Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Photography sans Affect

Well, I was gratified to see that a few people still swing by now and then to read my languishing little pseudo-publication here, and thank you all for that. It doth warm the cockles etc.

I've been thinking about the affectless photography I was bitching about in the previous remarks, from a handful of angles, since it seemed to get me all het up. Thus, some random notes which might or might not lead anywhere. I write to find these things out, so let's find out.

Firstly, there is clearly a bag of tricks in play. As one commenter noted, simply isolating your subject inside a larger more-or-less blank frame creates a lot of emotional distance. Remember the triteism "if your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough!" This trick literally pushes the subject away in space. Given how photographs function, you react to such a picture as if the subject were physically quite far away.

Flatten the tonality. Make the bulk of the frame fall within a narrow range of values, usually mid-tones, sometimes a little brighter. Again, this is a big no-no in terms of the way I was taught to do photography, and again it tends to damp emotional response. Masses of darkness especially lend a punchy emotional quality, for reasons I do not pretend to understand.

Remove people.

If you must have people, direct them to display little to no emotion, and consider having them unfocus their gaze.

Every one of these things is on full display on the APP web site, but also every MFA program (not just the North American ones, but they call them MAs in Europe I guess) and many other tranches of Serious Art Photography. There's just a lot of it about. You can see it, for instance, in the Mahler's Kleinstadt — the whole book is flat grays and dead-eyed teenagers, and even features a few centrally isolated subjects.

As I noted at the time, this one literally has the two girls doing the thing where you huddle together to fit in the frame. If you crop it closely you get a quite standard and kind of charming photo booth snap.

Ok, so we can see the techniques on display, and we can recognize them as being apparently designed to drain affect from the picture. These things are made, quite literally, by doing the opposite of what people were taught in the 1970s and 1980s to do in order to produce emotional impact.

I honestly have no idea why anyone would do this stuff, but I'll hurl some ideas at the wall.

Part of this feels to me like an effort to show things as they really are. The idea is, maybe, that we should document what these things actually look like. In reality, we normally don't walk right up to the thing, we stand back; in reality people often do have a neutral expression; in reality the shadows often are not all that deep and dramatic.

I counter that by remarking that in reality things are not small, flat, and printed on little rectangles of paper. Do you want to render things "as they are" or do you want us to react "as they were?" These are two quite different goals.

Affect, you might argue, distracts from the actual appearance of the things, it muddies the water with emotion. Which is probably true, and if all you're interested in is surfaces then perhaps approaching photography this way is a good idea.

It is essential to my philosophy of photography, and of criticism, that photography's strongest suit is that it recreates the emotional, somatic, experience of being there. It can do lots of other things, but this is the unique thing it does; this is the thing it does best. So, when people do things which undermine that, I more or less insist that they bring a strong A-game to whatever it is that they're up to, and all too often they do not.

Another reason, obviously, for doing photography like this instead of like that is precisely because that is how they did it in the 1970s and it's not the 1970s any more. We need to break new artistic ground!

Maybe it's just one of those pendulum things. 120 years ago photographers were trying to cram extra affect into their pictures by hand-working the negatives and doing Pictorialism. That was, people eventually decided, a bad idea. Hence Modernism and so forth, which definitely drained off a lot of the excess affect and certainly produced any number of heartless photographs. There was at least a kind of optimism to these photos, though.

The modern affect-free style does rather reflect the times, at least the times as seen by the Serious Artist. If you want to gesture vaguely at "everything sucks and I have a sad" this stuff is great. My trouble is, basically, that I don't give a shit if you have a sad, because while you try to hide it and cosplay poverty, you're an utterly uninteresting trust-fund brat. As photographers I suspect they want to "document" the world "as it is" and since all artists are required to see the world as fundamentally broken, here we are. Some of the styling tics of modernism are on display if you squint, but none of the optimism.

Nobody is going to give some up and coming artist a book deal or a gallery show if they're optimistic for god's sake. Actually now that I think about it I did run across this Fen de Villiers guy who seems to be speed-running 1930s Futurism or something. He's associated with a bunch of pseudo-fascists. He seems to have gotten a couple little shows at a local gallery in Antwerp. He's optimistic, in a kind of horrifying way. This video is hilarious, though:

Maybe a little too much affect here. There may be limits to how much affect you want. Anyways, I see a lot of optimistic and charming art here in Bellingham, and sometimes it's really very good. At the other end, Jeff Koons seems to be a relentlessly happy bugger, so maybe it's just something in the middle.

Certainly nobody actually likes this shit except people on the inside. APP functions, I am informed, exceptionally well, but it's fairly clear that it's because Iain has worked out how to build a viable press around the extremely tiny available market for boring, numb, photos.

It is possible to sell photo books to the general audience, just not this stuff. A bunch of nudes? Sure. A bunch of photos of Obama? Definitely. A bunch of ... whatever the hell the celebrity of the day shot? I bet Beckham's kid's terrible book sold a lot more copies than anything MACK has ever printed. But Michael Mack doesn't want to print that, he wants to print Serious Artists, and eke out 100 books here and 100 books there. Well, it's his publishing house and he can do whatever he wants! I don't much like it, though.

On a final note, I recall wringing my hands over the absence of "schools" in modern photography. There is nothing, I moaned, analogous to the Impressionists (or choose your own school) but I see that as of now this is wrong. There is very much a style of the present. Scroll down the front page of Another Place Press and if you have any sensitivity of the soul at all, it will jump out at it. It is a flat and affectless photography, a numb and numbing puppet theater of the world.

I wonder what they'll call it in 50 years?


  1. How about 'Purgatorialism'?


  2. I think what you're complaining about is really a gross mismatch between individual photographers' innate talents and interests, and the kinds of subjects and framing which are 'allowed.' Anyway, that's what I'm getting from scanning APP and similar offerings. There is some serious talent in there, conceptually hobbled. I expect some will get beyond it, and some won't.