“I never want to see another picture of ________.” Industry veterans share their pet peeves on themes in contemporary photography. In this series they present their “rule” along with five photographs that break the rule in an effort to show that great work is the exception to the rule."
I never want to see another ambiguous photo project of subjects from behind.
Contemplating the figure from behind used to be one of my very favorite art experiences. An early encounter with Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings unlocked a little sacred space in me, one where I could inhabit the figure of a monk, or a gentleman, and drink in the presented landscape from the figure’s perspective. It’s a rare visual pleasure for me to see the world from somewhere inside the protagonist, without focusing on the particularities of that person’s visage. Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World is an easy example to call to mind. Wyeth’s painting is notably constructed to place us in the path of the woman, to both admire her, and to gaze up the hill just as she does.
Because of my affection for this technique, I hate to see it misused, or simply overused. Photographic trends seem to come in waves, even as each photographer arrives at the current idea in their own way. I’ve recently encountered several portfolios featuring the backs of people’s heads. I can’t shake the feeling that artists seem to be using this vantage to reach for depth or mystery in a way that feels unsuccessful and thin.*
Enter Florian Van Roekel and his 2016 book, Le Collège, a portrait of a French middle school. Le Collège opens a portal to the private headspace of early adolescence. Van Roekel walks the viewer down the hall and past the gym, through the opaque layers of confusion and isolation that hover over a school day. Van Roekel, who is trained in social work, is unusually attuned to emotional dynamics. He reads the room. He takes the enclosed nature of the experience of each kid and unfurls it for us to witness. His portraits make visible those distinct, private, and wrenching feelings of getting up and going to middle school. I love this project. And nearly all of the subjects are shown from behind.
The first subject in the book is a girl, reaching up to dry her wet hair under a hand dryer. The photo is endearingly awkward. Throughout the book, Van Roekel repeatedly draws attention to the hair—the frizzy, the gelled, the carefully tended in the school bathrooms, the self-conscious self-grooming of youth.
Another photo shows a boy outside, walking towards the school; we see his backpack and hood, and three kids several meters ahead who are looking his way. Are they flirting? Are they laughing at him or merely with each other? His body language fronts confidence, but the self-assurance seems tenuous. More solitary figures show up in the halls and classrooms. There is a boy doubled over on the gym mat, and another leaning against the lockers with a jacket thrown over his head. When two figures show up together, making out, they are a closed circuit. A photograph that I find especially disorienting shows an impenetrable crush of girls, just hair and jackets and the crunch of the hallway.
Spending time inside the book, I begin to absorb the feelings of a lonely kid learning to navigate social space. I recall the feeling of being alone, yearning for acceptance, so sharply exacerbated by the feeling that those others, over there, seem to have found it.
Van Roekel’s photographs produce a wholly different effect for me from that of Friedrich’s and Wyeth’s paintings. Instead of illuminating the romantic landscape and the view beyond, the characters in these images stop short, dwelling in the internal landscape of youth. And although they’re obscured, each middle schooler is still presented as a complex individual. Where others might photograph from behind merely to conceal the face, Van Roekel does so in a way that reveals something carefully hidden inside those individuals.
*There are other notable contemporary exceptions. In particular, Zora Murff uses this technique powerfully, and by necessity, to retain the anonymity of his juvenile subjects in the series Corrections. Here is Gemma Goodale-Sussen’s excellent essay on that work.