The Well-Made Play
According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, the phenomenon that became known as “the well-made play . . . constructed according to certain strict technical principles, . . . dominated the stages of Europe and the United States for most of the 19th century and continued to exert influence into the 20th.” The EB goes on to say that “The technical formula of the well-made play, developed around 1825 by the French playwright Eugène Scribe, called for complex and highly artificial plotting, a build-up of suspense, a climactic scene in which all problems are resolved, and a happy ending.”
The term has long since become derisive, if not pejorative. Yet the well-made play survives into the 21st century not only in the theater but in film (just about every romantic comedy) and TV (just about every sitcom episode). It has its counterparts in film and TV melodramas, which draw on parallel formulae, darker in tone but no less predictable. Prose fiction writing has proved itself not immune to the lures of standardized plotting, dialogue, and characterization; think romance novels and thrillers as genres.
When I speak of the well-made photograph, then, I use that phrase not as praise but in a derogatory sense, to describe a recurrent type of photograph produced according to strict if unstated guidelines — and, beyond that, a recurrent type of photography project often (but not always) built around such pictures. I use trope similarly, in its meaning as “a common or overused theme or device: cliché.” These pictures and projects resemble each other to such an extent that, with minor adjustments, the images, their accompanying texts, sometimes even the project statements, are hot-swappable and interchangeable (as in the cases of Kelli Connell and Rick Odell, noted in the first post in this series). In short, they all look basically the same.
Déjà Vu, All Over Again
What do I mean when I say that the vast majority of contemporary work in photography looks the same? To begin with, I mean that, in a literal sense, these “well-made photographs” reiterate the same elementary formal structure:
- The primary subject (there’s rarely a secondary subject) receives central placement within the frame.
- The primary subject is the largest object within the frame.
- The primary subject is addressed frontally and head-on.
- The primary subject is closest to the picture plane within the frame.
- The primary subject is in sharpest focus.
- The primary subject contains the most intense highlights (in a b&w image) or the most intense colors, sometimes both.
Occasionally one encounters some ingenuity and invention in regard to framing, foreground-background relationships, selective depth of field, point of view, and other options, but contemporary cinematography far outstrips today’s still photography in its experimentation with such options. Even before one gets to the subject matter (not to mention the content) of the work, then, one confronts images that, from a strictly formal standpoint, got built according to a rigid and familiar template. (See, for example, this layout of the covers of recent back issues of Hotshoe International, a journal from the UK to which I contribute, and compare it to this layout of back issues of the women’s magazine Marie Claire.)
To be sure, many classic photographs (including many that I admire) employ that template (think Weston’s “Pepper No. 30″), as do many paintings and other works of graphic art. It’s a time-tested, comforting, and unimpeachable formula for the organization of visual images; the template embodies the traditions and conventions of everything from bespoke Renaissance painted portraiture to commercial-studio luggage photography for the Sears catalogue. However, once one starts to recognize this pattern, the percept becomes intrusive, and thus problematic.
Two summers ago, at the Dali International Photography Exhibition in mainland China’s Yunnan province, I and a group of westerners had as our guide and driver a young Chinese photo student who spoke passable English. (I’d served as the festival’s international consultant for that edition; its international component consisted entirely of extracts from exhibitions I’d curated previously for See+ Art Space/Gallery in Beijing). A day into our making the rounds of the festival’s offerings, Chen, our guide, asked me what I thought of the mostly contemporary Chinese work we’d engaged with so far.
I expressed to Chen the above observation, which took him aback. “What are you talking about?” he asked. “Just keep what I said in mind for the rest of the day, as we go through the shows,” I suggested, “and we can talk about it over dinner.” When we sat down later at our restaurant he looked crestfallen. “You’ve ruined it for me,” he said accusingly. “Now that pattern is all that I can see, one show after another.”
That had become my problem some time previously, so I’d cheerfully passed it along. (Misery does love company.)
Beyond the specifics of image construction, there’s a pervasive homogeneity of project conception that I find no less numbing, which we might call the well-made project. It manifests itself particularly, but by no means exclusively, in projects with some documentary or sociological premise. The concept gets elaborated thus:
- Identify a literal subject matter. Just about anything will do: teenagers in their bedrooms, veterans suffering from PTSD, discarded purses from your local thrift shop that you’ve frozen in blocks of ice . . .
- In their own environments or in some version of the studio, photograph 40 examples of your chosen subject matter (preferably using the image-structure template described above).
- If your subjects are human, transcribe interviews with them, or get them to write their own stories to accompany the images. If they’re animals, or inanimate objects, find apropos text fragments or create your own.
- Draft an artist’s statement explicating the significance of what you’ve chosen to point your camera at.
- Voila! C’est fait!
I outlined this also to Chen, who, after putting it to the test the next morning, appeared even more dejected at lunch. “Why do all these pictures look the same?” he asked, and “Why do all these projects have the same structure?” “School,” I answered.
Good Old Golden Mean Days
According to the bio notes accompanying these shows — some bilingual, some translated on the fly for us by Chen — almost all the photographers whose work we’d viewed had gone to school for photography, whether in mainland China, in Hong Kong, in Taiwan, or in Shanghai. (There was work on view also from elsewhere in southeast Asia — I recall a group show from Singapore — that seemed to come from the same cookie-cutter process.)
I don’t claim substantial familiarity with Asian photo education generally or Chinese photo-ed specifically, certainly nothing comparable to my knowledge of photo-ed in the west. But regardless of the varying political systems that govern them, art academies everywhere derive genetically from the original model of the French Academy, of which Albert Boime wrote in 1971, “ . . . a common-sense principle was invoked by the Academy over and over again . . . : Control instruction and you will control style.” (Emphasis in the original.) School is school.
(Rick Santorum is certifiably dumb as a post; the very thought of him occupying the Oval Office drove me to contemplate emigration. But even a stopped clock is right twice a day. Compare the required readings from any 20 randomly chosen BFA and MFA programs from the U.S., make a list of the 30 most frequently assigned texts, and tell me his claim that colleges are “indoctrination mills” has no basis.)
I do know enough about the photo-ed system in mainland China to confirm that their faculties and administrators don’t hype their programs with self-flattering claims of ”challenging our habitual ways of seeing” and practicing or encouraging “transgression,” “inclusivity,” “diversity,” “difference” (not to mention differance), or the rest of the trendy blather. Nor do they immerse their students in pomo theory and jargon. Very little of what we in the west think of as the medium’s literature has received translation into Chinese. Few Chinese photo teachers speak English, few have studied in the west, and few mainland photo programs have exchange programs or other interaction with their western counterparts.
Still, like their colleagues elsewhere (indeed, everywhere), they manage to crank out grads whose projects are indistinguishable from each other and, except for the specifics of Chinese subject matter and cultural reference points, identical to work from beyond China’s borders. One can only explain the remarkable similarity between photography by academically trained picture-makers from mainland China and the work of their foreign equivalents by pointing to the underlying assembly-line educational systems that ingested, digested, and excreted them, for — much like the functional industrial structures studied typologically by the Bechers, who bear some responsibility for the phenomenon under consideration here — such pedagogical methodologies fundamentally resemble each other, minor variances aside.
(For an index of links to all posts in this series, click here.)
This post supported by a donation from the Estate of Lyle Bongé.