14 September 2013
2 articles by Art Writing Workshop participant Sarah Coleman
Portrait (P. Lappat), 1987, from 'Portraits' by Thomas Ruff
Critic Sarah Coleman mentored with AICA-USA Board Member Barbara MacAdam for her 2013 AICA-USA / Creative Capital / Warhol Foundation sponsored Art Writing Workshop residency. Her work resulted in two articles on the changing nature of photography: "Don't Say Cheese," which appears below, and "End Days," which you can read here. Congratulations, Sarah!
“Don’t Say Cheese: Why Do the People in Contemporary Art Photographs Look So Blank?”
The Amanda Smith Gallery isn't in Chelsea. It isn't in Los Angeles, London or Berlin. The town of Johnson City, Texas, where the gallery is located, is an hour's drive from Houston and has a population of under 1,500. It's the kind of homespun place where people greet each other by name, and the art community there (three galleries, one of which opens sporadically) is similarly modest. Yet last March, gallerist Amanda Smith did something fairly radical by contemporary-art standards. She mounted an exhibition called “Smile.”
Why are contemporary-art photographs so devoid of smiles? In many cases it's not just an absence of joy; rather, it appears to be a total lack of emotional affect. Walk into a high-end gallery in any major art city today, and--if photographs are on show--you're likely to see images of people wearing blank expressions, almost as if they're reflecting the camera's impassive eye.
Consider recent shows by artists Jitka Hanzlova, Lydia Panas, Lise Sarfati, and last year's Guggenheim retrospective devoted to Dutch art superstar Rineke Dijkstra. Look through Susan Bright's Art Photography Now, which--even in its expanded 2011 edition--features next to no smiles in its 240 pages. Certain successful young photographers--Loretta Lux, Rania Matar, Hellen Van Meene--even pull off what might seem an impossible feat: getting children to display no emotion.
The style, called deadpan, has become the meme of choice for art photographers today. It signals a cool neutrality that, in some ways, corresponds to the dystopian spirit of our times. "People have not smiled in photographs forever, but it's changed somehow," says Smith. "Now I think there's a zombie-like, disconnected look."
Susan A. Barnett, a New York photographer who curated Smith's “Smile” show, believes that contemporary art photographers like Dijkstra are building on--and sometimes directly referencing--historical portrait paintings. That's ironic, she says, since photography "was meant to bring a spontaneity to portraiture." She finds the deadpan aesthetic problematic because "when you get a trend like this, it tends to discount whatever it's excluding. There's a judgment that occurs--in this case, saying that the smile is illegitimate. Whereas I think there's room for a myriad of expression."
How did we get to this point? Historically, emotional affect has had a complex relationship with photography. At different times, technology, fashion and (most improbably) national politics have all affected the way people emote--or decline to do so--in front of the lens.
At first glance, Thomas Ruff doesn't seem like a trendsetter. Soft-spoken, bearded and pleasantly scruffy around the edges, he shows up for a press preview of his show photograms and ma.r.s. at the David Zwirner gallery in rumpled cords and a glaringly ordinary checkered shirt. Shuffling uneasily, he grasps a plastic water bottle and looks as if he'd rather be elsewhere.
An art-world chameleon, Ruff has gone through more artistic phases than the decades he's lived through. But in the 1980s, he pioneered a style of portraiture that, for better or worse, began steering fine-art photography toward the blank gaze. 'Portraits,' Ruff's photographs of his fellow-students at the Dusseldorf Art Academy, is as straight and minimalist a series of photographs as its title implies. The head-and-shoulders portraits of young people, taken in flat light, resemble passport photographs or police mug shots in everything but their size. Each image is between six and eight feet high, an arresting, billboard scale that makes the subjects' blank expressions all the more striking.
Between 1981 and 1987, Ruff shot around 60 such portraits, and they had a seismic effect on the art world. The drab, institutional feel was no accident. A student at the time, Ruff was profoundly influenced by what was happening politically in Germany. In particular, the Red Army Faction, a domestic terrorist group somewhat akin to America's Weather Underground, was sowing fear and paranoia. In the 1970s and '80s, the RAF carried out targeted assassinations of politicians and industrialists, creating an atmosphere of terror that resulted in a massive police crackdown.
"Surveillance cameras were everywhere, and you were being watched all the time," Ruff recalled in a 2004 interview. "When I started making the portraits in 1981, my friends and I were very curious about what might happen in 1984, Orwell’s year. Would his ideas come to fruition?"
