When does a shtick become a shtick?


General Photography

So here’s the question: When does a shtick become a shtick? It might be easiest for me to explain this using an example. When I first saw Thomas Ruff’s jpegs I thought it was a very interesting idea, visually very intriguing, but I also had the nagging feeling that the whole series maybe didn’t contain much beyond the basic idea itself.

In particular, I was wondering where the series could go. I thought that once you applied the basic idea - blowing up small jpegs to huge sizes to see how the compression artifacts work with the images - the next stage could (or maybe should?) be to apply this all to something and make it work for something. By that I mean to create a series of work, which would still employ the “jpeg” technique, but which would not center on it. In other words, have images that are about something, where that something is not the fact that you get those funny patterns when you blow up badly compressed jpeg images.

I then saw the follow-up show (or maybe I should just call it the second jpeg show), which, essentially, was the same as the first. Same technique, different images, but that something else that I was hoping for I failed to detect. So I thought that while it was interesting to see how jpegs contain all those patters etc. once you’ve seen that, you have, well, seen it. Time to move on. And this is not the same as seeing a photograph for the second time, where you might discover something new every time. (Maybe the “jpegs” really suffer from being too cerebral?)

In any case, essentially, that is what I mean by the shtick becoming a shtick. I’m probably overly critical of Ruff’s jpegs, but when his second series looked just like the first one, I thought that the whole idea had turned into some sort of shtick (or gimmick if you prefer that word), where the medium - or the shtick - really is the message.

Of course, I could be mistaken about all of this, but I notice this kind of feeling fairly regularly, and it doesn’t even have to be related to photographic technique. For example, when I first saw Hendrik Kerstens’ work I really liked it. But now I’m wondering how many more bags, towels, or other contraptions I really need to see on Paula’s head, and I’m afraid my personal answer is: none.

A well known photographer once told me that an extremely well known and influential gallerist had told him that the road to success was to find one’s niche and then to simply produce work that way (think babies in “cute” dresses or Weimaraners or overly Photoshoped celebrities or whatever else you can think of). I suppose that works nicely if seen with the eyes of someone who knows how to sell work - after all, what appeals to people (and thus sells nicely) today should do so tomorrow, right?

But as someone interested in art as somebody’s personal expression, it strikes me as listening to music where the record is stuck on the player and is coming back to the coming back to the coming back to the coming back to the coming back to the same groove over and over again.

There is a bit problems with all of this, which makes this subject matter tricky to discuss. You could make your criteria of what a “shtick” is as broad as you want (so that, in the end, every photographer has her or his shtick). Making them too broad (just as making them too narrow) won’t help the debate, and that’s not what I’m after. Of course, since I haven’t defined what exactly I mean by “shtick” I’m not being too helpful. But then again, a little bit of common sense might help to find the right balance.

Of course, as the viewer who am I to tell Thomas Ruff or Hendrik Kerstens what to do? This is where it’s getting interesting (for me at least): I do not want to tell anyone what to do. Put simply, if somebody’s work makes me excited about what it does, and especially if it hints at there being more then I’d really love to see that. But, if that “more” fails to materialize then I think I have the right to be disappointed.