Monday, 5 April 2010

Deadpan Photography

My Nightworkers images can be described as ‘deadpan’. 

Vinegar describes deadpan photography as an approach to photographic presentation that is “devoid of subjective emotion or affect” and that is has been used to describe some of the photographic practices of Robert Smithson, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Lewis Baltz, Stephen Shore, Andreas Gursky, Candida Hofer, Hans Haacke, Thomas Barrow, and Sol Le Witt (Vinegar, 2009:854).  Cotton describes the deadpan aesthetic is a cool, detached and keenly sharp type of photography and contains seemingly emotional detachment and command on the part of the photographer and that the adoption of a deadpan aesthetic moves art photography outside the hyperbolic, sentimental and subjective and describes deadpan photographs as:

“[…] so technically well done, pristine in their presentation, rich with visual information, and with a commanding presence, lent themselves well to the newly privileged site of the gallery as a place for seeing photography.” (Cotton, 2009: 81)

Vinegar states that Bernd and Hilla Becher claimed that their way of looking at things was ‘‘‘cool’’ and without an artist’s subjective expression’. (Vinegar, 2009:854).  Vinegar adds that deadpan photography is often used as a way to suggest an ironic distancing from, and critical commentary on, issues of artistic skill, and the traditions of expressive art photography or ‘committed’ documentary photography (to jump ahead a bit, I would claim that the deadpan is not fundamentally ironic at all). (Vinegar, 2009:854). Vinegar states that the deadpan approach is a mode of photography that seems emotionally detached or ‘neutral’ because it does not make outright judgments, and thus tends to emphasize what might be called an ‘evidentiary’ condition (Vinegar, 2009:854).



Nairne and Howgate state that the cross-over between the world of art and pure photography, whether studio or documentary work, has been productive in terms of critical and wider debate about portraiture and that the development of the deadpan aesthetic by Thomas Struth and Thomas Ruff emerged in sharp contrast to Mapplethorpe’s provocative portraits of naked men.  (Nairne and Howgate, 2006:13).  The deadpan aesthetic became popular in the 1990s and is used in landscape, architectural, portrait and documentary photography.  However not everyone is in love with this aesthetic.  George Pitts, director of photography at Vibe magazine stated:

“Portrait photography is moving toward staged and authentic realism.  Right now there is too much deadpan, humorless realism that is staged […] and distinguished largely by its use of irony or extreme sharpness.  I’d like to see a deeper pursuit of well-crafted, risk-taking, yet compassionate photography.” (Begleiter, 2003:105)

Vinegar states that the descriptive qualities that are attributed to the deadpan – the flattening out of expression, the evenness of affect, its monotone colouration, its apparent disinterest and distance from any engaged relationship to the world – are also the qualities of ‘indifference’. (Vinegar, 2009:864)

Cotton explains that the deadpan aesthetic is often characterized as ‘Germanic’ which refers not only to the nationality of many of the key figures but also to the fact that a significant number were educated under the tutelage of Bernd Becher, at the Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf, Germany which encouraged its students to create independent and artistically led pictures (Cotton, 2009: 82).  She adds that this ‘Germanic’ style refers to the traditions of 1920s and 1930s Germany photography known as New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) (Cotton, 2009: 82)

Cotton states that Albert Renger-Patsch, August Sander and Erwin Blumenfeld are considered the forefathers of today’s deadpan photography and explains that they created typologies of nature, industry, architecture and human society through the sustained photographing of single subjects, their most resounding influence on contemporary art photography (Cotton, 2009: 82)

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Cotton explains that Bernd and Hilla Becher were highly influential in the shaping of contemporary deadpan photography (Cotton, 2009: 82) and adds that their collaboration on series of black-and-white photographs of industrial architecture, such as water towers, gas tanks and mine heads, began in 1957 and is ongoing (Cotton, 2009: 82-83).  She points out that each building within a series is photographed from the same perspective, notes on each are taken, and a typology is systematically created (Cotton, 2009: 83)

Vinegar cites Thierry de Duve’s comments on how Bernd and Hilla Becher’s industrial photographs are shot under a set of uniform conditions that emphasize an evenness of tone and setting which, encourages a heightened awareness of minute aesthetic differences. (Vinegar, 2009:864).  He adds that their series of water towers look alike at first glance, but they begin to awaken in us an ability to see how ‘the universe of things’ can become a way of relating and responding to each something and someone – co-existing, one might say and that we no longer see them merely as ‘brute facts’ that are ‘objectively present’ to be tabulated and compared in ‘typologies’ as the Bechers might say. (Vinegar, 2009:864)

Vinegar states the ‘cool’ and ‘objective’ images demonstrate that deadpan photography encompasses within itself the realm of the factual, and that it raises, rather than merely reflects, the possibility that ‘our’ failures of sensibility and responsiveness to how factuality might relate to facticity can manifest in a form of ‘coldness’ towards the world. (Vinegar, 2009:864-865)

