The Meaning and Definition of Deadpan Photography

The Meaning and Definition of Deadpan Photography
Photo by: Duha127 via

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There’s a high chance that, if you are mildly close to the photographic world, you’ve encountered this term before. But what exactly is Deadpan Photography anyway? Don’t worry, that’s exactly what I’ll try to cover in this easy-to-digest piece of educational photography article.

So What Exactly Is Deadpan Photography?

So, let’s start from the beginning, what is “Deadpan” and how it became a photographic genre? Upon such a quirky word, some etymological aid could help us get a better understanding of what this is all about. In strictly linguistic terms, “Deadpan” could be easily defined as “an emotionless facial expression”. But how does this relate with such an expressive mean as photography is?

Digging deeper into it, deadpan isn’t a subconscious dull expression but a highly deliberate one. In literal terms, it is both an adjective or adverb used to refer to the precise action in which a person “puts” an expressionless face showing no emotions or feelings at all (ISE, 2020). Some call it “poker face”, some others could say Kristen Stewart is great at using this expressive resource. Another good example could be the permanent expression used by Peter Stormare in Fargo (1996) when playing Gaear Grimsrud. After getting the general idea of the look, more and more examples will just pop into your mind.

When somebody is deadpan, they have a dull face with an absolute blank look. Expressionless faces are all what Deadpan is all about, and for some reason, we find it mysterious, interesting, and even aesthetic to some point. Is there something else behind emotionless or impassive blank faces? Or is it that we just are intrinsically moved by seriously calm and emotionally detached facial expressions?

Early Beginnings of Deadpan in Photography

Defined the word deadpan, let’s get to connecting the dots behind the contemporary photography genre that made us realize how aesthetically interesting emotionless expressions can be.

Usually, the work of the Bechers is linked to the “Kunstakademie Düsseldorf” or the Düsseldorf School; a topic which deserves an entry of its own without a doubt. In a nutshell, this aesthetic movement could be seen as a refined response to what some American photographers did around the early twentieth century. More precisely, those from the group f/64 movement were obsessed with detaching from the eerie pictorial attempts from early photography. Do you see? Everything is connected!

Back to the Bechers, which were Bernd (1931 – 2007) and Hilla Becher (1934–2015), were two German photographers best-known for their series of industrial buildings images. These usually examined similarities and differences in structure and appearance. They photographed what they found, and did not intervene in their findings; something very similar to what happens with scientific photography. Or the direct photography from the Group f/64 movement. This particular fixation influenced other photographers’ work like Candida Höfer, Thomas Ruff, and Andreas Gursky.

Back to deadpan, it is quite easy to get an emotionless expression from an industrial building and even certain architectural findings. But what if these findings were impersonating certain dull expressions of us human beings? Or more logically, what if certain photographers were simply getting moved by these inert objects just like if they were dialoguing with a massive living being? What if this aura could be found across both human-made artifacts and human beings?

Answering the previously raised questions could lead us to a better understanding of our presence in this world. Regularly, sophisticated creations with very high levels of Poiesis take all the credit when it comes to visual analysis. But wouldn’t it also be fair to turn our sight to simple and honest manifestations of human creative will?

Bechers’ work was unfairly labeled as boring, old-fashioned, and documentary only. But for them, their photographs meant the preservation of childhood, history, and ultimately memories. But also it meant a high satisfaction for them to have these high-quality images that rendered reality in a way that was just new to them; not to mention that photography easily achieves what our eyes and brain simply can’t.

Proper Deadpan Photography

If empty expressions on buildings could signify so much, how wouldn’t they be when shown or expressed by people around us? Contrary to what you’ve already heard before, Deadpan benefits from placing subjects at the centre of the frame. But not only that, it also nurtures from a direct approach towards subjects and above all, from emotionless expressions. It is regular to find ID-photo-like posing in some of these portraits. But in some cases, like in certain pieces from Elina Brotherus, faces could appear looking away from the camera while still retaining the Deadpan vibe.

The aim behind Deadpan imagery is to capture subjects in an honest, direct, and objective way. No joy, nor sorrow. Although, this is open to debate if we take into account how moving can these images be. Some say Deadpan itself is a mood of its own and is regularly used by photographers to transmit some degree of indifference when seen (Kantilaftis, 2014).

I highlight Deadpan as honest because it tries to show us how subjects, both people and objects, are. Some photographers take this even further and avoid giving colour too much relevance. Why? Because colour is quite powerful for transmitting emotions but is also present in our everyday lives. Therefore, some could say that black and white steps away from the overall Deadpan spirit. Deadpan images usually trigger a lot of questions and give us images that allow us to see the world in a less biased way.

The Theme Around Direct Objectivity

Thanks to myth debunking, we humans have been able to gain many precise answers and comprehension about the world we live in. And through that rational process, we’ve been gaining better and better knowledge as time goes by. If we could agree on one thing, it is that science gives us an enlightened way for clearing the murky nuances veiling the unknown. And this relationship with the world and its mysteries is not a new thing.

Said that historical modernity was obsessed with gaining the most objective perspective of the world. History has taught us better, and we now know that deep understanding through subjective interpretations is also very much needed in our scientific journey.

