The Deadpan Aesthetic

Fence and Wall (2015) - 1/100 at F/10, ISO 180

Fence and Wall (2015) – 1/100 at f/10, ISO 180

History and Origins

According to Artbook (1) the origins of the word “Deadpan”  can be traced to 1927 when Vanity Fair Magazine compounded the words dead and pan, a slang word for a face, and used it as a noun. In 1928 the New York Times used it as adjective to describe the work of Buster Keaton.

It is less clear when it was first used to describe the style of photography associated with Edward Ruscha, Alec Soth, Thomas Ruff and many others.  Charlotte Cotton devotes a complete chapter to Deadpan in The Photograph as Contemporary Art (2) and much that has been written since references that essay.

In summary Deadpan photography is a cool, detached, and unemotional presentation and, when used in a series, usually follows a pre-defined set of compositional and lighting rules.

This style originated in Germany and is descended from Neue Sachlichkeit, New Objectivity, a German art movement of the 1920s that influenced the photographer August Sander who systematically documented the people of the Weimar Republic . Much later, in the 1970s, Bernd and Hilla Becher, known for their devotion to the principles of New Objectivity, began to influence a new generation of German artists at the Dusseldorf School of Photography (4). These young German photographers included  Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky, Candida Hofer and Thomas Ruff. The Bechers (4 & 5) are best remembered for their studies of the industrial landscape, where they systematically photographed large structures such as water towers, coal bunkers or pit heads to document a soon-to-disappear landscape in a formalistic manner as much akin to industrial archeology as art. The Bechers’ set of “rules” included clean, black and white pictures taken in a flat grey light with straight-on compositions that perfectly lent themselves to their presentation methodology of large prints containing a montage of nine or more similar objects to allow the study of types (typology) in the style of an entomologist.

Their students, including those mentioned above, took these ideas forward throughout the 70s and 80s and up until the present day, producing, what Mark Durden (7) calls “formal and detailed photographic renditions of the phenomenal world” influencing a large number of other artists to the point where commentators suggest that a significant proportion of the work on gallery walls in Europe and the USA could be described as Deadpan. It is a style that has come to dominate the art photography market.

Meanings and Concepts

Cotton argues that instead of developing individual subjective styles many contemporary artists have adopted the “neutral and objectifying” style of deadpan. A cynic might ask whether this is because of some inherent tool kit within the style that enables artists to communicate in ways that, for example, the “decisive moment” did not offer or whether it was because of the saleability of this type of work in galleries.

To attempt to answer this question it is necessary to look more closely at what the approach offers both the artist and the audience. The essence of the style is neutrality, the photographer is saying “this is it”, “this is the way it is”, “what do you think?” Don’t look here for the socially motivated commentary on the human condition that was considered to be the raison d’être of the concerned photographer from the previous generation. The style’s foundation is laid by technical competence and high quality rendition; until the advent of high resolution full-frame SLRs Deadpan was the preserve of large format cameras and printers capable of producing the immense scale and precise detail that the classic Deadpan print requires. An Andreas Gursky print is typically 2 metres by 4 metres and filled with an overwhelming level of detail. The viewer is invited to stand back and consider the overall design, the interplay of shapes, patterns and colours that might appear abstract but are then drawn in to investigate the detail of the ant-like people in May Day IV or the endless sea of cheap merchandise in 99 Cents.

At the most basic level the subject matter is complex, Cotton talks of the “social, political and ecological issues” that are embedded in Ed Burtynsky’s work but these narratives are simply provided as information so it appears that his own viewpoint is made apparent only by the choice of subject. In part this might be because many of the leading Deadpan photographers are working not to create books that develop a theme, their work is on too great a scale for that to be an effective medium, but rather to create single monumental pieces of art that contain the whole idea in one print. If Shore liked to print small to draw the viewer closer these artists print large to provide the maximum level of information with the suggestion that the audience can make up its own mind. They are saying “here is everything you need to know about this subject, now make up your own mind as to what it means.”

