Saturday, January 31, 2009

dead pan

To be honest, this isn't a dead pan, but I thought it was going to be.   Running for the camera may not be the best of instincts when one's burnt a pan bottom, but it didn't really seem to inflict lasting harm.   But (clearly I can't get the concept out of my system) it did get me reflecting on where the term came from...

... and it's surprisingly recent: the OED gives as its first citation the NYT in 1928: "Dead pan, playing a role with expressionless face"... I like the *Tablet* (England's catholic church journal) in 1942, saying "Mr Attlee and Sir Stafford Cripps did their best to assume what in America is called a 'dead pan' expression."   It seems that "pan" is a very, very old word (pann, panne, panna [I thought that was cream??]  etc - turning up in what I suppose one would call a pan-European way), meaning head or skull as well as the round thing that one's cooking in.   When a film camera "pans," incidentally, it's an abbreviation for acting in a panoramic way.   

So.   It didn't turn out, I'm afraid, to be all that interesting.   But be glad to know that the spinach that then went into the slightly carbonized pan tasted fine - just a little smoky - after it was cooked with oil, chopped onions, garlic, cumin, and lemon juice.

Friday, January 30, 2009



Vowels are being discriminated against at Rutgers.   Yesterday, I saw the car whose back bumper is pictured on the left parked in carpark 11.   Walking back to my Union Street office after teaching I hovered briefly to read (with rapidly sinking enthusiasm) the menu posted on one of the grease trucks - RU Hungry - which, although it didn't go so far as banishing vowels, was clear in its open support of consonants.   The bumper sticker cheered me up enormously (it takes a good deal to make me burst out laughing on a chilly January night in New Brunswick), and what's more, it made me start thinking about how little I know about consonants (for a start, I think I've always considered them as letters, not sounds - the sounds that are made when one halts, with lips, tongue, teeth, the vocal sound that one's projecting.

It was only this morning that I realized that the bumper sticker was probably a celebration of TM-ing, which was rather a disappointment.   So far as I'd been fantasizing about it having any meaning whatsoever - beyond the endearingly surreal - all I could think of was some frustrated Scrabble player being served up AAAIIOU.     At least it was a surprise to find myself thinking about consonants at all - interesting that it worked that way, and not to make me proclaim the importance of the poor marginalized vowel.

So... one of the questions we were thinking about in class yesterday is when does a photograph come into being?   When can it be said to be made? (c.f. Geoffrey Batchen, here).      And we've also been thinking about what a photograph *is*, and where collaged images fit into the equation.   Yes, I took the picture on the left yesterday (and a wider view of the back of the car) - so to include it, and it alone, would have broken my own (arbitrary) rules.   But I went back to photograph the grease truck menus today, and the Scrabble board was serendipitous... I was wanting something to thematize the Consonant, lamenting the fact that I didn't possess a scrabble game ... and then walked across the gallery, and found that M-R and B (my housesitters while I was on leave) had left a Scrabble board in full, glorious display.   And since the assemblage was definitely executed today, I'd argue for the moment that I merged down the photoshop layers, and saved it with a name, and then uploaded it here (come to think of it, that's three moments), as being the - the timeframe in which it came into being.   

Thursday, January 29, 2009


36 Union Street

I've been fretting about calling yesterday's table-footmen an example of deadpan photography: they seem a bit too quirky for that.   So I went in to teach today deciding, in advance, that today's photo would be as dead-pan a shot I could manage of the building that my office is in: taken straight on, not kneeling in any contorted position so that I could use a wide-angle lens to avoid the cars, not looking to make it picturesque in any way: in other words, to emphasize its ordinariness.

And then a person came along.

I went wrong, I think, in including the guy walking by: he un-deadpans it, introduces either the descriptive (he's hunched over - it's cold) or the potentially anecdotal (where is he going? what is he doing?).   It might make for a more "interesting" picture, in conventional terms, but the problem is, he's singular, and therefore one's attention gets drawn to him, not the house (unless that's just me obsessing about whether or not it was right not to have waited for him to have gone by).   It would have been quite different if it had been a full-of-people street scene.   I guess I didn't wait to take a second shot since it was cold, and I thought that this would be fine - and of course now, I wish that I had them to put side by side, and also that I'd taken a tripod - that would have allowed the extraction of miniature portions of the picture more easily, since the definition proved not quite all that my technical perfectionism dreams of ...  But still, the picture on the top left (maybe tomorrow I'll learn how to embed images in the substance of the post), may or may not have documentary evidence of Where the Raccoons Get In - it's been clipped from the middle of the larger image.

