Photographic style: the good, the bad and the ‘necessary ugly’ – (Part 3)

At Rest

This is the third instalment of a three part essay on photographic style. Part 1, addressed what I see as the three determinants of a photographer’s personal style. Part 2 looked at the dangers of imitation. Part 3 looks at what I call ‘necessary, ugly style’ (by which I mean styles that gain effectiveness from eschewing artfulness).

It is not uncommon to see photographs of humanity’s ugly side – wars, poverty, and other humanitarian disasters – captured with an artfulness that can make them appear like film stills.

I often find such images confusing. Is the photographer really complicit in a sanitising process sociologists call ‘recuperation’? As a photographer, I have a positivity bias towards my fellow image makers. I don’t like to think they are selecting shots of humanitarian crises simply for consumption by a media market. I prefer to believe that somewhere in their hearts at least a little of the spirit of a Bert Hardy, W. Eugene Smith, or Don McCullin guides them towards independence. I want to believe they are working in a ‘documentary’ tradition of recording the ‘truth’ (albeit theirs) of what was really there.

Presented with images of catastrophes that have deployed photographic language to create beautiful records of an ugly reality, I prefer to give the photographer the benefit of the doubt and believe he/she is being sardonic. In other words, that the images are an exercise in culture jamming intending, by their juxtaposition of beauty and tragedy, to draw our attention more to the awful reality depicted. By making us conscious that something so awful is being commoditized, by a media overly concerned with spectacle, the beautiful imagery gains in irony. The photographer has circumvented, to some degree, the commoditization of the events shown whilst keeping the documentary tradition alive in the face of dumbing down by the media industry. Bert Hardy, et al would likely approve.

By contrast, some work appears free of artifice and overt style. Such a pared back ‘style’ can nonetheless strengthen a message about some subjects. I think of such work as displaying ‘necessary, ugly style’. This approach can appear functional and the images too much like simple records. But the style is no accident, it is a sophisticated tactic intended to challenge us to see aspects of our reality that it is necessary we understand however ugly the images may seem.

The Iraq war photographs of the, sadly departed, German photojournalist Anja Niedringhaus, for instance, are often characterised by a literalness that adds power to the tragedy, comedy, and compassion present in many of her images. Her non-war images show she was more than capable of a more conventionally photographic style. I believe, in her war images, she was getting out of our way; believing the power of the subject she was showing us was enough of a statement.

In another genre, the landscape work of Robert Adams, and others associated with the New Topographic style, employs a relatively flat high key style to reinforce the blandness of a mundane suburbia, despoiled nature or industrial landscapes. While no less deliberate, Robert Adams’s style is geared more to getting us to see his point of view about modern American landscapes than savouring the photograph as an aesthetic object like his modernist namesake Ansel Adams.

In both of the above examples, I believe the photographers are intent on concentrating our attention on the message rather than the formal elements of their images. They seem to eschew – or at least severely limit – use of photography’s more common visual devices. In favouring a more simplistic visual language, they are no less applying a personal style to their imagery of course.

As viewer’s we are being treated as sophisticated enough to ‘get it’ – their message – by socially aware and technically skilled photographer’s. These image makers possess awareness of the mediums traditions and landmark imagery and a commitment to the spirit of the documentary tradition.

Dedicated to all those photojournalists who risk their lives to let the rest of us know when, where and why our fellow men, women and children are suffering. (RIP Jim Foley – see James Foley: a look at some of his finest work for Global Post).

© John Meehan 2014

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