#869. Getting to love deadpan aesthetics

By pascaljappy | Opinion

Jun 15

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.

 
(c) Thomas Struth
 

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.

 
(c) Sally Mann
 

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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  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I am far too unintelligent to keep up with you. I just grab a camera and take photos with it. Then I take them out of the camera and fool around with the image I’ve created, on the computer. I try VERY hard to avoid “photoshopping” – but some corrections are inevitable. Then I print them, for my own purposes or – on a limited basis – for circulation among close friends, or others with a direct interest in the subject matter. I make albums with the prints. I have made only one very large print (actually that’s a lie – I made two copies, kept one and gave the other to the lady who bred the dog that is the subject of the photo – the dog was mine, but she was the owner of the bitch whose litter mine came from). And I have decided I am about to make two or three more, very shortly – I have convinced myself that my photography is improving, and that my walls will look nicer with a few of my prints hanging around the house.
    When I was young and carefree, a friend of mine and I published a book of our photos. I copped so much flack over one of the photos I had in the book that I thought – “bugger the lot of them, I’ll do as I please, and keep my photos to myself!”
    So being as thoughtful as you are would by now be utterly impossible, for me, Pascal.
    I can make comments like – “I recognise the house, I know who lives there!” or “I know whose swimming pool that is!” or or “I also recognise that almond tree – it IS an almond tree, isn’t it?” – or “where’s the bicycle? – OMG he’s forgotten AGAIN!”
    And suffer pangs of jealousy because your blasted Hasselblad takes skies like no DSLR or mirrorless can hope to capture. And I suspect the same goes for cellphones, with knobs on!
    But critique your work? Not me, my friend. I’ll have to vacate the chair and leave it to Philippe. It’s way too late in life for me to learn enough to take on such a demanding role! 🙂
    Two final thoughts.
    How do you curate and catalogue these photos? – I’d be lost without a more clearly defined theme.
    And – I was going to give the golden eggcup to the sunset – it was a tough choice, because the wintery looking photo immediately above it is quite likely even better, but as one of the 10% of males my age who have been told by their doctor “you suffer from depression”, I try to avoid greys and blacks, it’s one of my escape routes from my “depression” – instead, I surround myself with laughter, colours, music, animals, etc. Saves heaps – I don’t need pills or psychiatrists! (Sorry about the other photo – LOL)
    So – why didn’t it get the eggcup? Well to my utter amazement, I found I was entranced by one of the grey photos, the one in the middle of your discussion about Struth. (Struth and I, by the way, have something in common – neither of us has ever heard of the other one). What hit me between the eyeballs, notwithstanding the complete lack of colour and the overwhelming greyness, which I have a deep seated allergy to, is the way Hassy captured the clouds – and especially the shaft of shadow (NOTE – NOT “light”) stabbing the sea above the promontory, and mirroring (if there is such a word!) the shape of the promontory below it in the frame. Almost a classical composition – but with a twist, that really fires up the image and sets it apart from the work of the wannabe’s beneath you, Pascal. Take a bow! 🙂

  • Pascal Ravach says:

    Spot on, Pascal… you put words on something I feel since long; that famous difference between “descriptive” (doesn’t even have to be spectacular) and “evocative”… so interesting to see what triggers the imagination, what leaves spaces to let us ‘inhabit” an image…
    Excellent article, congrats!

    I also believe that our “tools” can have a retrospective action on our mood and choices… the “painterly” side of some of my Olympus OM lenses pushed me in that direction, while the more analytical side of their top macro lenses pushed me to search for impact…

    And funny… I am not a “car” guy, even though I had some nice ones for my work, but the Jaguar “E” has been my favorite car since decades 🙂
    That one and the Lamborghini Miura from the 60s 🙂

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Pascal, I’d started a post called “evocation vs invocation” in photography and never got round to completing it. Your comment now makes me want to 😉

      The Miura and the GT40 were my childhood dreams. There’s an unparalleled elegance in the Miura that even Ferrari never managed to match. The Dino came close but not quite 😉

      Cheers

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      LOL – I’ve had plenty of cars, but the one I love most is the Bugatti type 35 – never had one of course, but you don’t have to own a work of art to appreciate its beauty. 🙂
      This of course is “blokey talk” – women in general aren’t impressed by the cars we drive – if that’s the thing, it’s far better to have something like a king charles cavalier spaniel. 🙂

  • Dave Hollis says:

    I can’t quite agree. The Düsseldorfer Schule does actually mean something to me – I attended a two day course on them a while ago along with having to take photographs as well – and I suspect that this almost documentary style is certainly interesting but a personal style is nevertheless certainly discernible.

