A few thoughts on a post by Ofer


General Photography

In a recent post, Ofer discussed a portfolio of work by Platon done for and published in New Yorker Magazine. Rob picked up on it; and it’s actually quite an interesting topic, because, as far as I can tell, there are different aspects to it, which, when being confused with each other, might complicate things (as you can see in some of the comments under Rob’s post).

As always I might be missing something, but I think the basic aspects can be summarized in the form of the following questions: Is the work any good? What are we to make of the New Yorker’s decision to signed on Platon as a staff photographer? Is Platon’s work following Richard Avedon’s photography (too much)? I don’t want to pretend these questions can be answered separately in this given context, but it’s extremely worthwhile noting the different aspects.

I don’t work in a magazine/publishing context so I’m not the best person to talk about the second question. The first question, of course, is most likely to result in fierce “discussions”, but it really is just a matter of taste, isn’t it?

Which leaves us with the third question. Is this photography too similar to Avedon’s? It’s a tricky question, and I can only offer my thoughts about this question (which, in similar form and in different contexts, pops up a lot in photography). Photography now looks back to a history that’s not quite as long as that of painting, say, but still, there are lots of practitioners - and thus, there are lots of comparisons to be made. More importantly, there are also lots of influences. Photographers have taken what other photographers have done, and they have developed it, with many of them changing things and adding their own voices.

Interestingly enough, what gets people so riled up in photography is taken for granted and widely accepted in many other art forms. For example, in music certain artists are just accepted as influences for generations of later artists - without the endless “ripping off” or “just copying” “discussions” that we see in photography. There are occasional discussions about someone ripping off another artist, but these are fairly rare, and usually, they are usually also very obvious (and, often, it’s all about money).

In other words, just because someone shoots a portrait with a monochromatic (white or grey) background that doesn’t make him or her merely a copy of Richard Avedon. There’s a bit more to Avedon’s work than the white background, isn’t there? And in the same fashion, there’s a lot more to Platon’s photography than the white background.

Note that Ofer wrote that in his mind Platon’s “portraits shot from below against a stark white background are too indebted to Avedon’s.” (my emphasis) Indebted is a great word when talking about photography, because it contains so much meaning. It acknowledges influence, it places a bit of a burden on an artist, but it does not imply sameness - on the contrary, it leaves open the possibility of a development. So the crucial bit to discuss is contained in the “too”, not in the “indebted”.

But somehow, people gravitate towards certain photographers when talking about some work; as I mentioned somewhere else, you almost cannot find an article about portraiture without the author mentioning August Sander. Now while some photographers do follow Sander’s tradition (in whatever way), many others don’t - and reducing portraiture after August Sander to just copies of his work is simply ridiculous. And the same goes for portraiture after Richard Avedon (who wants to argue that Richard Avedon is really only a copy of August Sander? Any takers?).

Thus, this is not, I think, how one would want to talk about this complex. Of course, some photographers do not add much (if anything) to what Sander or Avedon did, and in those cases it’s worthwhile to talk about it - but even then one needs to go a bit deeper.

Maybe in this light the second question can be rephrased a little: Given that Platon’s work has superficial similarities with Avedon’s what are we to make of the New Yorker’s decision to signed him on as a staff photographer? And, I think, that’s what Ofer was talking about when he wrote that he thought “the magazine should make a big break and choose someone surprising and distinct.”