Thoughts on New Color Photography

Discussion in 'Photographic Aesthetics and Composition' started by Richard Boutwell, Jun 15, 2007.

  1. Richard Boutwell

    Richard Boutwell Subscriber

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    After looking at several websites and blogs over the last few days I have noticed that vary many new color photographs, by several different photographers, look very much the same.

    The color photographs of previous generation—Eggleston, Shore, Sternfeld, Misrach, etc., are all different, and in most all cases, you can tell one photographer from the other by the choice of subject and print quality. With contemporary color photographers, I find myself hard pressed to keep them strait in my mind.

    I am talking mostly about young photographers (of my generation and a little older) who are approaching every building strait on, and maybe including objects in the foreground and sky that break up the space. It seems that nearly every one of their pictures is a formalist exercise in depicting the industrial landscape. If they are attempting exhibit the typologies of all the things (industrial parks, shopping malls, row houses, tract houses, McMansions, construction sites etc.) then they are succeeding. If they are making statements about the homogeny of our modern society then they are succeeding. But isn't the work itself is also becoming a part of that homogeny? To me though, it is just beginning to be boring, and not at all beautiful.

    The Bechers' work however, is very beautiful, and does not have the same feeling as these new color photographs. Is that because when they began their work it was an original idea? Lewis Baltz's work of similar subjects is very beautiful and not at all boring, Can that also be attributed to it being an original idea?

    Or, is the difference inherent in it being a black and white silver print? Could it be that the realism of color photography doesn't allow for the individualized interpretation of tones that black and white photography does? Or that the fact that being in black and white takes the subject one step into the abstract-- separating it one step further from our experience of the real world?

    Then there are all the other photographers who are making large format portraits of adolescent angst, old people, the disenfranchised . . . but that is for another thread altogether.

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  2. Poco

    Poco Member

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    I believe several factors are at play...

    -- Insistence on consistency of style and vision from photographers. When variety has come to be considered bad form within a portfolio, the safest route is to say, "f__k it, take this..."

    -- Large scale prints, as are the rage and expection now, often require LF cameras which lend themselves, quite insidiously, to "lining things up." It's a trap I often find myself struggling against.

    -- The "dead-pan" aesthetic so popular now favors an uncompromising straight-on type photo.

    -- A highly structured shot can use the crutch of that structure to support an otherwise weightless subject.
     
  3. Richard Boutwell

    Richard Boutwell Subscriber

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    I was thinking about the economic factors when I was writing the OP. But what is the benefit to a gallery (or the Artist) if all the photographs start looking the same?

    I know the that there are "no original ideas," and I don't want to advocate that people go "be different" just for the sake of being different. But I would like to see photographs are some way more personal.

    Where did this "dead-pan" aesthetic orginate? Yale? Duseldorf? Minneapolis? I looked at a Thomas Struth book earlier today, and while it could be described as that, I don't think it is. There is some life to his work, but not so in what I have been seeing lately, and I can only really attribute that to the work not coming from an organic place in the photographer. That they see what is being published and exhibited, and they jump on the bandwagon.

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  4. Roger Hicks

    Roger Hicks Member

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    Brilliant analysis! Thanks!

    Cheers,

    Roger
     
  5. Struan Gray

    Struan Gray Member

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    There is a school of bleached Becherdom which is - surprise surprise - strong in Germany. But then here in Scandinavia we have the sickly-green documentary style pioneered by J.H.Engström. And the USA has it's static documentary school of Alec Soth, Brian Ulrich et al, which has adopted the deadpan German look, but with a lusciousness of tone borrowed from Eggleston and Shore.

    Jem Southam and Simon Norfolk are more suble than most, without descending into deadpan.

    If there is a problem, it is that strong, bold colour seems to have been co-opted by the sentimental and commercial worlds. But there are exceptions even to that: Julian Thomas, Eric Fredine, David Maisel and Cig Harvey are all rather formal in their concerns, but all very different.

    So I think you are wrong about what is out there. You may be more right when it comes to what is the current darling of the top-flight art scene, but that's more about fashion and the desire to sell a branded product than a reflection of the wider photographic world.
     
  6. Richard Boutwell

    Richard Boutwell Subscriber

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    I am sorry, I should have stressed that the focus of my original post was on younger photographers--Mid 20's-early 30's-- basically people that are out of school and trying to make a place for themselves in the market-- unfortunatly that is what it is coming to be- just a market.