    Looking through Struth’s photos, he didn’t always use diffuse light (see the Klosterstraße) and he deviated from the centre of the street in the Wagnerstraße. Generally, a personal style is there: The use of black and white to reduce the information presented and the early morning to avoid having people on the streets. However, these are photos of housing, normally they would be teeming with life. The houses are constructed by human hand. The taking the colour out of the photos also takes away a lot of information away from how people are living and, to an extent, the time of the year. It is a documentary style in reduced form.

    I use both analogue and digital and both black and white and colour. I see no need for spectacular presets nor for overly post-processing. That said, 80% of my photos are of people …

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Dave, that must have been quite an experience. I won’t argue with you, your knowledge of their work must be far superior to mine. I feel that combination of the general “distanciated” approach with the personal take on it is what is most fascinating in that movement. Some have criticised it for being soulless and lacking in warmth. I feel the exact opposite. I have seen other series by Struth, in museums, in the US, in China … which are teeming with life. Somehow the Düsseldorfer series seems more seminal to me, although later work is more spectacular.

      I would love to see your photographs ! If you ever feel like sharing, please let me know 🙂 All the best.

  • Chris Stump says:

    “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.”

    Love this. 🙂

  • Sean says:

    Hi Pascal,
    Deadpan aesthetics – yes; but the images you’ve included are just down right concise, articulate, and timeless.
    I’ll also hark back to Edward Weston who had the innate ability to make a photographed subject be an intensified form of itself. Weston could see what was there, being the thing itself, irrespective of the subject he were to aim his camera and lens at and photograph.
    Those above images do remind me of Weston’s philosophy, and I’ll leave it at that.
    Regards
    Sean

    • pascaljappy says:

      Wow, Sean, thank you. Couldn’t hope for higher praise !

      But that’s interesting. Weston photographed the essence of his subjects and that’s a great goal for anyone.

      Cheers

      • Sean says:

        No worries, Pascal.
        Weston’s images, to me are not snapshots, because not only are they concise, articulate and timeless, they are also very well planned and thought out records of his philosophy. Weston’s image’s are crafted in a way that show us he was very aware of what was there to be revealed, because of what he could see; this is in contrast to what he was looking at, or what we would look at, but not see, for that matter. This allowed Weston to craft images where the subject being photographed was shown in an intensified form of itself. Weston strove to show how he had seen a subject, placed in the best possible light and shade. Weston photographed subjects that, even today, can be just as easily known and familiar to us; the difference being is that Weston had an innate ability to see, capture, and show these known and familiar subjects as though no person had seen them before.
        Sean

        • pascaljappy says:

          I wonder what Instagram would think about that sort of intensely personnal work.

          • Sean says:

            Who knows Pascal, and I’m not about to find out what Instagram would think. To me it’d be a useless exercise. Other Instagram users may relish the idea and possibly carry out the exercise. Exposure to the attention of Instagram’s populous may potentially see such a photographer and their intensely personal work to be superficially ‘favoured’ and forgotten, and or drive the photographer to fly too close to the sun, due to other inflated reasons contributing to the updraft.

        • John W says:

          If I may paraphrase you Sean; what I think you are saying is the Weston has the ability to SEE beyond the surface of the object to an innate quality not obvious to the casual viewer and the ability to capture that quality. That’s why a common pepper looks like “a pepper”, but not like any pepper we have ever seen or are likely to ever see.

          • pascaljappy says:

            To me, what is below the surface is the “essence”, what is essential (can’t remove any of it without changing the object or our perception of it) and, therefore, unique. I’m very admirative of artists who are able to isolate that and make their photographs so “dense” (in a positive sense).

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    O.T.
    Just mentioning,
    (as that lens caught some interest earlier),
    https://dustinabbott.net/2019/06/laowa-100mm-f2-8-2x-macro-apo-image-gallery/

  • John W says:

    Interesting article Pascal. I’ve always struggled with Gursky and probably will continue to, and Struth is a real head banger for me. But the article reminded me of a conversation I has a couple of months ago with a fellow photographer about “staying power”in photographs. The world of imagery we live in revolves around the “instant hit” that you talk about … the WOW factor. But once you’ve seen the image, the hit wears off fairly quickly and there’s no reason to look at it a second time, let alone a third or fourth. The REALLY good photographs are the ones that keep you coming back years later to discover new things about the image and how you view it and other images. The initial “banality” of a Gursky or Struth will in all probability turn off most viewers … togs included. I think the key to looking at such images is the curiosity to ask “Why is this image so banal?” or “Why is such a banal image being given such prominence?” and therein lies the doorway to a new visual experience of discovering things you never thought could possibly be there.

    BTW – The absence of “style” is itself a style. Just being contrarian ….

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