glimpse of their clothing, not enough to discern whether they are rich, poor, homeless or gainfully employed. Granted we can guess at their social class or status when we observe tattoos on their neck, but that is all.

We only really have two of the four key elements (face and location) present that make up a portrait:

  • face (facial expressions, hair) – personal appearance
  • pose – manner and attitude
  • clothing – social class, sex, cultural values and fashion
  • location (or background setting) – social scene of the person in the picture

Bate, D. (2009), p.73

From the closely cropped headshots we cannot discern the pose or clothing. We see enough of the blurred background to know that the portraits have been taken outdoors on the street, but no specifics are discernible. So we can draw no real social connotations about the subjects. The headshots are really quite close and in your face and there is an intimacy about this closeness.

While I was scrolling through the images, I had the distinct feeling that I knew or had encountered some of these faces. There was a strange familiarity to some of them. Have I seen their doubles on the streets of Vancouver? Or is it the expression in their eyes that I recognise in people I pass on the streets? The majority of the portraits have a deadpan expression, but there are a few with slight enigmatic expressions. I think even if the subject assumes a deadpan expression, there is still a slight emotion that is evident in the eyes, be it a soft or hard expression.

Reference List

Bate. D. (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury Academic

Pault Matzner Photography Facing You/Facing Me [Online] Available at: http://www.paulmatzner.com/f282907006 [Accessed  11 June, 2016]

Bibliography

Smithson, Aline (2015). Paul Matzner: Facing You/Facing Me [Online]. Available at: http://lenscratch.com/2015/06/paul-matzner-facing-youfacing-me/ [Accessed 11 June 2016]