Cotton believes that the photographer who has come to stand as the figurehead of contemporary deadpan photography is Andreas Gursky (Cotton, 2009: 83)

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She states that Gursky’s images are not dependent on being viewed as part of a series and every photograph he releases has a good chance of contributing to the high reputation enjoyed by his work as a whole and because of this, Gursky avoids the riskier strategy that most photographers follow of making different and distinguishable bodies of work (Cotton, 2009: 83).  She adds that although Gursky commands a dominant position within our understanding of the capacities of deadpan photography, he by no means holds the patent on either style or its range of subjects (Cotton, 2009: 85)

According to Cotton, one of the most influential portrait photographers of the 1980s was German artist Thomas Ruff (Cotton, 2009: 95).  She adds that Ruff began photographing head-and-shoulder images of his friends, reminiscent of passport photographs, although considerably larger in format (Cotton, 2009: 95) and that sitters chose the backdrop in front of which they would be photographed.  Ruff asked his subjects to remain expressionless and look straight at the camera (Cotton, 2009: 106).  She explains that the blank expression and lack of visual triggers (gestures) confound our expectations of discovering a person’s character through their appearance (Cotton, 2009: 106)

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Hiroshi Sugimoto photographed museum waxworks and Cotton states that his black and white photographs highlight how we unconsciously respond to photographic representation of human forms.  We know that this photograph does not depict a real human being but a recent romanticized model of a queen [right] from British history.  Our response to Sugimoto’s waxwork pictures is to enquire into the subjects’ characters and personalities as if they were photographs of living people (Cotton, 2009: 107).

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“Anne Boleyn [above, right] is a brilliant summation of how we automatically search for evidence of character, even in a waxwork, because of the animated impression a photograph suggests.” (Cotton, 2009: 107).

Cotton states that Sugimoto’s and Ruff’s objectively styled pictures dramatically curtail our expectations that we can know anything essential about a person through their photographic image and that:

“The ideas that the signs of our biographical details are mapped onto our faces and that our eyes are the windows into our soul is brought into question.” (Cotton, 2009: 107)

Cotton states that if there are realities or truths held within the deadpan portrait, they revolve around very subtle signs of how people react to being photographed; the observations artists make are about how their subjects address the camera and photographer in front of them (Cotton, 2009: 107)

Cotton states that street portraiture is arguably the most prevalent context for deadpan portrait photography  (Cotton, 2009: 107).  She explains that Joel Sternfeld’s portraits do more than raise the question of what we can assume to know about a sitter from their outward appearance. They also propose the facts of what has transpired: that Sternfeld has negotiated with a stranger to photograph them at a polite distance, asking them simply to halt what they are doing and prepare to be photographed (Cotton, 2009: 107-108).  She adds that the subject’s reaction to what is happening, which includes their resistance, their ambivalence about this brief break in their routine, becomes the portrayed ‘fact’ (Cotton, 2009: 108)

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Cotton states that Sternfeld photographs people at a respectable distance.  Most of his subjects are aware that they are being photographed and simply stop their activity for the duration of the photograph.  Sternfeld’s selection of strangers is not a rigid typology. While there are archetypal elements such as the depiction of city traders or housemaids, he also portrays strangers whose appearance does not confirm who or what they are (Cotton, 2009: 108)

Cotton explains that the search for subtle visual interest is a guiding force in Jitka Hanzlova’s Female series, in which she photographs women of different ages and ethnic origins in cities she visits and that there is a developing typology; individual styles and characters seem to become legible because of Hanzlova’s serial and systematic approach and adds that how each woman reacts to the camera gives us information about her state of mind (Cotton, 2009: 108).  She points out that it is on this that our imaginings about the sitters pivot, reinforced by the similarities and differences between the images of a single series (Cotton, 2009: 108).  Cotton explains that the photographs have a neo-objective quality in the way in which each woman is shown facing and acknowledging the photographer.  Because it is a series, the similarities and differences between the women’s attitudes and locations become a way for us to apply subjective reasoning to what, beyond their gender, connects and distinguisher these women (Cotton, 2009: 109)

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Cotton states that Norwegian artist Mette Tronvoll produced a number of series of pictures of remote communities in Greenland and Mongolia that portray the people and their environments, photographing single people and groups in the street which acted as the backdrop (Cotton, 2009: 109).  She explains that the convention of photographers working in the deadpan aesthetic to belie the choice of camera angle to selecting the most simple and neutral stance means that we feel our relationship to the people portrayed is direct and that as we look at them, they look back at us (Cotton, 2009: 109)

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Cotton explains that Albrecht Tubke’s Celebration series takes place on the sidelines of processions at public festivals (Cotton, 2009: 109).  She adds that he invites his subjects to step out of the crowd and then photographs them individually as they cease their revelry for a moment (Cotton, 2009: 109-110).

