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July 10, 2012

More on Olympic Pics, Eye Caramba and Why Bad Photography Such a Threat Right Now


It seems bad photos are the rage right now. Elaborating on their current post, Raw File blog tweets:

Giggling! Readers making comparisons between our piece on bad portraits … & Olympic portrait fiasco

Miles apart from the Joe Klamar Olympic photos, now notorious for their technical shortcomings, photographer Gordon Stettinius’ portrait studio shots of himself in the generic guise of the social misfit are “bad” in a thoroughly intentional way. So where’s the connection?

In his review of these self-described “cheesy” glossies at Raw File blog, Pete Brook writes:

The Mangini Studio Series is subversive in its irreverence and bending of an aesthetic most eyes have been trained to see as embarrassingly bad.

I think Pete puts his finger on something critical here. He’s talking about aesthetic “group think” — in this case, the widespread and trained expectation that a particular style of representation is inherently, rigidly and unquestionably good — or, short of the mark, simply detestable.

Returning to the Klamar photos for a moment, an incredible number of words have been expended for over a week now addressing why they were so bad. Much less discussed or understood, however, is why they’ve been such an intense focus of interest. My answer to this latter question, with Pete’s point is mind, is because of how — once published — they flew in the face of that “group think,” undermining not just the widespread notion, but the sanctity of a good and proper photo of an Olympic athlete.


Reading endless numbers of comments responding to the Klamar photos, you do find several instances in which readers explained the viral reaction as a “counter-aesthetic,” summed up by the phrase: “bad is good.” To put more meat on those bones, I think Klamar’s photos were so explosive — and Stettinius’ are so compelling and timely, as well — because they take what the cultural and commercial elite has defined as aesthetically good, pure and cool and then spills it out on the ground like so much Kool-Aid. Maddening to many, scintillating to the few is the way those photos defy PR culture and the slick, smooth surface of manufactured style and cool. Even if Klamar’s work was unintentionally shoddy, and then never should have made it past the editors, the photos rocked the internets to the extent they had so much to say about the rules.

NewImageStettinius is working the same territory. Sent out with letters as personal promotion, these photos, in a stroke, are a Facebook backlash, a rebuke to our PR/spin culture, a silent objection to personhood as a branding opportunity and also a wry affront to any remaining shred of a meritocracy.

Still, it’s all fine and safe, as long just as the photos remain confined to the art crowd .. and the internet fanatics. The thing to watch out for, though, is too much curiosity and too much questioning, to the point where we get all-too-interested in seeing through the facade and realize how much we’ve all been dweebs. God forbid, for the status quo, that the bad becomes interesting.

(photo 1 & 3: Gordon Stettinius via Photog Trades Dignity for Recognition With Awful Studio Portraits (Wired). photo 2: Joe Klamar/AFP.)

  • karen h.

    Ahhh, Awkward Family Photos goes mainstream. 

  • Stan B.

    Indeed, the Awkward Family Photo aesthetic has been around for quite some time, and half the fun is finding it in its native, natural state- not factory prepackaged for artistic consumption…


  • Scarabus

    I think it’s time to review Susan Sontag’s essay “Notes on ‘Camp’.” She deals in predictably sophisticated ways with many of the issues raised here.

    Something is campy if it’s “so bad it’s good,” like Ed Wood movies. Something can be campy either intentionally or unintentionally. If you’re going for the effect intentionally, though, you’d better be sure your audience gets the joke. Otherwise they’ll see nothing but the bad. It’s like irony. If the audience doesn’t get it, they take away a meaning that’s 180 opposite what you intended. Like those who want Swift’s “Modest Proposal” banned because they think it suggests literally that the English should eat Irish babies.

    Kitsch is something recognized as bad (in particular ways) but still valued for non-intrinsic reasons.

    As Michael suggests, though, this is risky terrain. For example, Marcel Duchamp was asked why he did only a couple of his “readymades” each year. He answered, in effect, that if he did it too often the technique would be debased from a challenge to art-establishment group-think to a mere gimmick.

    • Scarabus

      Just saw this video. So which is it: “straight” [sic] and unintentionally bad? or deliberately bad for the sake of parody?

  • bigeater

    The  Gordon Stettinius photos are completely different….the lighting is very professional and the posing and composition are also very conventional. It’s like hipsters going to the Sears Portrait Studio as a joke, nothing really innovative . The Olympic photos are genius because they express real emotion. 

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