    By the way, I have Jem Southam's Painters Pool and think it is incredible. And the other photographer you listed are what I mean by working from a personal place, but there are relatively few of those when it comes to younger photographers. But maybe, it is because they are just that-- young.

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  7. Struan Gray

    Struan Gray Member

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    It's hard to innovate in a medium as staid as photography, and when you do you will often be accused of 'not taking photographs'. This whole site is a proof by demonstration.

    I suspect that a lot of the innovators you seek are working in mixed media, particularly mixed electronic media. Photography - even digital photography - increasingly resembles writing sonnets or playing period brass: the limitations are part of the attraction, and skill and taste are demonstrated as much by showing an awareness and mastery of those limits as by whatever you do within them.

    And as you say, the age group you are intereseted in are young. That doesn't just make them callow, it also makes them numerous. My impression of the photo universe is that it is incredibly diverse: there really are people doing all kinds of work in all kinds of ways. Identifying people whose work is distinctively enjoyable is an exercise in needle-hunting. You are also dependent on your own taste and judgement in a way that is less necessary when viewing reputations through the filter of history.
     
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  8. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

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    I hate to pick on my own generation, but it's rather hard to be good and original when you're still wet behind the ears. And many wunderkind never grow up to more solid work.

    That said, I would have a bit of a bone to pick with your original argument: mainly that the old colour photographers were different. Although I like them both, I don't think, for instance, that Eggleston and Shore are really that different. The fact that they are friends is perhaps already a sign, but the fundamental underpinnings of their aesthetic are very similar: apparent "nothingness" or "banality" of their subject, extremely adroit use of composition, bright sunshine lighting, focus on the decayed, distance, underbelly of america, fascination with material culture, vernacular design (cartons of milk, home interiors, etc).

    All of which in fact harks all the way back to Walker Evans. Who himself harks back to Eugène Atget. If there is one photographer more visible than any other nowadays, it must be Atget. He is the original incarnation of deadpan, the original "Uncommon Place," the original "seemingly banal picture with a fantastic composition", and the chronicler of little life. There is no bigger looming figure in modern photography in my opinion.

    The Becher were some of the first (we're talking the 60s here) to develop a radically minimalist aesthetics, and many of their students (like Andreas Gursky, Candida Höffer, IIRC) went on to pursue the same approach in their own way, but even the Bechers themselves owe something to Atget in the way they put their eyes on inanimate things.

    In fact, I would go so far as to argue that there is not in fact a big rupture between the deadpan aesthetics of Atget/Evans/Shore/Becher and the deadpan aesthetics of more recent photographers. If anything, the deadpan aesthetics is now just another popular trick of the trade, rather than an original vision, or a radical statement.

    Witness for example the amount of "deadpan series of..." that get published nowadays: US Marines, celebrities without their makeup, pornstars, 9/11 heroes, football players, ordinary people from across the world, people who did horrible things, people who did ordinary things, etc. The surest way to being published these days seems to be to do a deadpan series, of famous people, as much as possible. That's what I find annoying: the publishers and the artists are still trying to milk a shtick to death. And it's not limited to colour photography: even Chuck Close did a rather deadpan series of people he knows on Daguerreotype!

    To me that's just rehashing a formula. In contrast, Lee Friedlander, in "At Work" did something similar but much more interesting: he did take series upon series, but instead of posing people, he took their picture while they were working, to show that they were all doing almost the same movements. It's dizzying, and gives a sense of industrial labour much better than just another boring flat picture whose purpose is to shock you by not presenting anything.

    And finally, caveat emptor: as the recent thread on the apparent lack of craft among youngsters have shown, it is in fact very easy to belittle any current state of affairs when you weight it against its entire history. We all know that the canonized artists were seldom popular in their days, and so today's unknown artists might actually be 25y down the road the ones with which we will look back to in awe of how great the early 00s were!
     
