What Is Deadpan Photography?
HappyVan | Photography and Photographers | Published Sep 24, 2012
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