Where Is The Personality?

I recently wrote about how my father opened my eyes to an aspect within photography I had never noticed https://unitednationsofphotography.com/2022/04/18/is-documentary-photography-obsessed-with-sad/ and now my ten-year-old daughter has done the same. Again the revelation occurred after visiting a group exhibition, but the observation was different, if just as direct and insightful. My daughter stated “Why is there no personality?” Taken aback I asked her what she meant. “All the pictures are the same” she said, “And there is no colour!”

She was right. There was a sense of homogeneization about the work. The subject matter and approach was predictable to anyone engaged with photography at this time in its evolution. Images were either in black and white or desaturated colour, the subject matter was varied but similar in approach. In short the work lacked personality. Florence was right.

But why is this? Why does this happen? Of course it could be the curation. If the curators of an exhibition have similar tastes and interests the work they choose can be similar. If the work chosen in previous times had a distinct personality that can encourage similar work to be submitted for future exhibitions. If the curators want the exhibition to represent current ‘trends’ then work that fulfils that criteria will be chosen.

The problem I believe with all of this is that the resultant exhibition becomes ‘safe’ and entrenches the medium into the now, rather than looking towards tomorrow. It also creates a belief that ‘serious’ photography can only look one way further restricting the work that gets made, shown and seen.

In many ways it does not matter what I think. I am not the future of photography, I am at best its past and attempting to be part of its present. However, my daughter has the potential to be part of its future, and her understanding of what photography looks like will inform her desire to continue with the medium. At the moment she has fun making pictures within a bubble of naivety without the restrictions of confirming to a preconceived outcome. Seeing work that does not have that sense of individuality can I believe impact negatively on work we will be shown in the future.

Exhibitions play an important role in creating the future of any creative medium. They are the gateway for many to creative practice, they can show what is possible and how a medium can be adapted, manipulated and evolved. A group show has even more importance in this context as they have the opportunity to showcase different voices, approaches and outcomes. They also provide a greater opportunity to attract a broader and less specialised audience. Therefore the curation and presentation of these exhibitions must be undertaken with a responsible understanding of the potential impact such shows may have. If this is not the case opportunities to expand and promote photography are lost. But don’t listen to my opinion, listen to Florence, it’s her opinion that counts.

Dr. Grant Scott is the the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 www.donotbendfilm.com

© Grant Scott 2022


  1. It’s only my view but, I believe your daughter’s reference to a lack of “personality and colour” is just spot on, to the heart of the matter and beautifully honest.

    It’s an interesting point of view and one that as a documentary photographer resonates with me in so many ways. I’m happy and honest to admit to what I like but am also open to be wowed, transfixed, delighted, good grief even shocked, but for god’s sake I’m just so tired with banality and poor photography posing as somehow new and ‘with it’ when instead it’s just languishing in the disgarded remnants of that infamous King’s once “new clothes”.

    Colour is more than just a function of an RGB, CMYK or Greyscale output. It is, or at least can be that indefinable something that delights and stirs our very soul when we look a truly engaging photograph. I was recently at The Photographers Gallery and had the very same or at least similar reaction to that of your daughter. With the exception of the notable set of images by Gilles Peress I exited that place wondering to myself where the personality and colour had gone from all the other exhibits, the mediocrity on display was saddening.

    Many thanks indeed for your honesty and words.

    Wishing you fair light and full frames


  2. You and Florence are wrong. Take another look at the portraits Bill Jay took. All B&W, no color, all in about the same position. But plenty of personality in each one.

    1. That is the work of one man and this article deals with the group exhibition and not the work of one person. Bill also made many portraits in colour which you have obviously not seen. I think we are therefore correct in our conclusion concerning the specific exhibition discussed here.

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