  9. loman

    loman Subscriber

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    I would just like to mention one photographer, who I think has found his one voice (an inspired one ofcouse, but a voice none the less):
    Eric Baudelaire
    He is born in 1973. Great french photographer, and another large format shooter if I remember correct. you can find examples of his work on this site:
    http://baudelaire.net/

    Best Regards
    Mads
     
  10. ethylphenethylamine

    ethylphenethylamine Member

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    as a young photographer (28), currently shooting mostly color, i find myself shooting formalistic industrial landscape (see the newest image i posted in the critique gallery).

    in art school i shot very personal work, all diptych or triptych, focusing on interpersonal relationships and exploring what emotion / story could be created or the viewer could create in a series of images. of course this wasn't original as it was heavily influenced by the work of michelangelo antonioni, cindy sherman, david lynch, and philip lorca dicorcia.

    at the time what was in vogue was the environmental deadpan portrait. i found these interesting and i even remember reading in an ansel adams book recently (i think...) that dead pan was the way to go, the way to see into a person.

    since leaving school i have found myself more and more interested with the industrial landscape. now i haven't been following contemporary photography at all, so to be honest i wasn't aware that this was the current fad. most likely my love for fomalism came from repeaded viewings of kubrick's 2001 and tarkovsky's stalker.

    one of the major things that influence me are the current state of building and production of the things all around us. plastic, fake, build to break. in minneapolis newer condos (which are all over the place and are part of destroying many of the older industrial landscapes) are either rather modern or build to look like they were 100 years old. everything is so empty, devoid of life. older industrial complexes in contrast are so beautiful and seem to be disappearing at a rapid rate.

    in america, at least this is my perspective, there is so little history and to reiterate everything is so fake and empty. the industrial landscape is where i find beauty, feeling, history...perhaps it is even an escape from the current state of affairs.

    now i am not selling my work, nor am i trying to create images to be published, which seems to be part of this discussion.

    as far as how this fits into history, i don't know. i know i am not doing anything original. at times i have set the goal for myself to try to do something different but forcing it never seems to be the way. i just try to see, react, feel in response to a scene, or set out from the start with an idea / feeling and try to create that in an image.

    and maybe art school is the problem as many have said in all the differnet disciplines :smile:

    in an art 'school' you can't teach someone to be creative but you can teach how to be formalistic and how to compose.

    i may be wrong about this but this is probably the largest generation (20's - 30's) to have been involved in art school...

    and what am i trying to exhibit? i don't know. for now i am reacting, feeling, experienceing. perhaps i am young and mis(or un)directed but i am just growing as an artist :smile:

    ...i think...
     
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  11. Moopheus

    Moopheus Subscriber

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    That's the way it is everywhere; that's the way it's been for a long time now, but the construction/housing boom of the last few years has ratcheted up the pace of destruction to amazing levels; personally I find it hard not to respond in some way in my photography, even if it's not much more than, better get a picture of that now, because next year it isn't going to be there.

    Another way that I think of it is that an artifact that has weathered and decayed, an old building abandoned after years of use, etc., has more of an story. It may not be "life" but life has happened to it. With the slick and the new, nothing has happened to it yet; there is no story. Indeed, one sometimes feels they are constructed so that no story can happen, which is a different sort of message and one that I am not sure how to capture in my pictures yet.

    Richar Boutwell: "If they are attempting exhibit the typologies of all the things (industrial parks, shopping malls, row houses, tract houses, McMansions, construction sites etc.) then they are succeeding. If they are making statements about the homogeny of our modern society then they are succeeding. But isn't the work itself is also becoming a part of that homogeny? To me though, it is just beginning to be boring, and not at all beautiful."

    Perhaps being beautiful is not the goal. This is the environment many of us live in now; when I walk around town that is what there is to see, frequently. Guess what? It's getting to be kind of a boring world out there. I try to make my photos graphically interesting, but if I am taking a picture of something I don't think is beautiful, I don't try to show it as such.
     
  12. bjorke

    bjorke Member

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    This is not new.

    It's really such a set of tinkertoy relationships. Students at art schools excel by creating work that reinforces the artistic ideologies of their instructors. Those instructors are an important conduit for those young artists to exhibit at school, in print, and in the local (or broader, depending on the prestige of the school) gallery market.

    In 1973 we had boxcars stuffed with Minor White & Avedon wannabes.

    Now we have no shortage of people paddling in the wake of the Bechers and Gursky and Loretta Lux.

    How is that different? I don't see it.

    What I do see is a changed environment, with a far larger saturation in corporate marketing, where the art world's desperate grabs at being notorious have bled-over into the world at large, so that people idolize 50 Cent and Paris H and Mike Tyson and so forth. There was scandal before but it wasn't as openly considered as a career move a la Lindsay Lohan. I am a bit disturbed at photography's complicit role in all this (before photography there were famous persons, but no celebrities).
     
  13. CPorter

    CPorter Member

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    I agree with this notion.

    I recall a comment from AA where he mentioned that he could control color to a certain point until it became "obviously not real"------therefore less creative to him.........or the effort at personal expression at that point begins to get stiffled (my enterpretation of his point).