Deadpan or no - it's certainly a photo in which, apart from the compositional choice, there's very little of the photographer's personality put into it.   I think there would have been much more of a sense of emptiness without the figure, and that it would therefore have been much more powerful and suggestive.   Certainly the deadpan photographers who appeal most to me - Candida Hofer, Lynn Cohen - do wonderful things with emptiness, and work with the potential of the lives and activities that their vacant spaces have contained and might contain - without using any props of incidental figures walking by.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


                            table football in the snow

This is a particularly depressing little scene: the two table football teams facing off each other with a marked lack of aggression or enthusiasm, just a melancholy resignation at being left out at the back of a frat house in this appalling weather.   And yet there's something rather stoic about them too: a plastic equivalent of the Xi'an Terracotta Army.

So how do they fit into any of the reading for tomorrow?   I want to put them forward as a kind of deadpan photography: to be sure, the subject matter lacks the scale of that photographed by some of the best-known examples that appear in our reading (Andreas Gursky, Walter Niedermayr, Thomas Struth, Candida Hofer [I'll work umlauts out when I have more time], say).   But on the other hand, these miniature homunculi manage to have a kind of grandiose stature.    And I've certainly tried to avoid "the hyperbolic, sentimental and subjective" in subject matter, angle, lighting, and to approach them with an air of detachment - no intrusion of my own subjectivity or personality here: "a neutral photographic stance," (all quotes from Charlotte Cotton's chapter on Deadpan).    And yet, despite the way in which they offer a kind of elegiac statement about leisure, consumerism, etc, there's also something bathetic about them that I don't associate with deadpan - which makes me wonder how far it's possible to parody the style, or whether one of its essences is that it's non-parodiable.

Those of you already familiar with my plastic flamingo pictures will, quite rightly, wonder what it is, though, that leads me to photograph artificial objects that have ended up marooned in melting snow.   I can't answer that: I've only just picked up on a pattern...

And you might well wonder why yesterday, the shortest-lived blog in the world existed for a handful of hours, and then disappeared again.   Honestly, one of the hardest things is Naming One's Blog (though those members of the Writing and Photography class who have already posted theirs don't seem afflicted with this problem...).   I knew something wasn't quite right with the last one.   Around 3 in the morning I woke up with a painful sense that it was very wrong indeed - and I'm grateful no one else pointed it out to me first.   Not much point in substituting "pixels" of nature for Fox Talbot's "pencil" - the sun, or light, remains the same in both cases - it's just the nature of the light sensitive nature that changes.   So I scrapped that very very quickly, and cast around for inspiration ... looking hopefully for an early photographer or critic, and hopefully a woman, and Elizabeth Eastlake came very fortuitously to hand.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Truly, it's not fair to my Writing and Photography class to say that I will, indeed, turn my Facebook notes into a full scale blog - and not do it.   Which raises a whole lot of new questions about Tone and Audience, and the degree to which the style of one's writing shifts according to whom one thinks may be going to read it.   But I'll say once again, as I said in class, that for those of you who are writing your own blog as a project - this is not a How To Do It template (though I hope it's not a how-not-to-do-it, either...); you're not my only audience (though as promised, I'm going to try and make reference to the readings that we're all doing and discussing); and I don't see what I do here as academic writing (though again, it's hardly what I write in my journal, in emails to friends, or in FB status updates: one of the interesting things that I've discovered in the last 27 days is that this particular medium - both solipsistic, and aimed at anyone who's prepared to follow along - may well be producing a voice that isn't identical to that which I use in (text) published work.   Possibly that just means that my sentences are too long here).

By the end of today's class - largely centered on What Is a Photograph?, and understandably having fun with CCTV images, with Keith Cottingham's computer-generated/manipulated images of adolescent boys side by side with Jock Sturges' adolescents, with Joel-Peter Witkin's collage reworking of the gods/goddesses of Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" and the Renaissance Hotels ad featuring a photoshop composite (I think) based on the same painting 

- we were moving towards asking the question that's uppermost for Thursday's class: why should the whole question of whether Photography is Art have bothered people so much at various times, and what do we learn about attending to the terms of this debate?   And tied in with this was the question of subject-matter, and (for me) once again, the photographing of the everyday.   One of the images reproduced in the Barrett text we were using was a black and white 1977 print of Jan Groover's pots and pans (we also looked at some of her work in color) - and prompted, rather than inspired by this to open the dishwasher and see what was inside, I made the discovery that it's much harder to take an interesting photograph of kitchen utensils than one thinks it's going to be.   For a start, how much does one want to re-arrange?   (not a dish or pan was re-positioned in the making of the above image...and this is perhaps why it's a bit stiff and boring) - but when I try again, it'll most definitely involve moving stuff around (as one would, after all, if one were a painter setting up an arrangement of crockery on a table-top).   But then, very quickly, what looks like the everyday turns into something quite different - a still-life, just like (as we saw) Daguerre's very, very early capturing of objects in his studio - very artificial, and having a much more complicated relationship to the everyday than it seems at first sight.


First post - a reprise of yesterday's Facebook posting - and this is the point at which I discover that one can't cut and paste text from FB into Blogspot.   At least, it would seem not.   So I'm going to add that as a comment, and trust that normal service will begin later this evening (phraseology that sounds as though I've been corrupted by airport-speak...).