If we move way from the global scale of Burtynsky and Gursky we continue to find the recurrent themes of Deadpan, what Stephen Bull (8) refers to as a coolly detached and systematic approach, an approach which harks back to the Bechers. Subjects are consistently treated without sentimentality, with objectivity and an absence of obvious narrative so the audience is offered few hints on how to read the end result. We are left in doubt as to Edward Ruscha’s views about gasoline stations, or whether he even has a view other than the one through his camera but 26 Gasoline Stations (9) is seen as a seminal work that, perhaps above all, showed that there was an ordinary world that had escaped the cameras of the great landscape photographers like Ansel Adams or the documentarists like Dorothea Lange. The idea of documenting something just because it was there without adding any gloss, or comment or political or social viewpoint and leaving it to the audience to bring their own context is as much a part of Deadpan as the seemingly infinite detail offered by Gursky. This pursuit of the ordinary was taken up in the 70s by Stephen Shore whose road trips into “middle America” were a reaction to his insight that photography had fallen into three distinct camps, the amateur snap, the important and global subject and the commercial world meaning that no-one was seriously documenting the everyday, the ordinary, the seemingly unimportant that, was of course, what makes up most of the world.

Deadpan lends itself to this factual, uncluttered, seemingly untouched and bland recording of what is there. If we take the Bechers as a foundation example of, what is now called, Deadpan we are offered a totally unemotional, matter of fact and unadulterated view of Germany’s industrial past. This factual representation is effective for such subjects but Shore showed that it could equally well be used to diarise ordinary America. For the Bechers it enabled the typology of redundant industrial architecture, for Shore it allowed him to emphasise and communicate the ordinary. His high detail, perfectly framed, high resolution photographs of American streets are as un-judgemental as the Becher’s water towers. It is a pure form of documentation.

Using the Deadpan Aesthetic

When discussing Deadpan writers emphasise that it is dispassionate, unemotional and neutral; Greg Cook (3) writing in the Boston Globe asks whether its popularity is the result of a detached, analytical approach that reflects the uniformity of our mass produced world. He wonders whether it offers a refuge from emotion, from worrying about ecological disasters, terrorism and social issues. A bleak purpose for any art form.

On face-value Deadpan seems to have a limited role if I am intent on photographing subjects that interested me, issues that I felt strongly about, things that I love or hate so my first question was whether this study was a purely academic exercise or whether I wanted to unitise this aesthetic in some way?

An interview with Kai-Olaf Hesse (6), a contemporary German photographer, and time spent looking more closely at the life of Bernd Becher has helped me recognise that a dispassionate presentation is not the result of a dispassionate photographer. Hesse makes the point that merely recording the real world in, what he calls, a dis-impassioned style does not mean that the person behind the recorder lacks passion. In fact he believes that the opposite is true and that, to look at anything closely, means the photographer must have some passion for their subject. This certainly appears to be true for Bernd Becher; his typologies were based on his fascination with industrial architecture which dated to his childhood in the Ruhr. He knew that the huge industrial structures that intrigued him were destined to disappear as Europe moved into a new post heavy industrial era. He is quoted as saying he “was overcome with horror when I noticed that the world in which I was besotted was disappearing.” (5)

It would be inappropriate and no doubt incorrect to suggest that the Bechers’ motives were simply to document structures that they knew would disappear. Bernd Becher had started as a painter and his dedication to New Objectivity suggests that this was a man with strong artistic instincts. He saw the mega-structures of the Ruhr and the other post industrial places he visited and photographed in terms of his own childhood memories, as examples of man’s ability to continually and repetitively mould the landscape, as things of surprising beauty and craftsmanship, as art forms and as function-rich subjects. These elements were blended into a unique, compelling and, now much copied, style that presented these edifices as stark structures that give little hint of the powerful emotions that drove his and Hilla’s work but the key to the approach was that they invested emotionally in these subjects and this investment explains the continuing fascination with their work. We are offered seemingly neutral archeological pictures and are invited to find all the elements that made them such strong subjects. We might not find Becher’s memories but the other components are there if we want to look for them.

