Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Boredom, Repetition, Inertia: Contemporary Photography and the Aesthetics of the Banal

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Boredom, Repetition, Inertia: Contemporary Photography and the Aesthetics of the Banal

Article excerpt

This essay explores the banal as a contemporary photographic aesthetic, examining banality in relation to notions of boredom and ennui. The "perceptual boredom" of the banal image--its resistance to emotional and critical engagement--is considered in relation to its content, style, and spatial structure.


In her classic text On Photography, Susan Sontag claims that photographic seeing has to be "constantly renewed with new shocks, whether of subject matter or technique, so as to produce the impression of violating ordinary vision" (31). For Sontag, photography represents a kind of "extraordinary vision," a perception that continues to inform a great deal of photographic criticism. The past decade, however, has seen the emergence of a different kind of photographic aesthetic. In the words of Neville Wakefield:

     Bad photography now reigns. [...] It makes for good art at a time
     when good photography witnesses only the flow of technical
     virtuosity into addictive banality. With the demise of photographic
     authority, the former province of "photography" with its silver
     gelatin bureaucrats and legislative decrees has become something
     much more like a republic of photographic practice. [...] Artists
     deliberately flout photographic convention to [...] practice
     without a license. (239)

The work I will be examining here reflects a more prosaic approach to photographic seeing--a fascination with the everyday, a preoccupation with the vernacular, an "ordinary," rather than an "extraordinary" vision. Rather than simply dismissing this as "bad photography," however, I would like to examine the banal as an aesthetic category, as a motif and a mode of reception, and to look critically at the embodiment of the ordinary that lies at its heart.

Photography's fascination with the ordinary is nothing new, but the crystallization of this fascination into a curatorial and editorial aesthetic is a relatively recent development. Such recent exhibitions as Reality Check at the Photographer's Gallery and Cruel and Tender at the Tate Modern introduce to a larger public a number of aesthetic preoccupations that have been visible in exhibition practice for the past decade. Grounded in the allied motifs of boredom, repetition, and inertia, these concerns are also evident in current critical writing on photography. "Banality" and "the banal" show up frequently in accounts of the work of Thomas Ruff, Martin Parr, Richard Billingham, and others; they also feature thematically in the retrospective attention paid to photographers like Robert Adams, William Eggleston, and Stephen Shore. Fashion and advertising have been quick to take up the mass appeal of the banal image (it surfaces in the "snapshot aesthethic" of photographers like Terry Richardson and Jeurgen Teller), and to push its boundaries; arguably, heroin chic was born out of the morbid allure of drug culture as seen through the eyes of photographers like Corrine Day, Davide Sorrenti, and Nan Goldin.

"Banality" and "the banal" are not easy terms to pin down with precision, and it is unlikely that there is any advantage to be gained in doing so. Although the term banal can be used to categorize a broad selection of work, it is not intended here as a totalizing description, nor as a pretext for eliding other important concerns--political, aesthetic, or otherwise--in the work of individual photographers. As Meaghan Morris points out, however, banality is part of the modern history of taste, and generally indicates a negative value judgement (12). Banality, she claims, is a sensibility intrinsic to modernity; certainly the history of photography is littered with comments on the banality of photographic images, most of them intended in a pejorative sense. As an aesthetic category, however, and as a means of challenging the prejudicial bias that still characterizes the term, banality, as I understand it, suggests something more specific to postmodernity and to contemporary photographic practice. …

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