July 10, 2012

More on Olympic Pics, Eye Caramba and Why Bad Photography Such a Threat Right Now


It seems bad photos are the rage right now. Elaborating on their current post, Raw File blog tweets:

Giggling! Readers making comparisons between our piece on bad portraits http://www.wired.com/rawfile/2012/0 … & Olympic portrait fiasco http://abcnews.go.com/US/slideshow/worst-olympic-portraits-16716046

Miles apart from the Joe Klamar Olympic photos, now notorious for their technical shortcomings, photographer Gordon Stettinius’ portrait studio shots of himself in the generic guise of the social misfit are “bad” in a thoroughly intentional way. So where’s the connection?

In his review of these self-described “cheesy” glossies at Raw File blog, Pete Brook writes:

The Mangini Studio Series is subversive in its irreverence and bending of an aesthetic most eyes have been trained to see as embarrassingly bad.

I think Pete puts his finger on something critical here. He’s talking about aesthetic “group think” — in this case, the widespread and trained expectation that a particular style of representation is inherently, rigidly and unquestionably good — or, short of the mark, simply detestable.

Returning to the Klamar photos for a moment, an incredible number of words have been expended for over a week now addressing why they were so bad. Much less discussed or understood, however, is why they’ve been such an intense focus of interest. My answer to this latter question, with Pete’s point is mind, is because of how — once published — they flew in the face of that “group think,” undermining not just the widespread notion, but the sanctity of a good and proper photo of an Olympic athlete.


Reading endless numbers of comments responding to the Klamar photos, you do find several instances in which readers explained the viral reaction as a “counter-aesthetic,” summed up by the phrase: “bad is good.” To put more meat on those bones, I think Klamar’s photos were so explosive — and Stettinius’ are so compelling and timely, as well — because they take what the cultural and commercial elite has defined as aesthetically good, pure and cool and then spills it out on the ground like so much Kool-Aid. Maddening to many, scintillating to the few is the way those photos defy PR culture and the slick, smooth surface of manufactured style and cool. Even if Klamar’s work was unintentionally shoddy, and then never should have made it past the editors, the photos rocked the internets to the extent they had so much to say about the rules.

NewImageStettinius is working the same territory. Sent out with letters as personal promotion, these photos, in a stroke, are a Facebook backlash, a rebuke to our PR/spin culture, a silent objection to personhood as a branding opportunity and also a wry affront to any remaining shred of a meritocracy.

Still, it’s all fine and safe, as long just as the photos remain confined to the art crowd .. and the internet fanatics. The thing to watch out for, though, is too much curiosity and too much questioning, to the point where we get all-too-interested in seeing through the facade and realize how much we’ve all been dweebs. God forbid, for the status quo, that the bad becomes interesting.

(photo 1 & 3: Gordon Stettinius via Photog Trades Dignity for Recognition With Awful Studio Portraits (Wired). photo 2: Joe Klamar/AFP.)

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Michael Shaw
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