In many ways this perfectly summarises the Deadpan approach. It is a potential partnership between the artist and the audience. The artist has invested observation, selectivity, technical excellence and no little passion into the work but their view on the subject matter, their subjectivity is hidden in the layers of objective information they present. The viewer is invited to make their own investment of context and subjectivity and together we find the art hidden behind the neutral screen.

Deadpan Portrait Artists

All of the artists discussed above are landscape photographers, people play an important part in the works of some and less so in others but their pictures are generally landscape in nature. My conclusion that Deadoan could be a helpful approach in some of my own work is also based on landscape, architectural or even street photography; but aside from this there is an equally important and influential group of portraitists, people who have taken some or all of the principles of the Deadpan aesthetic and used it to photograph people.

Some of these speak very directly to me, Stephen Shore’s portraits of the ordinary Americans he met along the way in Uncommon Places (10) are an important part of that narrative. I especially enjoyed Alec Soth’s Songbook, I am not certain that I completely understand it as, in the style of Deadpan, he offers the minimum of context, we are left to do a lot of the work, but his portraits are sympathetic and warm, human, but factual in the style of a local newspaper.

However, neither of these men can be strictly categorised as Deadpan portrait artists, to find that group we need to look at artists such as  Rineke Dijkska, Jitka Hazhanzlova (portraits as opposed to much of her other beautiful work) or Lydia Panas. Additionally August Sander is sometimes mentioned in this context and his work has influenced many contemporary photographers but I see something quite different in his work that might be no more complicated than the passage of time giving his photographs of pre-war Germany a historical edge and an additional layer of interest.

The appreciation of portrait photography is highly subjective, photographic portraits either speak to me or they do not, there is not much middle ground. As mentioned above I enjoy the warmth and human spirit captured by Shore and Soth, or the technical excellence and theatrical unveiling of personality that I see in David Bailey’s work so it is perhaps not surprising that most of the Deadpan portraitists leave me cold. We are shown little of personality, the poses are artless and often discomfiting, models seem to wish they were elsewhere, expressions are bland to the point of disinterest. But, more than this I find that pure Deadpan has the tendency to offer people as exhibits, typologies that promote sameness not uniqueness, people as examples rather than individuals. To return to the the entomology analogy I used to describe the Becher’s work, I half expect to see the pin holding the subject to the mounting board. The idea of approaching people on the street is not unique but give me the humour and celebration of individuality in Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York (14) not the “Please hurry, I want to be somewhere else” models of Hazhanzlova’s Brixton series.

Sarah Coleman (13)  recently described the typical Deadpan expression as “blank, zombie like”  but she quite fairly points out that some viewers find smiles equally disconcerting. However, this blankness seems to have the tendency of making people look similar so one Dijkska adolescent looks much the same and just as uninteresting as all the others. My favourite comment dates from 2003 in an article by Sebastian Smee (12) when he said Bertien van Manen’s series on China had “resulted in a set of images so uninteresting, so uninformative and so arbitrary that it has put her in the running for a £20,000 prize.” This  neatly summarises Deadpan portraiture – it is on the one hand dull and on the other highly collectible. It should be said that the street photography of Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand received equally damming reviews after the ground breaking MOMA New Documents Exhibition and as did William Eggleston’s Guide so perhaps Deadpan portraits have a hidden appeal that I am too much of a philistine to recognise.

Sources

Books

(2) Cotton, Charlotte. (2004) The Photograph as Contemporary Art. New edition 2009. London: Thames and Hudson.

(7) Durden, Mark (2014) Photography Today. London: Phaidon Press.