    Fine art B&W photography is not bound by the realism of color and so, perhaps, it is irrelevant when the tones of the image are obviously not real. It takes on a different quality altogether, open to a more free interpretation of the subject matter.

    Whereas subjects photographed in color would take on a quality that might approach strange or weird if it were subjected to the degree of contrast control(s) or manipulation that is the hallmark of the B&W process. Therefore, not so forgiving of such a free interpretation of the subject matter.

    This is probably not contributing much but it was just what came to my mind.

    Chuck
     
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  15. Videbaek

    Videbaek Member

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    Enormous colour prints that "hold the wall" are the current fashion in museum photography, that's for sure (3 m x 1.5 m, anyone?). This has been so for quite a few years and there's no sign the fashion is running out of steam. Photography is also dominating modern art museum walls, and video is always there too. The current wave of "photographic artists" adhering to this norm are in the 30-40 age bracket, it would seem. I'm sure they would argue that they have to work on a scale that "fits the context" -- of course, the prints are made for the museums in question, so maybe that argument flies. I think it's a response to painting, which has also been getting bigger and bigger. A bit of an inferiority complex, photography's acceptance and even dominance notwithstanding. I don't know... size is immaterial, it's what's in the picture that counts. And here photography has fallen on hard times. The big name museum photographers often try to work with ideas, something that is incredibly hard to do with photography given its many limitations (vs painting). I'm almost afraid to look at these big photographs ("Oh no, it's an 'idea' ", "strike one!", "strike two!", "youuuuuuu're out!"). It's much better when they're just nice nudes, nice landscapes, nice pictures made abstract by the framing so that there is pleasure in puzzling over what the context has been. These photographers often seem to have a big chip on their shoulders with regard to painting. A big-name Finnish photographer has a show that I think is still touring Europe. It showed in Helsinki a short time ago under the title "The New Painting". In the catalogue intro, much was made of this photographer's study of paintings in the Louvre and how she drew inspiration from them. Well, good! And the pictures? Nice self-portrait nudes, sitting on a rock at the seashore, standing in a river, standing on a hill, etc. As straight-forward and pure as large-format colour photography can get, absolutely nothing to do with painting except that they're illusions of three-dimensionality on a two-dimensional plane. The most interesting and revealing thing about the show was what it wanted to be, rather than what it was.
     
  16. davetravis

    davetravis Member

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    I suppose it also has something to do with what the final goal is of the photographer.
    Most that shoot color, don't make their own prints.
    The only artistic flexibility they have is in the PS "processing."
    One reason I make Ilfochromes is I don't want "realistic" color. I want that extra punch and contrast they deliver.
    To me, and cheerfully my buyers, they don't look like what everyone else is doing in color.
    I just wish more folks would take the time and money to learn how to do them, then maybe they wouldn't go under...
    DT
     
  17. jmdavis

    jmdavis Member

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    I agree. But at least the box cars of Avedon clones were trying to copy something good. In my experience the popular thing seems to be to copy nothingness. Then again, Godot never shows up for his appointments.

    I don't have any problem with the Bechers. The work that I have seen appeals to me. On the other hand I do have a problem with what I term the "30x40 12MP blurred cprints of nothing." Prints like that make me long for the large Chuck Close 2 sheet self-portraits. Heck they make me long for anything that's in focus.

    Mike
     
  18. roteague

    roteague Member

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    Really, then try Joe Cornish, Jack Dykinga and Ken Duncan for example. They don't look anywhere near the same.
     
  19. donbga

    donbga Member

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    Yeah, their work all looks the same too. All David Muench clones - want-a-bes.
     
  20. roteague

    roteague Member

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    ??? How so??

    Joe Cornish shoots the traditional short/long, but primarily in a portrait format. Jack Dykinga shoots short/long, but in landscape format. Ken Duncan shoots exclusively 6x17 panoramic. Jack's use of lighting is dynamic, Joe's more subdued. Ken's work is very dynamic in lighting. The only thing these three have in common is they all use Fuji Velvia, and they all shoot landscapes. I picked these three because their work is so different from one another, and none look remotely like David Muench.
     
  21. donbga

    donbga Member

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    Their formats may all be different but all of their approaches is formulaic.

    Polished but formulaic. Their compositions repeatedly rely on similar constructs. My 2 cents.
     
  22. roteague

    roteague Member

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    No worries, we are all entitled to our opinions. I probably see it different because my passion is color landscape photography; I study it, practice it, and see it in my sleep. Probably the reason I can see a difference.
     
