Thursday, February 01, 2007

The humdrum portraits trend

I wonder when the current fad for ho-hum humdrum portraits is going to be over?

Take flat even light (such as a soft, overcast day), ordinary (or ordinary looking) people and photograph them in a deadpan way, often head on. Preferably with big film (4x5 or 8x10) - oh and if you can throw the words adolescence, pubescent or teenage in there - or a scrawny semi-naked long haired guy - all the better (though non of it even comes close to Sally Mann's or Andrea Modica's or even Lauren Greenfield's take on those first three themes).

I think that looking back it will be very easy to identify this kind of work as from a very specific time period (the early 00's?) a bit like the identification between Duran Duran and 80's music.

It's been done to death and yet every week it seems a new emerging photographer pops up with the same take on the same old stuff. It looked good the first time, in the hands of one of those listed below. But on the whole now 98% of it is - well, pretty boring.

(Note: I'm only including photos in this post by some of those who pioneered this approach, not the followers - this is the good stuff... if you want the endless copycat stuff you'll have to find it yourself)

Rineke Dijkstra perfected this and her work still stands far above most of the rest. Philip-Lorca diCorcia takes stunning portraits which simply defy this (downward) trend.

Along with Dijkstra, Struth was one of the earlier experimenters with this format as was Thomas Ruff. Both did it well, very well indeed.

Loretta Lux took it to a whole new level (and, incidentally, took one of the first truly worthy moves towards the challenge of 1's and 0's, as well as turned the whole trend on it's head) - but stand by for the tidal wave of Bell Jar clutching disciples following in her wake

Martin Schoeller developed a close-up form (used to try replace Avedon for a while at the New Yorker), put his own twist on it and again that worked pretty well. While someone like Alec Soth picks up on an earlier tradition of portraiture and successfully runs with it.

Even so, few of the whole crop of efforts succeed as well as say Sander. I haven't yet seen the colour equivalent (in terms of depth, resonance and impact) of his work. I also doubt that, with a few notable exceptions, most of these will have the staying power of a Cameron or a Sander or an Avedon/American West portrait.

In the hands of the innovators, this approach to portraiture was somewhat refreshing. And (perhaps unfortunately) it works extremely well as a commercial look for selling fashion - or just about anything else - but in general, as a form of portraiture, it seems inherently lacking and self-limiting. I think it's also a very attractive and relatively easy form of work to take up for a whole generation of young things coming out of art school (especially, though not only, because you can use your anorexic/deadbeat/adolescent/gay/lesbian - insert word of choice - peers/siblings as an easy pool of models), but with a few exceptions, it has little staying power. Surely it's about time for something new and better to come and take its place.

As for links to examples - I'm pretty sure you can find them yourselves...

(BTW that's Boris Mikhailov in Soth's superb picture with the carrots)


Anonymous said...

Have to agree - it's sort of Borg-like the way it's taking over

For some of the "ho hum" ones (the Collective?), check out the likes of Michelle Sank; Yvonne Todd; Amy Elkins; Shen Wei or Sarah Martin

Luis said...

The problem with so many of these deadpan (expressionless), decontextualized, anonymous pictures is that they provide very little.

Some of Ruf's heads, when seen in their supersized print form, took on a Chuck-Close-ean aura of sorts, as if we were privy to an intimate view, yet one devoid of any intimacy. The passivity of the subject, combined with the above, makes for a tenuous hold on our attention.

Struth's were different, IMO, because the subjects were significant persons in the arts, and in some cases, in his own range of influences, though they were hardly hommages.

Sternfeld, Hanzlova and I'll throw in Dijkstra (and agree to disagree), begin fleshing out ideas and adding implied/captioned narratives of sorts, specially with the longitudinal portraits, something sorely lacking in photography (in spite of Nicholas Nixon, and Milton Rogovin whose work I feel is severely underappreciated!)and consequently some context.

Luis said...

I should add that Soth's portrait of Mikhailov is not one of my favorites. That white shelf edge behind his head really draws the viewers' attention away from the great thing he did with the carrots, the expression, and his solvency in front of the camera (as good as any models').

tim atherton said...

Sternfeld, Hanzlova and I'll throw in Dijkstra (and agree to disagree),

Oh - I like Dijkstra.

Good comments - thanks Luis

And I've been thinking of doing a post about Hanzlova's FOrest work