Boring Portrait Series

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Pieter12

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A bit of a rant, so you can stop here if you'd like.

I have noticed lately (and it has probably been a bit of a trend for much longer, but has just started to irritate me) that a number of photographers have been making portrait series that are two steps above a mug shot or passport picture. Same angle, same composition, pretty much the same or very similar backgrounds. Bland expressions, bland lighting. Ordinary people, rarely with much of a clue as to personality or inner "soul" or vocation. This is not August Sander or Walker Evans, here. There are just so many empty expressions one can take, especially if that is not the intended message. Avedon's In The American West, although the background, scale and perspective was what linked the photos together, the people came through clearly. Sometimes grabbed you by the collar and yanked you in. In the work I am criticizing, what is the appeal beyond the first dozen shots? Am I missing something?
 

BrianShaw

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I think its often about different faces rather than different compositions/lighting. And often quite bland, as you very correctly state.
 

momus

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Pieter, I saw the portrait series by Richard Avedon that you mentioned when I was living in San Francisco many years ago. The scale of the photos and the people that he photographed were eye stopping. That's probably the last time I saw such an exhibit though. Digital and smart phones are a large part of why things are so banal today. When digital first became a thing, every soccer mom and their brother/sister suddenly went into the "portrait" business, zoom lens and all. Weddings, all that.

One other disconcerting thing I've noticed happens here. I am seeing shots in the gallery that are not far from banal, yet they get a ton of likes and comments. I have no idea what's up w/ that, but one would have to be blind not to see it. The easy answer for both things is that while there may be a lot of people photographing this and that, there are only a handful that are any good. I think it's just that simple, the bar has been lowered to a very low level.
 

faberryman

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The easy answer for both things is that while there may be a lot of people photographing this and that, there are only a handful that are any good. I think it's just that simple, the bar has been lowered to a very low level.

There is only so much talent and creativity to go around.

The internet bears a fair amount of credit for the current state of affairs. In the olden days, most of the mediocre photography we are inundated with would have never seen the light of day. The democratization of photography has its pluses and minuses.

Of course, there is some great contemporary photography too. The trick is finding it.
 
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Pieter12

Pieter12

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But it is those who don’t realize their work is bad or boring who see no reason to quit. After all, they see repetition as creativity—didn’t Monet paint those same damn haystacks and cathedral over and over? Didn’t the Bechers just shoot all those buildings the same?
 

Don Heisz

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most of the mediocre photography we are inundated with would have never seen the light of day.

It still doesn't see the light of day. Even an "hot" social media post that gets 100000 likes or whatever ends up forgotten within days - if not hours. None of this lasts - and I'm afraid less of the good stuff will last now than in the past. It's too swamped.

But it is those who don’t realize their work is bad or boring who see no reason to quit.

Why should they quit? They're doing what they want. Everyone is boring to someone else.
 
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Pieter12

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It still doesn't see the light of day. Even an "hot" social media post that gets 100000 likes or whatever ends up forgotten within days - if not hours. None of this lasts - and I'm afraid less of the good stuff will last now than in the past. It's too swamped.



Why should they quit? They're doing what they want. Everyone is boring to someone else.

I was referencing post #7. I don’t think anyone needs to quit, especially if they like what they’re doing. Everyone may be boring to someone else, but sometimes you just can’t fathom what someone else may find fascinating, let alone interesting. The point of my original post was to try to find out what the appeal or at least motivation is behind these series of uninspired portraits. Is it to numb the senses? That’s as valid a reason as any.
 

BrianShaw

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I think the reason is to document that the photographer can take pictures of humans. Just like all of the rock and tree and abandon building photographers.
 

VinceInMT

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The easy answer for both things is that while there may be a lot of people photographing this and that, there are only a handful that are any good. I think it's just that simple, the bar has been lowered to a very low level.

I think what ou are describing is adequately explained by Sturgeon’s Law which states that "ninety percent of everything is crap."

Pre-Internet, the crap still existed but you just didn’t see it. After all, in the 1970s I worked in a photo lab and saw thousands and thousands of photographs come off the processor every night and, based on what I observed, Ted Sturgeon was quite generous.
 

VinceInMT

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…Everyone may be boring to someone else, but sometimes you just can’t fathom what someone else may find fascinating, let alone interesting...
Yes, to someone without the same hobby, interest, or passion.

I know people who are totally into Dungeons and Dragons and they can go on in extreme detail about their attraction to it. In my younger years I’d poo-poo that but age has brought about an appreciation that they AT LEAST have something they are interested or passionate about. I know plenty of others who can‘t show much passion for much other than what they watched on TV last night. I guess that’s a passion but it’s so passive and I really like to hear about the more active ones.

I just returned from having a few beers with a long time friend and I know I had to dial back my passion for the good stuff that happened in my darkroom in the last 24 hours. He NEVER takes photos. Ever. They don’t even have a family album because, well, you know, that costs money.
 
