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Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Nobody Looks

Here's a thing that is apparently making the rounds. Let me show you a couple pictures to start.

Look at them, take your time. Form an opinion. What are these people thinking, what are they feeling? Whatever.




The text accompanying tells us the usual story of the sensitive large format photographer and how her process does whatever it does to be especially revelatory about whatever and so on and so forth. This one, I guess, something something vulnerability without ever exploiting.

The person writing this trash has not, in my opinion, looked at the pictures. At all. They glanced and saw the chic washes of grey, the serious expressions, and then the read the press release, and that was pretty much it.

Here's the article itself. It has more pictures and, uh, some text.

These people are closed. These are utterly uninteresting portraits, like so many portraits we see from allegedly Serious Photographers working with Serious Processes. They tell us that the people open like flowers under the wondrous light of the photographer's process, and then everyone tweets stupidly about how the subjects open like flowers under the wondrous light, and on and on. But if you actually look at the pictures you see sullen, fed-up, people. Or people who are bored. Or people who are gamely trying to look not bored. Or whatever.

Nobody is opening like a flower, nobody's vulnerability is expressed let alone un-exploited.

This sort is criticism is ridiculous and stupid. This is just some blockheaded text ground out by someone who either doesn't give a shit at all, or who dopily "just loooooves" photography!!1!11111!! but cannot actually bear to spend even a couple of seconds actually looking at a picture.

The New Yorker is trash, but all the outlets do this. It's maddening. And nobody even drags them for this lazy bullshit, everyone just merrily retweets, because they can't be bothered to look at the pictures either. Look! Large format! Vulnerability! Serious Expressions! It's The New Yorker! retweet maybe with a little "gosh this is so great" comment to give the impression of giving a shit.

Honestly, fuck all these guys. Jesus.


  1. Sander certainly had more separation in tones than this, too. He was doing, arguably, a typography of Germans.

    1. Sander, with whom there might be a legitimate comparison, was explicitly not interested in the inner lives of his subjects.

      He was interested in their *outer* lives, to the exclusion of all else.

      Not sure I am seeing it here, to be honest, but there are echoes of the style. What I am missing are all the styling notes that suggest the outer life, at which Sander was arguably the master. All we have is the sullen indifference of the subject.

    2. I had to flick through my Sander. It's rather diverse, there are any number of formal portraits with a plain backdrop, there are actually quitea few people hamming it up for the camera, especially amongst performers. When he's photographing criminals or 'victims of persecution' (dated 1938) looks are more guarded but I wouldn't say necessarily sullen.

    3. That is very interesting, thank you!

      The vast web of all information has, naturally, reduced Sander to a half dozen photos, and I don't have the book. Berger notes the sameness of gaze, though, as well, so I felt I was on firmer ground!

      All this points out though is that, having noticed a pattern, we are loathe to give up on it even in the face of evidence.

      Certainly *some* of Sander's photos are that hostile/neutral/closed gaze, and I think it's fair to argue that this look is in fact quite proper for his work.

      The inner life of a butcher differs from one butcher to the next, depending on whose wife he's sleeping with, after all. Sander was, as I understand it, more interested in what was the same from one butcher to the next than in what was different.

  2. I dunno, man, it's a plausible stab at Fine Art Photography that never quite owns it. She's quoting prior work all over the place (Arbus, Sander, Curtis [gosh], and Dijkstra spring immediately to mind, going by the examples in the article), just a tad too slavishly.

    OK, yeah, I get why the curators luurve it, as claimed in the article.

    Can I see it in cyanotype or riso?

    1. Sure, there might be ways to find real merit in these, but to pretend that these photos "zero in on her subjects’ vulnerability but never exploit it" is 100% blather written by some lazy schmuck.

      This is the trouble with criticism of portraits and portrait-adjacent photos, the writer can never think of anything to say except that the pictures dig deep into the inner emotional life of the subject, somehow revealing them in a new and remarkable way.

      They even say this about Arbus, which is utterly risible. These lazy asshole have no other model to hang on there, so either the work is shit (which, well, it can't be, it won a prize, or someone hung it in a gallery) or it's a profound emotional revelation.


  3. Oops, I got that wrong way around, partly because I assumed JJR was a more recent phenom. My bad.

    It's entirely possible that Dijkstra's pictures of adolescents (Beach Portraits, 1992) were influenced by JJR's dating from ten years earlier (assuming she was even aware of it). I will say that Dijkstra did/does it a whole lot better, and surely and swiftly moved into entirely personal and distinctive spheres of expression. So there's that.

    Now I'm beginning to wonder if the article with its selection of example shots is more about Vince Aletti than it is about JJR.

    1. The essential tenet of my faith is that all New Yorker articles are entirely about the author.

  4. I appreciate your opinions, because contrarian views are often lacking in photoland. So it's good to push against the firmament. But in this case I think knee-jerk negative response may have gone overboard. IMHO Judith Joy Ross is a fucking national treasure. I encourage you to spend some more time with her photos, and tune into their deeper waves. Sure, she is being heavily hyped at the moment, prepped for museum-dom, and collectibility, and legacy etc etc. And Vince Alletti and New Yorker are both complicit. The art world is a huge self-dealing game. But that doesn't mean her photos are not powerful. I think they are great, and I'm glad she's becoming a rock star. I have a few of her books and I've ordered this one. Oh well, smart minds can disagree...

    1. Thank you! And thank you for your opinions and ideas, I welcome opposing views.

      I will stipulate that you may well be right, and will spend at least a *little* time digging deeper.

      I will stand by this, which you may treat this as weaseling, walking-back, or (as I prefer) a careful refinement of my position:

      The words in the New Yorker piece and the pictures they purport to describe have no discernible connection. JJR's photos in the whole may do something of the sort, or may do something quite different but also thoroughly worthy; the samples we're looking at in this article do not, at least not as given to us.