Ruff had already embraced the deadpan aesthetic in a series of minimalist interiors, under the direction of teachers Bernd and Hilla Becher, who were reviving Germany's Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement of the 1930s. He carried the approach over to portraiture. The idea, he said, was to create an "anti-kitsch" representation of young people living in a police state, as if his subjects were defensive victims of enforced documentation. Somewhat ironically, these no-frills portraits were highly directed. "I chose the background, the clothes," he said. "I realized a photograph could be easily manipulated and misinterpreted. The person behind the camera is really controlling it all."
No doubt, Ruff's portraits might not have had such an impact if they'd been printed at a standard gallery size. But their huge scale couldn't help but draw attention. In the glitzy art-world atmosphere of the 1980s, with megastars like Jeff Koons and Julian Schnabel making millions, Ruff showed that photography could compete. Hungry for the next big thing, the art world embraced Ruff and his deadpan peers from Dusseldorf--artists like Candida Hofer and Andreas Gursky, who had also studied with the Bechers. For the first time, photography was on an equal footing with other artistic media.
By the 1990s, the aesthetic had spread to Yale, where another group of young photographers was honing its craft. Artists like Katy Grannan, Justine Kurland, and Malerie Marder were studying with Gregory Crewdson and Phillip-Lorca diCorcia in the MFA program, and in different ways, these young women incorporated the blank gaze into their work. In 1999, Crewdson curated a show at Yale called “Another Girl, Another Planet,” featuring the work of Grannan, Kurland, and Marder, among others: it became one of the most talked-about photography exhibitions of the decade. At the same time, Dijkstra was picking up the baton in Europe, making portraits of adolescents that turned a meditative but clinical eye on young people's fragile psyches.
Interestingly, these young artists had divorced the deadpan gaze from its original context. Ruff's portrait series, made as a specific reaction to a political situation, now bled its aesthetic onto other, disconnected subject areas. In these cases, the subjects' anomie was no longer a shared generational reaction to a political crackdown. Instead, it seemed to express something almost opposite: its young subjects' sense of self-absorption and disengagement from society.
In his 2000 book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell analyzes how trends tend to begin with a “tipping point.” Citing the example of a rash of teen male suicides in Micronesia, he writes that the epidemic "started with a single high-profile suicide--a love triangle involving a charismatic high-born youth and a dramatic scene at a funeral--and soon other boys were committing suicide in precisely the same way, and for reasons that seemed preposterously trivial."
In the case of the blank gaze, the serious photographers who’ve adopted the aesthetic are not trivial, thoughtless copycats. Still, it's intriguing to consider what could have happened if a photographer whose work had more emotional warmth (Roe Ethridge, say, or Steve McCurry) had caused a "tipping point."
Significant as his work was, it would be wrong to ascribe sole authorship of the blank gaze to Thomas Ruff. Few artists are globally influential, and success in the art world depends on many factors, including luck, geography, and individual dealers' tastes. Nevertheless, it does seem that Ruff was at the leading edge of a trend as, perhaps, the first photographer to bring the deadpan aesthetic to contemporary fine-art portraiture.
Still, other factors played a part too. Traditionally, the most common directive amateur photographers give their subjects is, "Smile." This pertains across cultures, age groups, and religions. It may be natural that photographers aspiring to art status have shied away from the automatic, often phony smile as expressed in family snapshots and advertising images. "I was trying to make a photographic portrait that didn't look kitschy, or like an ad--in a sense, it was bringing the portrait to point zero," Thomas Ruff told me.
Stripping back those layers of cultural conditioning could indeed be seen as bringing photo-portraiture back to its roots. In the 1840s--point zero for photographic portraiture—the smile was far from the default expression. Cameras and dry plates worked so slowly that exposures could last for minutes, and few people attempted to hold a smile. In this way early photo-portraits resembled their painted counterparts, where sitting for long periods tended to discourage smiling.
It wasn't until the 1880s, when faster cameras and roll film were invented, that subjects smiling in photographs became commonplace. In 1888, George Eastman marketed the first mass-market camera, the Kodak, with the slogan "You push the button, we do the rest." Eastman Kodak's subsequent campaigns--personified by the Kodak Girl, in her distinctive blue-and-white-striped dress--emphasized fun, leisure, and ease of use. A few years later, the directive "Say cheese" emerged, ensuring bigger, more artificial grins. In 'Smile! A Polemic on Fine Art Portraiture,' Stephanie Dean traces the emergence of this command to British public-school photographers at around 1910.