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Pieter12

Pieter12

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Back to my original point, what I don't get is the monotony of (mostly) mediocre portraits. Taken one or even a few at a time, the individual shots have some merit. But somehow, formulaic repetition comes into play and ruins everything. One-trick pony, run out of ideas. And I am not talking about social media, the internet's junk drawer. Photographers put these series on their websites, self-publish books and manage to have shows.
 

MattKing

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I used to do colour printing for a number of professional photographers back when everything was on film.
Thousands and thousands of studio and wedding portraits.
You might have been bored by what I printed, but there were an awful lot of fine photographs of people.
Perhaps you are looking for the unique, when that isn't really what the photographers are aiming for.
The uniqueness may not be in the photograph, but rather in each subject.
And for what its worth, I think uniqueness in general is over-valued - a very fine photograph doesn't suffer because it has something in common with other fine photographs.
 

Sirius Glass

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I do not care to take portraits but I enjoy seeing portraits. I cannot stand the photographs of models looking bored out of their minds. If they cannot at least look interested and or smile they should not be modeling for money.
 

Don Heisz

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Back to my original point, what I don't get is the monotony of (mostly) mediocre portraits. Taken one or even a few at a time, the individual shots have some merit. But somehow, formulaic repetition comes into play and ruins everything. One-trick pony, run out of ideas. And I am not talking about social media, the internet's junk drawer. Photographers put these series on their websites, self-publish books and manage to have shows.

You mean portraits that are the result of a studio setup with the same backdrop, same perspective, same lighting? I can see how looking at a book full of those would be tedious and seem pointless - you'd eventually just flip through.

Perhaps you are looking for the unique, when that isn't really what the photographers are aiming for.
The uniqueness may not be in the photograph, but rather in each subject.

I think the point Pieter's making is that these portraits strip the uniqueness of the subjects by treating them all the same.
 

neutron450

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We're being conditioned to reject anything that displays creative achievement or craftsmanship.
 

AnselMortensen

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Back to my original point, what I don't get is the monotony of (mostly) mediocre portraits. Taken one or even a few at a time, the individual shots have some merit. But somehow, formulaic repetition comes into play and ruins everything. One-trick pony, run out of ideas. And I am not talking about social media, the internet's junk drawer. Photographers put these series on their websites, self-publish books and manage to have shows.

Case in point:
Joyce Tenneson
 
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Pieter12

Pieter12

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I used to do colour printing for a number of professional photographers back when everything was on film.
Thousands and thousands of studio and wedding portraits.
You might have been bored by what I printed, but there were an awful lot of fine photographs of people.
Perhaps you are looking for the unique, when that isn't really what the photographers are aiming for.
The uniqueness may not be in the photograph, but rather in each subject.
And for what its worth, I think uniqueness in general is over-valued - a very fine photograph doesn't suffer because it has something in common with other fine photographs.

It is not the unique that I want. In a portrait or wedding studio, the use of tried and true poses and lighting works fine. The photos are good, the craftsmanship up to par. It is when they are put together and presented as a body of work that they lose value. Unless it is the photographers intent, the people become interchangeable figures in a crowd. Walker Evan's subway series does this, but because the subjects are caught unaware, somehow their individuality comes through. Their anonymity and distraction allows something special to show because their guard is let down. When you have a multitude of similar portraits of people posing for the camera, the photographer needs a strong vision of his own to come through for it to work. In the majority of cases, it doesn't.
 

MattKing

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It is not the unique that I want. In a portrait or wedding studio, the use of tried and true poses and lighting works fine. The photos are good, the craftsmanship up to par. It is when they are put together and presented as a body of work that they lose value. Unless it is the photographers intent, the people become interchangeable figures in a crowd. Walker Evan's subway series does this, but because the subjects are caught unaware, somehow their individuality comes through. Their anonymity and distraction allows something special to show because their guard is let down. When you have a multitude of similar portraits of people posing for the camera, the photographer needs a strong vision of his own to come through for it to work. In the majority of cases, it doesn't.

It depends on what the viewer wants it to do - what is meant by it "working".
I think the expectations may be different than what once were the norm.
I'm not sure many people are expecting the same sort of accomplishment as that which Walker Evans achieved.
The expectations are molded by the vastly larger accessibility that now predominates.
And I totally understand why the change may not appeal to you - it doesn't really appeal to me.
But are we the target audience?
 

alanrockwood

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I used to do colour printing for a number of professional photographers back when everything was on film.
Thousands and thousands of studio and wedding portraits.
You might have been bored by what I printed, but there were an awful lot of fine photographs of people.
Perhaps you are looking for the unique, when that isn't really what the photographers are aiming for.
The uniqueness may not be in the photograph, but rather in each subject.
And for what its worth, I think uniqueness in general is over-valued - a very fine photograph doesn't suffer because it has something in common with other fine photographs.

I was going to post a similar comment, but you said it much better than I could have said it, the difference being that I never did color printing of thousands of studio and wedding portraits.
 
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