What Is Deadpan Photography?

What is deadpan photography?

Abstract: Deadpan photography is an important documentary and analytical methodology. Photojournalists are deadpan in order to maintain credibility as witnesses to events. They try not to contaminate the evidence with obvious bias. 

Social commentators use deadpan as a means of confronting the audience with the subject. Artists use deadpan as part of a strategy to question traditional values and methods. Head-on and often in very large prints. 

It is not about neutral expressions or arbitrary captures. The camera person is not indifferent. The photographer may be detached in the sense of not intruding into the subject-viewer dialogue. 

Practitioners of the deadpan aesthetics fail when they don't understood the rationale for deadpan methods. 

Currently, the intellectuals have leadership of the movement because of their creative dialogue and analysis. Whilst Jeff Wall produces artfully staged photographs intended as critique: the quality and psychology of his works is instructive and inspirational for deadpan photographers.

How is it different?

Deadpan photography has been the favoured methodology of photojournalists and documentaries for several generations. It carefully avoids obvious emotions or partisanship by the cameraman. 

It is what it is. The viewer has to read and interpret the contents. 

Walker Evans is considered to be a forefather of deadpan documentary. Look at the stoic expressions on the faces of the sharecroppers during the Great depression (Let Us Now Praise Famous Men 1941). Walker Evans treats them respectfully in the minimalist pictures. 


Very different from the traditional portraits with the standard narratives. For example, in family portraits the photographer seats the the head of the family in the centre. Or, the emotionalism of art (often appropriated by propagandists).


From den2pdx in Yahoo Answers: Charlottle Cotton described "the deadpan aesthetic" as "a cool, detached and keenly sharp type of photography. . . .what can be seen in a glance . . . is the seeming emotional detachment and command on the part of the photographer" (p. 81)


Therefore, deadpan photography can be a vital documentary method. The photographers serve as witnesses to events and provide documentary evidence. It is not arbitrary or random.

Eugene Atget is considered a pioneer by some art critics because his streets are devoid of activity. Though it must be said that Atget was a commercial photog whose work was used as the basis for back drops by artists.

In the 1910s and 1920s, August Sander (German) produced informal portraits of a changing world; the new Weimar Republic. Very different from the formal portraits of the time. Published in 1929 as 'Face of our Time'.


How deadpan works?

Practitioners of deadpan photography are not (should not be) judgemental. However, they are (like Walker Evans, the Bechers and Ed Ruscha) required to make strategic decisions about how (and why) to represent their subjects.


A problem occurs when photographers practise deadpan as an aesthetic style, without the content.


Indeed, the contributions in Yahoo Answers suggest that many people don't understand the point of deadpan.

“A neutral expression.. No emotion is shown and no contortion of the face. Smiling and frowning distort the face and show emotion. This type of portrait has been popular for some time now. 

The Victorians also preferred a neutral expression. Photographers today have a wide variety of preferences including broad grins and laughing.”

It is not about the lack of emotions in the subject's face. It is up to the viewer to penetrate the mask put up by the subjects as they face the camera. The photographer sets the stage for the CONFRONTATION BETWEEN SUBJECT AND AUDIENCE.

Who built and lived in the streets of Eugene Atget? Who are these young people in August Sanders' portraits? What's going through the minds of the subjects asked to pose impromptu by Rineke Dijkstra.


Look at Thomas Struth's family portraits in the 1980s. He asked families to arrange themselves for a group photograph. The photographer is there just to make the photograph. The subjects look seriously at the camera. Yet, their social organization revealed itself.


It could be said that there are millions of non-photographers who use their cameras to make deadpan photographs (facticity/indexicity) by the billions. Travellers take hundreds of pictures of temples and bridges. How are you (the enthusiast photographer) different from the hordes?

Is there a mind behind the viewfinder? Deadpan photography is practised by artists and intellectuals with a strategic intention regarding the subject-viewer relationship.

Moreover, artistic photographers show a high degree of craftsmanship and technical virtuoso.

“In contemporary photographic practice, particularly through the use of the large format camera and materials, the deadpan aesthetic has seemingly shifted photography beyond the sentimental and subjective. The deadpan aesthetic implies a cool and detached photographic gaze on its subject, revealing photographs of the highest visual quality, including sharpness, resolution and tonality”


Therefore, the casual photographs (low resolution, unsharp details, carelessly framing) made by the snapping hordes are not deadpan, because the intention (of insight) is not there. Often, casual photographers take pictures when it is expected of them. Look at this grand palace and that romantic sunset?

Unfortunately, deadpan seems to have gone commercial!


How to take deadpan photographs?

For the last 50 years, the leadership of deadpan photography has been in the hands of the intellectual community.

Building on the deadpan tradition of the PJ and the documentary, these thinkers have succeeded in extending the traditional uses of deadpan photography. Whilst photojournalism has taken on a more interpretive and activist role. Or, followed Henri Cartier's pursuit of the candid moment.

Some of the famous deadpan artist-photographers include Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff, Stephen Shore, etc. As well as the anti-art photographers like the Bechers and Ed Ruscha,


Each has a particular point of view about the subject-viewer relationship. Interestingly, almost all of them favour large format cameras for big (and huge) pictures meant to be viewed on the wall.

Jeff Wall's work is instructive and relevant to our discussion. He's an artist that uses photography to record his constructed plays. And, displays as transparent lightboxes.

A fan of the cinema, there is no shortage of drama in his work which imitates candid photography. IMO, the most brilliant being the Dead Troops Talk (1992).


There are his near-documentary reenactments like Mimic (1982) and Milk (1984).

Yet, there are also enigmatic deadpan-like pictures Picture for Women (1979), Double Self-Portrait (1979), Movie Audiences (1979), A ventriloquist at a birthday party in October 1947 (1990), Odradrek Ta 18 July 1994, Untangling (1994), Overpass (2001), View From An Apartment (2004).

