Research/Enquiry- Julian Stallabrass – Ethnographic Photography

In his essay ‘What’s in a Face? Blankness and Significance in Contemporary Art Photography’, Stallabrass describes the relationship between the photographer and the subject, highlighting how the individual subject is represented in  ethnographic photography.

In an early section of the essay, Stallabrass describes how the contemporary portrait is usually set in a certain way that addresses the audience where factors such as standing still and looking straight ahead at the camera are all too familiar in a semi staged setting.  Stallabrass argues that the identity of the individual represented in a picture is not necessarily too different in character than the viewer.  Here Stallabrass points out how the audience relates to the picture in different ways depending on the demeanour of the subject.  This brings into consideration as to whether the subject is aware of the audience or whether there is a purpose to build a rapor with the viewer.  Stallabrass also describes how the connection felt from the individual varies from which the viewer can either see the subject in connection with themselves (in the moment) or in connection with the audience (acknowledging us as viewers).  I find Stallabrass makes an interesting argument as he uses language that makes the viewer think differently about the reasons why portraits are photographed in a certain way.  He also refers to expels of work and photographers  including Nan Goldin who are known for how they compose their images in an unusual sense.  Stallabrass describes this contributing factors behind ethnographic photography as a ‘puzzle’ and from the tone he speaks, he is slightly judgemental towards including photographic methods within art related practices.

I can sympathise with Stallabrass’ argument as he gives an example image of a boy standing on a beach, photographed by Rineke Dijkstra.  The black and white image featured in the essay has the subject looking directly at the audience with the sea behind him.  What Stallabrass is trying to persuade to us is that this style of portraiture that gives no facial expression and no particular movement is questioning in how the viewer can derive something from it.

Stallabrass then movies on to make another point that highlights how the audience is able to stereotype the subject from reading the characteristics of the individual.  Here, Stallabrass refers to fashion photography in the editorial industry in which he continues to describe how character can focus purely on the body language of the individual and this can be just as effective as using an emotional expression.  Here, Stallabrass asks the question ‘What kind of identification is had here?’ (Stallabrass. J. 2007. p. 85) which shows how Stallabrass is doubtful and almost sarcastic towards the concept stereotyping characters when they have been posed in a certain way.  He also mentions how images can create the illusion of portraying a character but in actuality, the audience does not really know the individual but are tricked into thinking they do nevertheless.

In conclusion, I find Stallabrass is very open about his ideas towards portraying individualistic subjects in ethnographic photography and this has influenced my understanding of identifying character in portraiture by using particular direction with the model subject.





Stallabrass. J (2007) What’s in a Face? Blankness and Significance in Contemporary Art Photography [Online] Cambridge, MIT Press, p. 71-85


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