Why the Deconstructed Photograph Doesn’t Work!

I am old enough to remember the craze that was Nouvelle Cuisine amongst chefs and within restaurants. It was a rejection of the traditional and the classic. A move towards something new, lighter and fresher. It was popularised in the 1960s by the food critic Henri Gault and his colleagues André Gayot and Christian Millau, who invented the phrase and included it in a new restaurant guide. It was not invented by chef’s or people eating in restaurants crying out for the rejection of what they new and enjoyed. It was invented by critics.

Today chefs and restaurants champion the idea of freshness and locally sourced produce, some even continue to create plates of food aiming to be described as ‘works of art’ just as those did in the heady days of Nouvelle Cuisine, fiddling with what worked to create something new, that too often didn’t. Personally, I didn’t need a deconstructed apple pie, I was happy with what it was, not what it could be.

What’s this got to do with photography I hear you cry, well to deconstruct means to unpack through analysis, but it also means to show the different connections that allow us to understand how something might take shape in another way. Just as an apple pie can be reduced to its most basic ingredients and then presented in different forms so many believe that photography can be treated in the same way.

However, the deconstruction of the photographic image is not easy. How do you deconstruct the elements of a two dimensional artefact created in a matter of seconds?

The answer seems to come in two parts. Part one is to physically play with what our expectation of a photograph is when presented or shown. Cutting, folding, sewing, collaging, burning, and projecting all seem to be options here, as does evolving the print into three dimensional sculpture, by adding non-photographic components. I am sure there are more and if there are you may add them to my list.

The deconstructionist will most likely describe themselves as an artist and that makes sense. Their practice is using photography as a starting point for a contemporary art practice. It is not the end in itself, but a sign post to a conclusion.

But is it photography? The traditionalists may say no! But to return to my food metaphor, is the pimped and pretentious Nouvelle Cuisine, now often referred to as ‘Fine Dining ‘ food? Well, of course it is, but it is food that is more about the person who made it than the person who will eat it. Therefore it is photography, but without a purity of intention towards the medium.

The second point also aligns with my metaphor of food. Nouvelle Cuisine was created by critics and again that makes sense. Critics deconstruct what they see, hear, read and eat to provide substance to their opinions, to provide context for their conclusions. Photographic critics and academics are no different.

Could it be that the idea of deconstructed photography is useful for the critic bored of commenting on pure photography and eager to pontificate on art rather than the photograph? Does it raise the intellectual potential of photographic criticism for the critic with little interest in photography as an independent medium? I will leave you to answer those questions.

There is no reason to deconstruct photography. There may be a desire to make it something other than what it is, to extend its impact and nature, but it has done okay for many years without the need for this to happen. Simple food, that is nurturing, nourishing and tasty will always be well received, as will pure photography and there is always a place for the adventurer willing to change perceptions of what has been and what could be. The problem is that the outcomes of such adventures often fall into the trap of becoming trends and styles. Nouvelle cuisine was a fashion that soon became old fashioned.

The fashion over the last decade or so amongst chefs has been deconstructed food, widely recognised as being founded by Ferran Adrià the Spanish head chef of the El Bulli restaurant. Adrià transforms the ingredients of the dish into something looking and feeling different by altering their form, temperature or texture. To deconstruct food, chefs interpret their own version of a dish, decipher what the core idea is, and dismantle the food down to its component parts. The issue with this is that it is based purely upon the intellectual ability of the chef to master techniques to make something that confounds and looks nice and or interesting. If you don’t believe me and if you like in the UK just watch the BBC programme The Great British Menu for proof.

Does photography need such deconstruction? Should it adopt such trends?

I suggest that it does not and should not. The successful photograph should and can achieve its objective without the need for further intervention. It does not need to have its form or texture altered, the pure photograph is an interpretation, a version of a time, place and/or person, the core idea should be clear or open for interpretation. Its component parts forming the structure within the image. Of course that is just the opinion of a photographer, perhaps the critics and the art world need to think differently.

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

2 comments

  1. I don’t care for the food as art, which is what it looks like to me, four assistants hovering over a plate with tweezers manipulating various components of the deconstructed dish, and the usual result being a high price for very little actual food. When I see the term “fine dining” on a restaurant description, a red warning flag goes up. On the photography end, it seems the gate keepers are embracing more and more the physical and digital manipulation of photographs as part of photography. I follow Lenscratch and Frames Magazine sites, and they display many examples of this type from time to time. Saw two exhibits locally at a photo gallery with much manipulation involved. I question that too every time I see this type of work, photography or art.

  2. GS: “But is it photography?”

    If I may be so bold as to deconstruct that, the answer is no. It is a form of curation. The critic, or end user as artist in the case of adding to existing work, is merely curating think that the photograph should be displayed in this way or in this context.

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