His lightboxes being tableau in size. No (1983) was 229 x 330 cm.

The constructed distance in The Storyteller (1986) gives an aspiring photographer inspiration for his own work.

Just as a great deal of inspiration for Jeff Wall himself comes from painting and drawings of yesteryear. For example, Hokusai's  'High Wind in Yeijini', from Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji (1831-3) was the inspiration for Wall's A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusia) 1993.



Automaticity/Facticity and Typology are applications of deadpan. It is the type of photographs least understood  and most disliked.

In the hands of the unschooled and unskilled, the results are often arbitrary and random.

What could possibly be interesting about commonplaces like gas stations? Is that all there is to this branch of deadpan? Is it merely a recorder of the obscure and mundane. Why are the Bechers and Ed Ruscha respected and imitated by professional photographers?

“Facticity could be used in a broad sense 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... The deadpan attitude exemplified by Ruscha refuses to allow us to be too hasty in our categorization of good, bad, best, or worst objects or people in the world. ” Aron Vinegar

"Art has to be something that makes you scratch your head," Ed Ruscha


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by dpreview.com or any affiliated companies.


Total comments: 7
By HappyVan (6 months ago)

Deadpan is a deliberate process like photo-conceptual. Conceptual works often (not always) take the 'cool' nonchalant attitude of deadpan.

As a student of photography, I struggle to find inspiration from the tension between the realms of the heart (fine art), the mind (conceptual) and the senses (straight photography).

Straight photography shows what is. Fine art manipulates the audience's emotions. Conceptual asks difficult questions about Why we take photographs, and so create meaning.

Deadpan is a way of asking difficult questions (in a subtle/sly manner) about simple reality, without being emotional.

Artists in the exhibition: Vito Acconci, Donald Burgy, Christos Dikeakos, Dan Graham, Kate Henderson, Douglas Heubler, Barrie Jones, Robert Kinmont, Scott McFarland, Bruce Nauman, Illyas Pagonis, N.E. Thing Co., Ed Ruscha, Robert Sandilands, Bill Vazan, Jeff Wall and Ian Wallace. Curator: Vytas Narusevicius.

By HappyVan (6 months ago)

Attended a talk by one of the 1969 show's organizers, Christos Dikeakos. Quite a contrast between the rambling elderly Christos and the smart stylish young people.

I asked Christos about Robert Adams. He said that he admired RA but he hadn't been aware of RA's work in 1969. Christos said that he wasn't sure of how to fit RA into the photo-conceptual framework.

So, photo-conceptual wasn't a movement then. It was just a 'moment' (about 10 years) when young people made some experiments and tried to get a handle on the future.

Most of these pioneers moved on from photo-conceptual. A few like Jeff Wall became famous as he refined his pursuit of the clever narrative. Some like Ed Rushcha are revered today.

The importance of the work done by the pioneers (each pursuing their own vision and methodology) was that they dared to cross boundaries and build new constructs. That's creativity.

What is the relevance to deadpan photography?

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By HappyVan (6 months ago)

There's an exhibition at UBC as part of the Capture Photography Festival in Vancouver. The exhibition is a retrospective “The Photo Show: 1969/2013 – Exploring the Photo Conceptual Archive”.



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Comment edited 1 minute after posting
By jimread (Apr 3, 2013)

The best resource for the genre I've ever come across is here: http://imagesfound.blogspot.ca/

I found that after looking at the pics for sometime I got used to the idea and began to find them quite beautiful. And then it makes the, "Lone tree and the sky" and "The ruined jetty/pier into the lake/sea" and "The rocky seashore" etc look really stupid and thoughtless.

And then as John says, I tried it myself and failed I think it would take a few months of intensive photography in a particular location to begin to get the shots these guys appear to do naturally.

John W  Hall
By John W Hall (Feb 28, 2013)

Not sure his style meets your 'definition', but IMHO Jay Dusard does this superbly. To look at this


you might think he just lines 'em up outside the barn and shoots, but if I did that it would NOT look like Jay's work.

By HappyVan (Sep 25, 2012)

Artists and intellectuals are important. For example, Marcel Duchamp made a biting critique of fine art with his 'ready mades'. IMHO, the cleverest photo made by Andy Wahol was of a dusty chair in a deary corner of a boring room. He combined four copies into a picture. So, you had four dusty chairs in each dreary corner of a boring room.

Of course, Walker Evans in the 1930s had never heard of deadpan. He was merely collecting documents, just as his predecessors had done during the American Civil War. For example, a photograph of dead soldiers on a battlefield. Possibly, with a few live soldiers posing.

This is what I saw!

However, Evans made some critical decisions. There is little sign of sentimentality in his photos of people, tools, interiors and shop signs. This is what it is. Let the audience project or transfer themselves into the scene. This is the beginning of art.

By xtoph (Sep 25, 2012)

it seems to me that you are confusing an analysis about techniques and styles in photography with an intentional or deliberate school of artistic expression, in large part. viz, it is bizarre to claim that walker evans was a part of the 'deadpan' movement or style; the term didn't exist as a genre at the time of those sharecropping photos, and at any rate, if his subjects' expressions could be described today as deadpan, it isn't because evans had a mission to create deadpan photos, it is because he was on a mission to create naturalistic, un-dramatized photos. likewise, if photojournalists are deadpan (i assume you mean they make photos which appear deadpan, regardless of whatever their mood was when taking them), it is probably very rarely down to any concern for the latest fads in the art world. they take staid photos of staid subjects, and dramatic photos of dramatic subjects; striving for representational fidelity isn't 'deadpan' in the genre sense, it's simply objective.

Total comments: 7