I have previously written about the tendency for photography to take itself too seriously. In my experience some photographers are prone to adopting a certain joyless approach to the medium, rejecting humour, fun, joy and smiling in favour of an all encompassing seriousness. Of course, approach is dictated by subject and narrative. A serious approach may be the appropriate approach, but is it always the right approach? https://unitednationsofphotography.com/2022/07/20/you-dont-have-to-be-serious-to-be-serious-about-photography-and-your-photographs-do-not-have-to-be-serious-to-be-serious-photographs-seriously/
Let’s talk about entertainment. The process of bringing a breadth of experience and emotion to an audience to make them think, laugh and occasionally cry. We accept and expect this from actors, musicians, dancers and of course entertainers. However, artists and creatives who adopt such an approach risk being ridiculed for selling out or searching for celebrity fame. Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, Damien Hirst and Picasso come to mind.
However, if we accept the role of the photographer as a visual storyteller is it reasonable to suggest that those stories should not contain aspects of light and shade? Should fun and laughter be part of storytelling? Is entertainment to be dismissed by the photographer?
I see very few smiling, happy photographs these days outside of family pictures and yet within the commissioned environment it was always important to get at least one frame in which the person being photographed looked reasonably happy about what was taking place. I still do this. In my mind, and as a former editor and art director, it is important to cover the ground and give my client some appropriate choice.
At the end of every session the photographer Philippe Halsman https://unitednationsofphotography.com/2019/05/07/icons-of-photography-philippe-halsman/ would ask the person he had photographed to jump for the camera. Sometimes he would jump with them and the resultant images were published as his Jump book. A book full of fun. A book that didn’t make him any less of a photographer by being entertaining.
I’m not sure where mistrust of the joy in photography comes from, but I have some ideas.
Photography taught within academic institutions today can have a tendency towards the introspective and take itself overly seriously to the detriment of the captured moment. The promotion of a serious aesthetic over work that may be seen as frivolous by some can also impact on those starting out with photography. Work made influences the work that will be made. When this work is applauded and praised through competitions and festivals, by critics and curators a dominant aesthetic of supposed success is established. Thanks largely to this we are now in a time of aesthetic seriousness.
This is constructed photography, controlled by the photographer to meet an expectation. It is not responsive to the moment, it denies the moment in favour of a pre-ordained outcome. Not always, but too often.
The removal of smiles, laughter, the unexpected and interaction between the photographer and the person being photographed produces images of conformity and that’s a problem. The unexpected is entertaining and entertainment should not be seen as an inappropriate word to use when discussing photography if the photographer hopes to build an audience and engagement.
Do not misunderstand me here, I am not suggesting that all photographs should have a sense of the fairground filled with quick, cheap thrills and the nourishing depth of candy floss. However, a trip to the fairground can be a pleasurable escape from the reality of the every day and there is nothing wrong with that. To restrict photographic practice to the creation of a narrow aesthetic outcome denies its possibilities, to apply those same aesthetics to your own relationship with the medium places you into a box that may be similarly restrictive.
Bob Dylan once described himself as a song and dance man, whilst others wanted to describe him as a protest singer,or the voice of a generation. I have no problem in describing myself as a photography entertainer when others may wish to call me a photographer, writer or lecturer. Do you have an issue with being described as a photographic entertainer? If so, why?
Image: Philippe Halsman: Jump Book, Marilyn Monroe jumping with Philippe Halsman. USA. 1959. © Philippe Halsman/Magnum Photos
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