In the 1930s, another photographic genre rose to prominence, giving artists something to react against. Under Roosevelt's Farm Security Administration (FSA), a talented group of photographers received funding to create a visual record of the Great Depression. Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, and Marion Post Wolcott captured dust-bowl misery with visual flair, producing images that straddled journalism and art. Building on the work of pioneers like Lewis Hine and Jessie Tarbox Beals, they established what Cornell Capa later defined as "concerned photography," today often called humanistic photography.
Although their subjects rarely smiled (force of circumstances having left them scant joy in life), the emotional tone of the FSA work was warm, for it took the viewer's empathy as a given and positioned photography as a vehicle for social change. Later, in the work of documentarians like Helen Levitt and Elliott Erwitt, humor and joy became tangible elements in the images themselves. In the words of W. Eugene Smith, one of the great practitioners of humanistic photography, "What use is having a great depth of field, if there is not an adequate depth of feeling?"
"In the humanist tradition, high emotion is prized," says Robert Storr, painter, critic, and dean of the Yale Art School. "It's easy to identify with the subject through a direct display of feeling." And perhaps because the high emotion of humanism is always in danger of toppling over into sentimentality, the most influential art photographers of the postwar era--Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Cindy Sherman--eschewed this tone, substituting cynicism, irony, and voyeurism. Getting to the deadpan gaze was a short journey from there.
Whether you see deadpan as synonymous with blankness, however, is a matter of personal perspective. As viewers, we bring our own psychological weather to the images we consume. To some people, what feels clinical and soulless in the blank gaze is, to others, a welcome reprieve from the superficiality and forced bonhomie of a world where every gesture and expression is a form of social currency.
"I tend to feel that a smile is off-putting unless you have a personal connection to someone," says Jennifer Blessing, the Guggenheim Museum's senior curator of photography. "It codes to a social superficiality; it's like when someone asks how you are and you say, 'Fine,' and you're not fine at all."
Last year, Blessing curated the Guggenheim’s Dijkstra retrospective, and she takes issue with the suggestion that the artist’s portraits are affectless. While she admits that some of the work feels more distant to her (a series on Olivier, a young soldier, for example, is "rather opaque" and "hard for me to read," Blessing says), she feels other images are utterly engaging. Dijkstra's beach portraits of adolescents are "heartbreaking," for example, because "the individuals in them haven't yet developed their social masks. As a viewer I know what it's like to be in that position, and it causes an affective, sympathetic response."
Storr, too, feels the blank gaze is not clinical by default. "It's not like you're looking at something on a slab in the morgue," he says. "You're looking at something without being prompted to have a certain response. You're being asked to step back a bit, but perhaps this allows you to see the images with greater intensity."
Still, Storr admits it might be time for a change. "The kind of work we're seeing now is developing mannerisms that aren't so interesting. The backlash against it is inevitable, but it's also a measure of how it's changed photography."
All of which brings us back to the Amanda Smith Gallery and “Smile”--the show that, in its modest way, challenged the deadpan aesthetic. And I wondered, what was the experience in mounting it. What did Smith and Barnett learn?
"First, that it didn't attract many entries," says Smith with a laugh. Like all of the gallery’s exhibitions, “Smile” was a juried show resulting from a mix of open and solicited submissions. But while the gallery received hundreds of entries for another themed show, “Chair,” it faced a struggle in assembling enough material for “Smile.” "I was hoping there would be more photographs that played on the concept of the smile," Barnett says. "There can be many different emotions behind the expression--you can have a smirk, an ironic smile, a shy smile. But a lot of the pictures that came in were snapshots; the show didn't hit all the notes I wanted." She then adds, "Maybe that says something about the state of photography."
Indeed, this does seem telling. It implies that even in the age of Instagram, the divide between popular and art photography is still strong--and that even when invited to do so, people have a hard time accepting the smile as legitimate in fine-art portraiture.
But there may be some signs of thawing. If smiles are hard to come by, there is at least humor in the work of photographers like Gregg Segal, who photographs superheroes and Civil War re-enactors in poignantly out-of-context situations, and Erwin Wurm, whose images are full of visual puns. And, spurred on by the Great Recession, there is a renewed emphasis on humanistic photography. Like their FSA predecessors, "concerned" photographers like Tim Hetherington and Eugene Richards are now having their work shown in the gallery world as well as published in the media.
Photography has never been just one thing, and with the advent of digital technology, the possibilities for its expansion are endless. It's a big tent, with room inside for a range of expression, and expressions. If the art-photography world is to stay relevant, perhaps it will need to explore different corners of the tent.
Portrait, Liverpool, 1999, by Rineke Dijkstra
From 'Poughkeepsie Series', 1999, by Katy Grannan