  23. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

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    I'll respectfully chime with the others and argue as well that despite their different styles, and personalities, those photographs have all pretty much the same approach.

    That said, I have an equally monotonous feeling when I watch too much Alec Soth, Stephen Shore, Eggleston, together, or Gursky, Burtynsky, and Candida Höffer together.

    What that means for me is that like any other art form at any other period in time, color photography is traversed by genres, modes, and fashions. So I'm not overly preoccupied by my occasional bouts of boredom.

    But to suffer real boredom, hey, look a the Egyptians, for instance! Talk about a bunch of sub-artistic copycat losers! You can smell their style a mile away. It's always the same thing: little guys, big gods with animal heads, profile heads and facing shoulders. Damn them, can't be original for a moment, and I'm sick of all these reeds, scribes, snakes, and boats they put everywhere. BO-RING! :wink:
     
  24. timparkin

    timparkin Member

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    And I'll have to respectfully disagree with yourself.. The range of Joe Cornish's work covers a large range of visual styles although there is a lot of use of S shapes an near/far compositions. The light is typically of the 'transcendent' sort but rarely 'obvious' in a Galen Rowell fashion.

    Jack Dykinga has a more common use of extreme wide angles (Joe rarely uses lenses wider than 90mm) and extreme close foregrounds. Compositions are typically less flowing and rely on plants/flowers to provide texture. Strong, late desert light seems popular and he uses long lenses oftern (something Joe definitely doesn't).

    Ken Duncan I don't know as well but the compsotions are classically panoramic which precludes many of the techniques used by Joe (whose use of vertical space in leading the eye is paramount).

    I'd be happy to be enlightened by having the similarities pointed out. Obviously there are some similarities - a desire to represent the beauty of nature, use of Velvia/Provia in rare light.

    Here are a few images that are typical of each artist that I personally don't think have much resemblance to each other..

    1) Joe Cornish - http://www.joecornish.com/global/images/uploads/20060420182429.jpg

    2) Jack Dykinga - http://home.worldcom.ch/mschneid/p-ouest-americain3.jpg

    3) Ken Duncan - http://www.kenduncan.com/images/dep.../127.gif&f=/images/depImages/224.gif&i=NTX406
     
  25. bjorke

    bjorke Member

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    Why do you think this is limited to color?

    I have been spending evenings in the last week editing "New Black and White" on flickr http://www.flickr.com/groups/newblackandwhite/pool/ down from 56,000 photos to maybe 2 or 3 thousand by the time I'm done. I am so sick of silhouetted bare trees, wide angle barren moors usually with road leading away), lonely figures walking away from the camera in the big city, farm life shot with holgas, hard-lit nudes on black, and sooooooo many other dumbass B&W cliche images.* It is so EASY to just delete 90-95% of what gets posted as dull derivative derivative crap.

    When activities are difficult, only people who have a strong personal stake will participate. When it's easy to throw huge numbers of lame pictures at people, the median and mean both drop. This is true both for the ephemeral self-congratulatory flickr and even for the rapid expansion of ever-larger prints in art galleries. They are easier to make, and oddly easier to sell.

    The good thing is, however -- the more samples you might have, the better the chance that the outliers will be ever more extreme. If there are a hundred photographers in the world, there might be five best ones. If there are 100,000,000 photographers, there might still be five best ones -- and they are really, REALLY good.

    --

    * those on APUG who think such things are "fine art" really need a reality check

    --

    @tim: Those three all look the same to me, and their work seems straight outta 1973

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/38431789@N00/tags/chongqing/ rethinks LF landscape and see the land as a lightbursting hatching egg. And made by an old guy :tongue:
     
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  26. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

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    Tim ;

    There is the possibility that the subtleties escape me. I have the same problem with punk music sometimes, I can't spot hardcore from West Coast, from Oi!

    But the three photographs you have showed me display the style that is found everywhere else in calendar photography: contrasty mountains shots taken at the "golden hour", cottony rivers, saturated colours, blinding light.

    Here are some landscape photographs I consider a tad different:

    David Maisel: http://www.davidmaisel.com/works/photo/lak_m_01.jpg
    Edward Burtynsky: http://edwardburtynsky.com/WORKS/Breaking_Ground/Tailings/Nickel_Tailings_36.jpg
    Joel Sternfeld: http://www.luhringaugustine.com/files/b88cbbe1.jpg