Charlotte Cotton: Deadpan


In his summing up of my work for Assignment 1, my Tutor mentions the ‘diverse responses’ of the five subjects. He asks the question whether the diversity was deliberate or whether I photographed ‘whatever (I) could within constraints’. The answer is twofold; firstly ‘yes’ I shot whatever I could under these limiting circumstances, but perhaps, more importantly, I didn’t consider the required aesthetic. I didn’t consider the subtlety of the different subject’s expressions. I didn’t understand the Deadpan aesthetic.

No doubt realising this, my Tutor suggested I read Charlotte Cotton’s ‘The Photograph as Contemporary Art’, chapter three ‘Deadpan’.


Cotton suggests that deadpan, meaning impassive or expressionless, which became popular in the 1990s, was a reaction to neo-expressionistic art prevalent in the 1980s (1:81). An example of the neo-expressionistic childlike aesthetic is a work by Paula Rego.

Paula Rego. ‘Nanny, Small Bears and Bogeyman’ (1982)

Cotton tells us that a significant number of the key deadpan photographers received their education under Bernd Besher at Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf (1:82). Hence the style being characterised as Germanic. She goes on to say that the Germanic characterisation also refers to the 1920s and 1930s German photography known as ‘New Objectivity’ (Neue Sachlichkeit) and, interestingly, that August Sander is one of the forefathers of deadpanned photography.

When discussing Ed Burtynski’s work ‘Oil Fields #13’ She suggests that although the information being given appears to be impartial, there are often polemic issues raised (1:86). Cotton goes on to state that deadpan photography suggests the personal politics of the photographer, not by text or photographic style, but by the selection of subject matter and the anticipation of the viewer’s analysis of it.

Ed Burtynski. ‘Oil Fields #13’ (2002)

I am particularly drawn to the long exposure night photography of Dan Houldsworth (1:95). I have taken similar images myself. Not of roads but of Portsmouth harbour – the long lens view similarly reminds me of surveillance cameras.

Dan Houldsworth. ‘A Machine for Living: Untitled’ (1999)
Portsmouth Harbour at night

Cotton concludes the chapter by considering artists that use a deadpan style in portraiture. I hadn’t previously seen Sugimoto’s ‘Anne Boleyn’. I don’t agree with Cotton’s assertion that this image ‘dramatically curtails our expectations that we can know anything essential about a person through their photographic image ‘ (1:106). Firstly we learn that it is of a waxwork – waxworks aren’t made of unimportant people. Secondly, we are told her name – she is Anne Boleyn, Queen of England. Thirdly she is exquisitely dressed – she is obviously wealthy. And lastly, she is playing a beautiful musical instrument – not the pastime of plebs.

Sugimoto. Anne Boleyn (1999)

To compare Sugimoto’s ‘Anne Boleyn’ with Thomas Ruff’s ‘Portrait (A. Volkmann)’ seems odd. Ruff’s photograph offers few clues as to the sitter; whereas Sugimoto offers us plenty of information. To me, therefore, Ruff’s image is far more intriguing.

Thomas Ruff. ‘Portrait (A, Volkmann)’ (1998)

I was interested to read Cotton say the deadpan aesthetic makes us ‘feel our relationship to the people portrayed is direct and that as we look at them, they look back at us’ (1:109). This is certainly how I feel about my photograph of ‘Richard. The kiosk man with no Kiosk’.


Cotton, C., 2004. The Photograph As Contemporary Art. 3rd ed. London: Thames & Hudson.

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