(8) Bull, Stephen. (2010) Photography. Kindle Edition published in the Taylor and Francis e-Library 2009. London: Routledge

(10) Shore, Stephen. (2004) Uncommon Places: The Complete Works: 2013 reprint, London, Thames and Hudson.

(11) Soth, Alec (2015) Songbook. Mackbooks

(14) Stanton, Brandon (2013) Humans of New York. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Internet

(1) Pisarro-Grant, Allie (2010) Deadpan and the Dead Pan (accessed at Artbook 23.2.15) – http://www.artbook.com/blog-at-first-sight-teller.html

(3) Cook, Greg (2007) Here’s Looking at You: Engaging yet ambiguous deadpan photography provides a refuge from emotion in a time of worry (accessed at The Boston Globe 23.2.15) – http://www.boston.com/news/globe/living/articles/2007/11/04/heres_looking_at_you/

(4) Tate. Dusseldorf School of Photography (accessed at Tate 23.2.15) – http://www.tate.org.uk/learn/online-resources/glossary/d/dusseldorf-school-of-photography

(5) O’Hagen, Sean (2014) Lost World: Bernd and Hilla Becher’s Legendary Industrial Photographs. (accessed at The Guardian 23.2.15) – http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/sep/03/bernd-and-hilla-becher-cataloguing-the-ominous-sculptural-forms-of-industrial-architecture

(6) Colberg, Joerg (2007) A Conversation with Kai-Olaf Hesse (accessed at Conscientious Extended 23.2.15) – http://jmcolberg.com/weblog/extended/archives/a_conversation_with_kai-olaf_hesse/

(9) Ruscha, Edward (1963) Twentysix Gasoline Stations (accessed at Tate 23.2.15) – http://www.tate.org.uk/about/projects/transforming-artist-books/summaries/edward-ruscha-twentysix-gasoline-stations-1963

(12) Smee, Sebastian (2003) The New Passion for Deadpan (accessed at The Daily Telegraph 24.2.15) – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/3589720/The-new-passion-for-deadpan.html

(13) Coleman, Sarah (2013) Don’t Say Cheese: Why do the People in Contemporary Art Photographs Look so Blank? (accessed at Feature Shoot 24.2.15) – http://www.featureshoot.com/2013/11/dont-say-cheese-why-do-the-people-in-contemporary-art-photographs-look-so-blank/

Costello, Diarmuid and Iversen, Margret (2009) Introduction: Photography After Conceptual Art (accessed at Warwick University 23.2.15) – http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/philosophy/people/faculty/costello/ah_costello_and_iversen_intro.pdf

Stover, William (2008) Contemporary Outlook: German Photography (accessed at Museum of Fine Arts Boston 23.2.15) – http://www.mfa.org/exhibitions/contemporary-outlook-german-photography

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2 Responses to The Deadpan Aesthetic

  1. peakwalker says:

    I found this/ piece and your blogs because my HNC Photography teacher has put this piece down as a reference for Deadpan Photography for our contextual studies unit. I’ve spent the day following up and building upon some of your research so thanks for the great referencing. On the other hand you have put the fear of god into me because if your level of work is typical of an OCA student I’m going to have to work a lot harder next year. The two year HNC should get me an exemption from Level One units and I hope that in October/September 2017 to start the landscape photography unit with the OCA with a view to getting a degree.

  2. Thank you peakwalker, you have answered a question that I have long wondered about. Since I wrote that essay it has been viewed 606 times – to put this in perspective the next most popular post has been viewed 127 times. If Deadpan is part of the HNC photography course maybe this explains it. Anyway, I am pleased that you found it helpful. I have just started OCA landscape myself. It will be interesting for you to join the degree at level 2, it might be a bit of a culture shock as the first part of level 1 is a bit like a foundation course. However, the best advice I can give is to engage with the OCA discussion forum as soon as you start your course, students and tutors both contribute to the forum and it is the best place to discover the OCA way.

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