Where’s the laughter? Where is the joy?


General Photography


My collection of (vintage) tintypes contains a steadily growing number of smiling people. I pulled one out for Colin, who has been writing about how portraits are always so serious. He does have a point, though, doesn’t he? Colin just posted a new article entitled Death, Disease and Misery, asking “Do we like all those obscure photographers with their off-kilter shots and joyless examinations/explorations and investigations because we have something of the snob about us”? (more, updated below)

I don’t think I’d agree with Colin about whether photography typically is a joyless endeavour. Maybe I’m a snob, or maybe it’s because I’m German (and Germans don’t do comedy, vielen Dank) - or maybe both.

I do think that there is a fair amount of photography that contains quite a bit of humour actually. For example, looking through Hiroh Kikai’s Asakusa Portraits never fails to make me laugh (you need to read the captions for that) or at least smile. The same is true for some of Cindy Sherman’s recent work. Or a lot of Gilbert & George’s work.

But contemporary photography probably has a lot in common with rock music, as far as humour is concerned. It’s all very cool, but you don’t expect to go to a concert (exhibition) for the laughter (and people never seem to have any problems with the absence of laughter in rock music).

Still, you might still tremendously enjoy something even if you’re not laughing. And there there are tons of art forms - photography included - that contain a lot of joy, but very little - if any - laughter.

I once went to see the Pittsburgh Symphony perform Beethoven’s Third because I had free tickets - boy, I set myself up for a barrel of laughs there, did I? And I don’t even like Beethoven all that much! But I remember that the concert was really, really good, and the finale so incredibly exhilarating: I’ll never forget that split-second of silence after the last note, before the whole auditorium literally erupted in a huge, genuine ovation. People were screaming at the tops of their voices. Who would have thought, a bunch of people in suits and boring dresses, playing music by Ye Olde Beethoven, and so much unexpected joy. What do you know.

I know, I know, that’s probably not the kind of joy Colin is looking for. Beethoven, yawn! How snobby!

But maybe the whole idea that contemporary photography has to be just like a comedy club is a bit flawed?

It is true if you want to get “entertained in a light-hearted way” (to quote one of the people from Colin’s post) then probably the Deutsche Börse show is not the right place to go (disclaimer: I haven’t seen it). But what does that really say about the Deutsche B&ounl;rse show? If you want to get “entertained in a light-hearted way” you probably also wouldn’t want to go to, say, a Chinese restaurant (or any other restaurant, it’s just an example).

I know that I don’t necessarily look at photography for the laughter (even though that’s clearly a bonus). I look at it for the joy, and I think once you get past appearances a little, there is a tremendous amount of joy - and even some laughter - to be had in contemporary photography. Of course, not all of it is joy - there is a lot of work produced about pretty grim subject matters. But to make it sound as if it was all just “Death, Disease and Misery” - no, I don’t think so.

I’m sure everybody knows photography that makes you laugh - email me examples, I’ll be happy to add them here.

Update (21 April 2010): Chris Webb offers this photo.

Update (22 April 2010): Ian Aleksander Adams had a comment about “serious” portraiture (emphases in the original):

“I think people (and especially those who are trying really really hard to be serious art photographers) take serious portraits because they want their art to be considered serious. This is because examining art is not a logical endeavor and most patrons see a person with a silly expression and they think ‘this is a silly thing’ - it doesn’t matter if the photo is actually a silly thing, the human expression is just the most powerful signifier to the human mind.”