Teenage Girls at the Edges of Cities at Night...
Richard West has co-edited this Magazine for the last ten years. During this period some subjects have proved especially popular in Art Photography.
by Richard West
In the late 1990s I was looking through the latest batch of photography magazines we had received in the post, when I began to notice the recurrence of certain photographs of uncomfortable teenagers on beaches. These pictures were by Rineke Dijkstra and travelled like a rash through the photography press. Soon we were also receiving exhibition invitations with the same anxious teenagers, and I thought to myself, 'These tormented adolescents really are on the money. Why doesn't anyone show us any work like this?'
There were two things that looked good about these pictures. First of all there were the teenagers themselves, their sullenness and uneasiness about their identity was especially poignant. Then there was the way the pictures had been made. They were detailed, uniformly lit and the subjects stood there glumly staring back at the camera with blank expressions. It was the perfect marriage of technique and subject matter. At that moment the conjunction of adolescents and German-style 'objective' photography seemed as natural and necessary as watching a group of egomaniacs trapped in a house together (the other relatively novel cultural experience that had recently become available).
In fact this was one of a number of popular subjects. And just as the contemporary teenager was ideally transfixed in large format - rather than skipping about in 35mm, like children of the 30s or 50s - so each subject had its appropriate and sometimes surprising form. If you wanted to photograph your lover's heroin addiction - which you could do conveniently at home with your subject's cooperation - you wouldn't fuss around with a large camera, a disposable camera would do. (However in a war zone - oddly - the more cumbersome your equipment the better.) My co-editor and I developed a shorthand to help us find our way through these themes and summarise the work depicting a 'pleasant state of decay' or 'in-between spaces' that we saw with increasing frequency.
Now, you may suppose that every era has had its enthusiasms and that big photographs of teenagers or 'the city at night' are merely key motifs of our particular moment. But there is something different about the abundance of these pictures today. If you look back at photography magazines of the 70s there are signature subjects: the tasteful black and white nude was popular then for example. The difference was that those images were not all made in the same way and they were made by a small number of specialists who had relatively few outlets. Today, for the first time in its history, there is oversupply of 'art photography'. As demand has risen, so has production, and the greater part of that production is concentrated on the most prized of current subjects which, for the time being, seem to be teenagers, blank portraits, 'institutional spaces' etc. Like other commodities of our time there is competition and a quantity of wastage. In this economy it is safer to work at a variant of a theme of proven value than to venture out dangerously to produce some untested novelty. So anyone who surveys the market in a professional capacity is likely to find a lot of pictures that look very similar competing for their attention. This can make them jaded.
Then again there are some continuities between the 1970s and our contemporary concerns. A significant proportion of what calls itself art photography today can be distinguished by the fact it depends largely on the manipulation of what is in front of the camera. Just as in the 1970s an art photographer would be expected to artfully pose their nude, today they must build a false room full of strange bric-a-brac or arrange some costumed actors into a tableaux. There is also a perennial interest in the nature of the medium. In the 1970s this was thought to be quick and truth-telling and might be illustrated by a snapshot of someone falling out of a window. Today we see the meaning of pictures as determined by their context and are fascinated by photographs that illustrate the medium's beguiling but deceptive verisimilitude. Hence the photographing of models so they look full-sized, or the real world so it looks miniature (just tilt the back on that large format camera). My own personal favourite though - to show how it is difficult to distinguish the living from the dead in photographs - are pictures of stuffed animals. This is a subject I cannot see treated too many times, and in my opinion there are few photographs that would not benefit from the addition of a stuffed animal or two to give an added philosophical dimension.
These themes or subjects, if they are repeated frequently enough in a derivative and unreflective manner, we might also call clichés. The burgeoning market for art photography has grown to the extent that even a casual gallery visitor can now purchase a number of handy guides to pick out these new varieties of photograph. Take Thames and Hudson's bestselling The Photograph as Contemporary Art (so different from their 1970 Photography, a History in the same series). Its chapter headings, 'Once Upon a Time', 'Deadpan', 'Something and Nothing'... as well as helping us to spot a Crested Ruff or a Spotted Goldin when we see one, gather together a large number of photographs around categories that are themselves clichés.
But then identifying clichés can be fun, and an antidote to the pomposity of gallery publicity material. My top ten would be as follows:
- Teenagers (girls being marginally preferably to boys).
- The city at night.
- Models (Airfix or architectural rather than fashion).
- Stuffed animals.
- In-between / liminal spaces (preferably at the edges of cities).
- Institutional spaces (hospitals, schools, laboratories, execution chambers, etc.).
- My friends/lovers/neighbours/parents and their dependency issues (drugs, alcohol, sex, etc.).
- Staging, re-enacting, or simulating events (especially as done by the military or the dedicated hobbyist).
- Photographs that copy paintings.
- Anything to do with archives.
It's not an easy selection to make and on another day I would probably include 'photographs of porn studios' or 'pictures of sites where something happened' or maybe 'fashion models pretending to be murder victims' but like all good games, you can play it more than once, and in a year there will be new ones to choose from.
They say 'art will eat itself'. A recent development is photographs that combine more than one tried and tested theme in a single picture to create a kind of cliché omnium gatherum. Perhaps this signals the beginning of a new trend and the overthrow of the old austerity? Also a number of these clichés - including, sadly, the models and stuffed animals - seem to be declining in popularity, while others - such as liminal spaces - are as popular as ever. It is probably worth remembering that there is a world out there, with ever more liminal spaces (and fewer stuffed animals?) that will have some bearing on what photographers and the art market generate. A cliché might also be a matter of profound social and political importance.
I now feel differently about Rineke Dijkstra's photographs. The passing of a decade and the effect of seeing her work copied repeatedly has diminished the impact they had when I saw them for the first time. This has also been a useful warning. As the editor of a photography magazine, there is an impulse to publish pictures that herald some exciting new pictorial rhetoric, but if photographs cannot hold your interest and reward your looking at them for an extended period of time, there's no point in publishing them. Dijkstra's pictures are still fascinating but for more than just the unfamiliarity of their style and the novelty of their subject matter. It would be stupid to proscribe any particular theme, and many of the photographs I most enjoy thinking about would neatly fit into my list of clichés. Teenagers will not be exhausted as a subject, though our current Village of the Damned view of them may have already yielded its greatest insights. Photography continues to be a powerful way to examine and imagine the world and the fact that more people than ever are using it for this purpose means we will undoubtedly see more photographs that fire the imagination in the future.