Around the early twentieth century, an artistic movement arose under the flag name of Neue Sachlichkeit, or “The New Objectivism”. In a nutshell, this movement was all about detaching and even rejecting the self-involvement and romantic longings of the expressionists. The Weimar intellectuals behind it made a call to arms for public collaboration, engagement, and rejection of romantic idealism.

Eventually, the ideas behind the Neue Sachlichkeit knocked the doors of photography and shifted the pictorial paradigm into what we now know as New Photography or Direct Photography. Led by Albert Renger-Patzsch and August Sander, the “New Photography” movement gave a sharply focused, documentary quality to the photographic art where previously the self-consciously poetic had held sway (Michalski, 1994). Also, Karl Blossfeldt’s botanical photography is often described as a variation of the movement.

Contemporary Examples of Deadpan Photography

Jitka Hanzlová (1958 – )

Her work expands the boundaries of what we should consider as portraiture imagery. She combines contexts, cultures and of course identities in her quest for defining what belonging is. The keen eye and high level of empathy give us a different perspective of the concept of emotion. Her images benefit from the Deadpan aesthetic, but they also allow us to gain a better perspective of how powerful the quotidian surroundings can be.

Rineke Dijkstra (1959 – )

Famous for her different series of deadpan portraits, she tends to showcase one individual while shot straight-on in the centre of the frame. Many of the subjects she decides to photograph are in a liminal state of transition in their lives. From childhood to adulthood, from pregnancy to motherhood or even from one stage to another in educational terms. The trick is to leave out any life and personality traits through Deadpan expressions to make us stop and think more about who the person in front of us was portrayed by her. Who is this girl? What kind of life is she having? What was so meaningful about her that made Rineke photograph her?

Ilkka Halso (1965 – )

Sure, nature can give us plenty of direct visual studies. But what about going nocturnal and using available artificial light for these? Not all his photos are like this of course, but that’s what got my attention the most from this brilliant Finish photographer. Throughout his career, he has focused on protecting, restoring, and understanding the anatomy of nature. His photographic series visually explores how we as a culture must develop new approaches in perceiving as well as reevaluating the natural resources we commonly take for granted.

Alec Soth (1969 – )

Prolific indeed, and famous for photographing a mixture of still lifes, portraits and landscapes. In each photograph, a thick sense of distance is easy to perceive. People in his photographs always feel like they are about to tell you the greatest story of their lives while still retaining the deadpan attitude, brilliant is short to describe this achievement. My favourite shot from his, one that I can’t stop looking at, is this one for sure.

Elina Brotherus (1972 – )

She approaches the subject of motherhood from an unusual perspective when considering other photographers that have placed their attention on this topic. She focuses on non-motherhood by portraying infertility and uses herself as her model.

One of the main aspects of her work is that it is not entirely certain whether the staging is sincere or not. The series that focuses more on this topic is “Annunciations”, in which the artist shows a series of “false announcements”, or false alarms about the pregnancy. Regardless of your thoughts on the images, her works have an extremely complex discourse that is worth appreciating.

Aino Kannisto (1973 – )

She uses photography to deal with emotions and communicate the experience of existing touchingly. Similarly to Cindy Sherman and Francesca Woodman, she plays different fantasies and roles through staged self-portraits in which she aims to capture her fears, sufferings or any other imaginary situations. Deadpan doesn’t necessarily mean unproduced or low-quality, it just means dull or emotionless, and she carefully prepares her photographs to seem as real as possible.

What to Consider in a “Deadpan” Project

I’m quite aware that systematising brilliant ideas into meaningful and aesthetic concepts are a challenge. Said that trends, styles, and genres could be understood in terms of their functionality, and Deadpan could be an innovative way for various photographers desperate to overcome creative blocks.

If you are tempted into experimenting a bit with this particular visual orientation, consider the following. Deadpan is all about triggering questions by presenting finely-framed attitudes that escape from our emotional understanding. Capturing, staged or not, that liminal state in which facial expressions can’t be easily catalogued is a nice way for systematizing the Deadpan look.

Bonus, appreciation on “Boyhood”

Meaningful photographs are capable of transmitting something that could be translated into storytelling. Or at least into something that triggers our attention, curiosity or imagination. Hence the recurrent use of the word “aesthetic” in the aforementioned paragraphs since it wakes up from anaesthetised states produced in our everyday lives. And when it comes to storytelling, there’s no better format than the one given by cinema.

Movies are all about telling stories, and I’m not sure if there is a flawless recipe for telling a story, but the path of the hero explained by Joseph Campbell seems like a good one. And if you are looking for something more ingenious, then Dan Harmon’s story circle might be interesting for you. So, when it comes to movies, we all expect that something will happen as it runs in time.

And that’s the beauty of this movie filmed over short periods from 2002 to 2013 by Richard Linklater where nothing happens at all. Well, it isn’t like a blank screen with nothing going on of course. It’s an honest story in which one patiently observes, with the aid of filmography, the 12 years of a regular childhood compressed in 165 minutes of regular time. Nothing extraordinary happens in this prolonged Deadpan narrative state. Nothing extraordinary, just like in our regular lives, and it teaches us about feeling OK with our ordinary existences.