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Cotton explains that Rineke Dijkstra photographed children and young teenagers on beaches as they came out of the sea in the early to mid-1990s (Cotton, 2009: 111-112).  She adds that Dijkstra captured the vulnerability and physical self-consciousness of her subjects as they were caught in that transitional space of exposure between the protection of being in the water and the anonymity of sitting or lying on a beach towel (Cotton, 2009: 112)

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Cotton points out that Dijkstra also chose a particular moment or space in which to portray her subjects is a governing element of Dijkstra’s work and that in her 1994 portraits of matadors, she photographed the men soon after their bullfights:

“bloodied and with their adrenaline subsiding, their performance and guard dropping away as Dijkstra worked.” (Cotton, 2009: 112)

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Cotton explains that in 1994, she photographed three women: the first, one hour after giving birth; the second, within one day, and the third, after one week and that this unsentimental approach that in her representation of maternity focuses on the impact of pregnancy and labour on the women, its legibility perhaps lost once the women have begun to recover (Cotton, 2009: 112).  She adds that these photographs visualize the profound shift in the women’s changing relationships to their bodies and the instinctive protection they demonstrate towards their newborn babies, something we might never have observed without such a systematic and detached photographic style (Cotton, 2009: 112).

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Vinegar looks at the work of Ed Ruscha, where his work is described as a:

 “nonjudgmental approach to the existing environment, providing a model of receptivity and openness to ‘the very immanent world around us’ at odds with premature systematizing and moralizing judgments about the everyday environment of American urban sprawl.”
(Vinegar, 2009:854)

He states that Ruscha’s deadpan approach to photography is marked by an ‘aesthetic of indifference’. (Vinegar, 2009:858)


Vinegar states that it is important to note that the vocabulary of ‘indifference’, and ‘fact’ or ‘facticity’ seems to come into play regarding the deadpan aesthetic is raised in Ruscha’s work (Vinegar, 2009:858).  He adds that Ruscha claimed that his photographs were ‘technical data like industrial photography’ and that what he was after in his photographic books was ‘no style or a non-statement with a no-style’ that would result in a ‘collection of facts’. (Vinegar, 2009:858).  Vinegar believes that Ruscha’s account of his own work resonates with Roland Barthes’ claim in his essay :

‘. . . That old thing, art . . .’, that pop art wants to ‘desymbolise the object, to give it the obtuse and matte stubbornness of a fact’. [The Responsibility of Forms – in BIHE library].   (Vinegar, 2009:858)

Vinegar states that ‘facticity’ could be used to suggest all the entities out there ‘in space’, and thus to describe Ruscha’s seemingly objective and disinterested accumulation and registering of that ‘data’ in his photographs without any overly conscious imposition of artistic selection or hierarchy. (Vinegar, 2009:858-859).   However, he adds that Barthes might use the word ‘facticity’ to suggest a condition of ‘factuality’ which refers to the objects of experience, which appear as things found at determinate points in space and time but are nonetheless contingent. (Vinegar, 2009:859)


Vinegar states that to German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, factuality refers to all the sundry entities, things, or beings ‘in’ the world.  He adds that Heidegger and Ruscha equally provide long lists of these things in their works, be they houses, benches, footbridges, jugs, ploughs, or trees, records, pools, people, cakes, and gas stations. (Vinegar, 2009:859)  Vinegar explains that for Heidegger, facticity, in contrast to factuality, is a way of being-in-the-world rather than the fact of being an entity in the world. (Vinegar, 2009:859)

Vinegar explains that Heidegger offers the relationship between facticity and factuality as a way of articulating the difference between beings as mere things, and beings that are aware of their being-in-the world in particular ways. (Vinegar, 2009:859)

Vinegar says that facticity and factuality are thus inextricably entwined but are not reducible to one another and the difference between factictity and factuality makes all the difference in the world. (Vinegar, 2009:859)

Facticity is a mode of questioning that opens up onto what Heidegger calls ‘ontological difference’, the primordial difference between beings and Being, between the ‘ontic’ and ‘ontological’ realms. We might call (ontological) ‘indifference’ the absence of ontological difference: it points to the reduction, levelling, or equation of Being with mere beings. Despite the words ‘reduction’ and ‘levelling’, Heidegger makes it clear that the analytic of Dasein must begin with indifference. (Vinegar, 2009:859)

Vinegar believes that one of photography’s primary tasks is to embrace our exposure to ‘ontological indifference’ as the determinate condition for any kind of ontological difference to manifest itself.  (Vinegar, 2009:859)


Cotton, Charlotte (2009) The Photograph as Contemporary Art: New Edition, London: Thames and Hudson

Vinegar, Aaron (2009) Ed Ruscha, Heidegger, and Deadpan Photography, Art History Magazine, Volume 32, Issue 5, Association of Art Historians 2010