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August 17, 2004

Commercial Descendants of Dusseldorf and the Postmodern, Plus More Thoughts on Eggleston

Sometimes, it's hard to believe that the deadpan, off-kilter look of a good deal of contemporary commercial photography can be traced all the way back to the work of photography giants like William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Nan Goldin, and a whole range of postmodern photographers emerging in the 1980s and 90s, not to mention the highly influential Dusseldorf school of photographers like Thomas Ruff and Candida Hofer. It's not hard to see how such pioneering photographers could have provided inspiration, but it's amazing (and depressing at times) to see how the deadpan can seem simply calculated (and yes, dead) when used in a rote manner and slickened up for commercial clients.

These thoughts came to me when first browsing through the stable of photographers represented by the agency Special Bookings, but a closer look at the photographers (who all have excellent personal webpages) indicates they're a good cut above the norm (at least to me...mileage always varies, but especially so when dealing with the subtle commercialization of such nuanced and deceptively casual styles of photography).

* I'm especially taken with German advertising photographer Julia Fullerton-Batten, whose work, even at its most commercial, has an eye for detail, and a sense of color and compositional nuance that rarely feels calculated and is often very striking. More images from Fullerton-Batten and a short description of her work can be found here, and yet more images here.


Julia Fullerton-Batten image

* Christoph Morlinghaus' large format architectural images more overtly reflect the influence of the Dusseldorf school, though as some reviewers have pointed out, the point of view he takes often brings the viewer into the environment just a bit more, resulting in slightly more engagement and more tension. It's harder to appreciate this kind of work online (scale and detail are lacking), but Morlinghaus' web portfolio does well given the circumstances. Morlinghaus had a well-received exhibition at Brooklyn's Roebling Hall earlier this year, and a good overview of his approach can be found in this NY Arts review.


Christoph Morlinghaus image

* Jason Wilde's more documentary-styled portraiture is also worth seeing, but mainly on his own website, where the work is organized into more logical projects. (The Somers Town and St. Mary projects were the ones I enjoyed the most on his website). The agency portfolio gathers a selection of his work in such a way that the deadpan does seem more pro forma than it's actually meant to be.

* For those who still think these folks might be too slick, check out Jocelyn Lee, whose approach to portraiture and documentary is direct, unadorned, and unpretty...even the images of children and young parents are very unsettling. This is a photographer whose sensibility gives even her commercial images a hardness that's unusual in client work. I've seen the work of some emerging photographers attempt to take on this type of hardness, but the resulting work, whether personal or for clients, ends up feeling like a copped attitude. Lee's work will definitely turn some people off (both in choice of subjects and style), but it has the feel of a real personal and uncompromised vision, not a riding of the winds of commercial and gallery fashion. ("The Youngest Parents" and "Children's Games", along with several of the portraits, are my favorites on her website).


Jocelyn Lee image

* Finally, a very worthwhile addition to my Eggleston post and collection of links from a week ago: a Tom Moody essay from over a year ago, written with his usual eloquence, about how collective innovation in the art and color photography worlds in the 1970s debunk several myths about Eggleston (most notably the "great man" label of him as the "father of color photography"), while giving appropriate props to Eggleston's abilities with composition and color. An excellent read. An excerpt:

"Eggleston certainly had some influence on the current generation as a poetic formalist, but Lewis keeps emphasizing the (apparently) casual, snapshot side of his work--“garish” color, “bad” lighting, “banal” subject matter. I put all these terms in quotes because Eggleston isn’t really that casual. When I think of him the images that pop into my head are his tributes to "found color"--painted stripes on walls, product displays in Southern grocery stores, and that outrageous red ceiling (above)--revealing the exacting eye of a color field painter".

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Good entry... I like looking through those. i'm definitely going to peruse more of the work displayed on the Special Bookings site.

I've often thought that some the 'dead-pan' look is overdone, but I still like it fine especially for environmental portraits.

I really like Alec Soth's work...

Posted by: john at Aug 18, 2004 12:46:17 AM

Eggleston did "validate" color photography as an art form back in the day ('76). I remember it quite clearly. Here was this middle aged Southern guy hitting the photo scene like visual punk. Prior to him when color and "art" photography were mentioned, the usual work summoned forth was the droll, color pictorials of Ernst Haas. But just as the "English Invasion" was not just the Beatles, there was also the work of Sternfield and Shore (not a law firm). Goldin and Meisalis also pioneered and validated the use of color for photojournalism. And Meyerowitz was probably the most popular of the lot, and his lesser known color street work was every bit as mindboggling (if not as revolutionary)as Eggleston's.

Posted by: Stan Banos at Aug 18, 2004 1:10:22 AM

Hey guys, thanks for the comments. john, I *love* Soth's work, and I'm looking forward to getting his book in the mail any day now. (In fact, the guys whose work I've been looking at the most lately have been Shore, Sternfeld and Soth...now there's a trio, and yes, not a law firm!)

Stan, thanks for the perspective on Eggleston...I know that when I first saw his stuff, it really hit me between the eyes, so I can only imagine what it was like in the '70s. I think Moody's essay was taking aim mainly at Jim Lewis' simplistic piece for Slate.

I know that I consider Shore's and Sternfeld's work at least as influential in my understanding of color as Eggleston's personally, and you're right about Meyerowitz...the street stuff was amazing, but it seems like everyone wants to remember him mainly for Cape Light (which had pretty awesome, if more traditional, color itself).

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