Saturday, August 20, 2011

timeless or time to move on?

If you look at a lot of art photography, or read the sartorialist, or follow wedding and engagement photography, you've probably seen a lot of photos of people standing in the middle of a fairly vacant street or sidewalk with a very neutral expression looking at the camera. I'm not sure I could tell you where it all began. I know that when August Sander did it in the 1920s it was still fresh:

Vintage 1927 Anton Räderscheidt via

Decades later in the 1970s people like William Eggleston were doing it:
 Eggleston (there are better examples, but not that I could find easily on the web)

Today, it is often the go-to fashion in the street portrait:

And many many contemporary art photographers use the pose:

 John Keatley via Feature Shoot just happened to be in my rss feed

And the look has been a trend among wedding photographers, as in this photo I found pinned on Pinterest (not quite as neutral as some):

I would be surprised if some of you hadn't noticed how frequent this is used. I'm just wondering, has this been worn out or is it timeless? 

I want to be clear that I think originality is overrated. Throw a stone at a photo show and you're almost certain to hit something that has been done by a dozen other photographers. Take my post on car wreck art, for example. It seems that whatever you can think of has been done or is being done. More important than originality is context, depth of thought, execution, coherence, etc. etc. So maybe what I'm wondering about is the intent behind the choice. Obviously, we are dealing with a pose, so there is a conscious decision to strip away things like movement and emotion. To the American eye, the lack of a smile can come across as sad, but that's a subjective. What I tend not to get from these types of photos (and this is just my opinion) is a sense of personality. For Eggleston, who was fond of photos that cropped off the head (something also common in portraiture today), the people were never really as much the point anyway—at least not compared to questions of color and composition.  For Sander, the project was to create a sort of visual index of social types. For the sartorialist, the idea might be to strip away all elements of personality except the clothing. Who knows?  For Keatley, the fact that he was photographing Liberian children in need of clean drinking water may have influenced the choice. For that bridal pic, I have no idea. 

Let me wax academic and then I'll end my pseudo rant. There's a nifty little term of Greek origin called "catachresis." This goes beyond cliché and into the realm of dead metaphors. It describes an intentional or unintentional misuse of language such as mixing metaphors, misinterpretations, anachronistic readings (like, if you interpret "gay" in some 1920s song as a comment about sexuality) and so on. Theorists like Derrida salivated over the general ambiguity of the term and used it to explain fundamental problems with language itself. Is the "neutral expression standing in the street" pose falling into a state of catachresis? Are people misusing a visual language? Are we taking Sander's cataloging approach, for example, and unintentionally interpreting it as a fashion statement? What do you think? 


michelle said...

I actually like the bridal photo. I think the one of the Liberian child probably should be sad. I don't see the others as sad.

Jill said...

Do you think the guy in the first photo was about to say, "Why, I ought'a pound you!"?

marc said...

I like the Liberian one and the first one the best. It's not that I don't like the pose, it's just that I see it sooooo often that I'm beginning to wonder.

Jesse Hurlbut said...

Classic (if unintentional) substantivation: "That's a subjective." I'm going to use that one. Meanwhile, I don't think the guy in #1 is very gay.

Natalie Champa Jennings said...

I think, considering how many decades a "vacant look" has popped up in photography, that it is definitely a timeless look. Not to be confused with overdone, though. Anything can be timeless and overdone at the same time. Listen to chord changes in rock music or count how many people wear Converse shoes. The important thing is how an artist/photographer chooses to use something in their own work...whether or not it "fits" what they're doing regardless of the idea's timelessness or not.

Great blog, by the way. Thanks for posting :)

marc said...

Natalie—Thanks for the comment. I think you're completely right. I love the music comparison because there are only so many chord progressions to go around and certain musicians just know which ones to choose to get the right sound at the right time.

Nas said...

These images remind me a lot of the street photography/portraits I like to do so I'll give you my experience. When I see someone on the street that I want to photograph I'll walk up to them and ask them if I can make a quick portrait of them, with one of my film cameras and with only a single frame. If they agree they'll usually ask 'what do you want me to do?' and my reply is always 'just stand there'.

I don't tell them to pose or give them any direction because they're not models and I'm not on a fashion shoot. I don't tell them to smile, or look vacant or give any other instructions other than not to blink because I only allow one single frame of film.

Comparing all of these images and discussing this 'look' as being over done assumes that these shots are all posed which I don't think they necessarily are.

You can see some of my images on my photo blog:


marc said...


I checked out your site and I love your street portraiture. I think your technique ends up with more variety ultimately because you have different levels (both your own and that of the subject), different postures, and different expressions. I'm still deciding whether I think that not to pose IS a pose just by virtue of the verbal exchange (as opposed to candid photography). In any case, what I have seen from some photographers is that they specifically direct their subject not to smile, which to me, is definitely a pose.

The Under State said...

Trendy? What's trendy about the most natural and unforced picture one can take? It's not trendy it's timeless. Move on from what?