It wasn’t that long ago that the painterly effect of Mandler-era Leica lenses would have made me swoon. This was to my photographic world what the Jaguar e-Type is to my automotive world. Poetic, beautiful, romantic, comforting. And as far as imaginable from the austere look of acclaimed contemporary artists such as Andreas Gursky, Alec Soth or Thomas Struth. Can appreciation for the two coexist in a sane mind?
No doubt co-author Philippe would argue my mind isn’t sane, but still, I’d like to explain how the polar reversal happened in it, all the same.
There’s justifcation for my original romantic weakness. I have a doctor’s note. My earliest exposure to photography (grintended) was via the books of British landscape photographs, Charlie Waite and his “The Making of Landscape Photographs”, in particular. The hours, the days, I spent pawing through those pages instead of doing my homework …
So, golden light, warm filter, polarizers, clean compositions and soft looking lenses on medium format film became my dream modus operandi and remained that way for many years after that original sin.
All the while, though, diffuse unease with the approach was lurking beneath the surface clearly signaling a dead end for me, had I been willing to listen to the silent grumble more open-mindedly.
Slowly, insiduously, it dawned on me that my version of this noble tradition could be summed up in two syllables : bo ring. In fact, not just mine, only a few actually seemed able to pull it off in interesting ways (Joe Cornish, Colin Prior, for example) but that’s a story for another day.
Three things nailed that coffin permanently for me. A passion for composition difficult to reconcile with that style, a dissatisfaction with the colour rendering of my gear, and the harsh rendering of modern lenses and early digital cameras.
B&W, preferably strong in contrast and semi abstract subjects quickly became my way of rebelling against my initial paper mentors. And photographers such as Daido Moriyama, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Sally Mann were now the ones that kept me awake at night. They still do.
But another aesthetic driving hammers nuts in auction rooms was also growing on me.
As Andreas Gursky’s creations regularly topped the list of most expensive photographs ever and Thomas Ruff used photographs of stars or internet porn he didn’t even take himself, to rack in show after show after auction success, a frustration at not really getting it grew in me along with a desire to understand what made these “style-less” photographers so desirable.
And the more you study those artists, the more fascinating they become. And the deeper their work sinks in.
Take Thomas Struth’s early Dusseldorf series for instance. Taken individually, you could wonder what makes those views so special and many consider them as bland and uninteresting. Nothing spectacular, right ? Particularly when compared with the otherwordly creations that innundate travel influencer instagram accounts.
View the whole series, however, and the consistency is impressive. The central symmetry, the same diffuse morning light, the identical subject matter, the consistent post-processing …
It’s as if the author was maintaining a safe distance from the subject, which is completely at odds with the almost supernatural connexion of Sally Mann with her children in her magical photographs, for example.
But that isn’t so.
Struth studied under the Becher’s. The couple has left a legacy that captures the minds of young photographers and billionaire collectors alike. Besides their own considerable body of work, that legacy is the prodigious line of photographic geniuses trained at their Dusseldorf School of Photography. Artists such as Gursky, of course, but also Candida Höfer, Axel Hütte, Thomas Struth and Thomas Ruff (…), who tend to share that distanciated look and that work in series, at least in some parts of their production.
The typographies of the Bechers presented sets of small(ish) photographs in large arrays of 9 or 16 or more. Objects such as gas tanks, water towers, factories, photographed in very similar conditions (bright overcast days, a long distance to flatten all perspective, identical framing). The point being that the near identical presentation of these seemingly identical objects served to actually highlight their very differences. They were removing all other variables to let us focus on the personality of each individual in their sets of industrial portraits.
Thomas Struth used the exact same approach in his Dusseldorf series. Although not presented in a mosaic, his photographs of streets used near identical composition, lighting and PP to highlight the differences in very similar locations.
Although Andreas Gursky doesn’t work in similar series, there is a similar approach in his aesthetics and composition. Gursky’s work doesn’t ever let anything get in the way of the subject. No gorgeous light, no fancy composition, no subject drawing more attention to itself.
Gursky’s photographs are about boredom, globelisation, dehumanisation … and nothing else is allowed into the frame. Extreme visual purity.
More important than their subject, and spectacular size, which encourages a dual viewing mode (close up for infinite details, far away for the global view and nothing in between), what I find so satisfying with those photographs is that they only reveal themselves to patient observers.
The total absence of anything spectacular not only makes the photograph about an idea, it also makes it slow to digest. A bit like adding fiber to your sugar. The eye has nowhere specific to start from. Nor do any compositional relationships guide it through a planned sequence of areas, so there is no possible story being told, only an invitation to contemplation and interiorisation.
It isn’t hard to notice that the millions of spectacular photographs poured into Instagram and Facebook command an attention span that even a goldfish would find flittering. Wow! Next! Wow! Next! Deadpan aesthetics (head-on portraits, low saturation, low contrast, simple composition …) are about creating the exact opposite reaction.
During my recent trip to a foggy hill, my focus was mainly on creating photographs with a mood, an atmosphere, as above. And I hope some of those are interesting enough for you to want to look at them for more than 4 seconds. But would you hang them on a wall for 5 years, or more, which is what tends to happen with 6 figure photographs that don’t end up imprisoned in investment vaults? I’m not so sure.
On that little morning adventure, I also tried to create photographs such as the one below. Flat contrast, stark and head-on composition, no stand out feature but a subject that could belong to a theme (stone walls in Provence, for instance), post processing that is totally subservient to the subject. I blatantly copied Struth for this (artists steal, right?).
My recent change in gear was mainly motivated by the desire to explore that style more in depth and it’s safe to say the aesthetic switch was fraught with worry. You can’t change something without breaking the old mould, however beautiful it was, right? But it was worth it and I’m looking forward to exploring this new (for me) world.
Now, that doesn’t mean all photographs need to look drab to make a statement or convey a message. Nor does it imply that photographs made with high-personality lenses and expressive post-processing are gimmicky shortcuts with a shorter attention-grabbing span than an internet ad.
Only that there can be real hidden, long lasting, beauty in imagery that doesn’t reveal obvious charms at first glimpse. And that photographers who focus on the subject, deliberately omitting any decorative element, aren’t devoid of emotion. On the contrary, their work is deeply human in that it lets the viewers bring their own psychology into the meeting rather than impose their own point of view and biases.
The above photograph, which is just a swoosh of light, transmitted and reflected, would not have worked as well with heavy vignetting, shallow depth of field and dominated by the soft rendering of a portrait lens. The idea and the aesthetics would have conflicted.
Every photograph displays a set of priorities, deadpan is about giving priority to an idea rather than to a look. I find it difficult to combine the two without diluting both.
So I’ve been trying to apply that way of thinking to various types of subjects, various lights, various situations, and really like the results of this freeing neutrality. Although not all succeed in being free of my idiosyncrasies, and few would really qualify as deadpan works, I feel that most have that quiet feel to them that invites a small pause.
In a photographic world dominated by quick-buck effects and spectacular presets splashed over photographs largely devoid of any significant content, this slow photography is perhaps the aspect of that style that appeals to me the most.
By removing personal style, it also removes ego from the mix. The photo is no longer about the photographer but about something larger that can speak deeper to others.
What do you think?
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