I have written previously about the impact of the Dusseldorf School of Photography (known for their rigorous devotion to the 1920s German tradition of ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’ or ‘New Objectivity’), on the creation of a dominant aesthetic amongst photographers over the past twenty years. An impact that I do not see as being wholly positive. I first wrote on this subject twelve years ago. Yet here I am writing again, because I am still engaged in a conversation with myself attempting to understand why photography has become consumed by this sense of ‘seriousness’.
Let me explain. Any creative medium that takes itself too seriously risks becoming stagnant, self-regarding and irrelevant. Just take 1970s progressive rock as an example or underground 1960s experimental cinema, or perhaps 21st Century contemporary art speak.
Introspection can be enlightening, but it can also be exclusive. Documentation can be revealing, but it can also be repetitive. A lack of emotion can provide a sense of balance, but it can also create images that are cold and spiritless. Images created with the intention of creating a documentation of subject matter, with the photographer remaining outside of the process is naive at best, dishonest at worst.
The photographer is always present in the photograph, whatever approach they choose to adopt. The decision of approach is in itself a choice of personal control placed on the image, preventing objectivity and creating a practice of subjectivity. However, the idea of non-bias documentation is central to so much teaching of photography undertaken over the past two decades at least. If a photographer is taught to write about their intention in extreme detail before ever picking up a camera to achieve a grade or an arts council grant or bursary, then the image making that follows is created to meet a pre-conceived outcome devoid of opportunities for spontaneity. If you are unaware of this approach let me make you aware of some photography courses that set projects were the making of a photograph is not required, instead writing about the photograph that would have been made is encouraged.
The seriousness of intention in written form is not to be discouraged, but when it dictates the images made, the role of the photographer responding to the moment becomes redundant.
It is at this point that serious intent, leads to serious photographs, were the photographer imposes their sense of ‘objectivity’ on those being photographed. At this point there is as much control placed on the person as in any magazine portrait. Look at the camera, no smile, no movement, arms by the side, no emotion. You know the look. Add a little desaturation in post-production and the job is done.
This is not an objective documentation, it is a controlled representation. Controlled and decided upon by the photographer.
My issue with this approach does not relate to the images made, but the belief by some that it is the only approach that can be used by the serious photographer. That a pre-written concept, combined with a series of ‘objective’ images constitutes serious work worthy of publishing, awarding and exhibiting. It might, but it is not the guaranteed success formula promoted by certain ‘serious’ photography magazines and gatekeepers.
As photographers we need to be alert to the moment, to be alive to the photographic opportunity. Implementing a pre-conceived process onto a situation will inevitably kill that moment of spontaneity. The decisive moment is lost, and replaced with the pre-ordained image.
Even the briefest look at the work of photographers such as Elliott Erwitt, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Phillipe Halsman, Walker Evans, Ellen Von Unwerth, William Klein, Robert Frank, William Egglestone, Stephen Shore, just to name a few, will reveal a sense of humor either wry or obvious in their images. You can be great and light hearted.
Here is a suggestion, if you want your work to stand out. You could buck the trend and respond to the moment, release control and allow the subject to collaborate. It’s your choice as to whether you want to play within the rules of others or create work true to who you and your subject truly are. That may be the new objectivity.
Dr. Grant Scott is 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. He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.
© Grant Scott 2022