American Apparel without the clothes (There, I said it)


General Photography

I’m probably going to get a lot of flak for this, but I think every once in a while I want to talk about something that I don’t like (if this were “American Idol”, the booing would now commence). There has been a lot of fuss about Ryan McGinley’s new show (see, for example, James Danziger’s post), all the while I received quite a few emails where people told me in no uncertain terms how much they disliked the show.

The risk of something like this on the internet, of course, is that it could easily erupt into the early 21st Century’s equivalent of the “tit for tat”, so famously and well portrayed by Laurel & Hardy, except that online, people don’t start out by throwing the pie, they go for the big stuff right away.

But still… I think that a discussion of contemporary photography would be utterly incomplete if the dissenting opinions where avoided (and no, producing anonymous blogs does not count).

Having said all this, the reader probably anticipates me writing this anyway: I really don’t like the photography in that show. And it’s not just that I am indifferent to it, I actually have a whole bunch of actual problems with it.

The first problem arises from how the show is marketed. If you read the text on that page, there are just too many buttons being pressed in way too obvious ways. It starts with the road trip and the “4,000 rolls of film” and “150,000 photographs” (Robert Frank? - check!), to the reference to the “early B-side by Belle & Sebastian” (who are, btw, beyond their cool peak, so that’s a bit of a glitch there); and then there’s the bracketing of “photographs that show us the best of youth” with, at the end, “innocent yet erotic, casual yet calculated” - so the “best of youth” is naked frolicking, with some sort of ironic detachment? That’s it? Seriously?

Of course, it’s a bit unfair to judge photography by the statement, but in this case, the photography actually matches the statement. It looks like photography from American Apparel ads, minus the clothes. And that closeness to this kind of commercial photography, used by companies that cater to the crowd displayed in the photographs, is what bothers me so much about this work. There’s nothing fresh (to use James’ term) about it: I can see it every day, in ads.

There, I said it.

Update (18 Aug 2008): I stand corrected: It’s Wrangler, not American Apparel. Doesn’t matter, same crap.