A Trip to Olan Mills Portrait Studio Down
in the Basement of the Midtown Kmart
What struck me initially about the photograph - a group portrait produced collaboratively by the nine artists of the MFA Class of 2009 at NYU, for use as the announcement for their thesis show as well as a memento of their two-year association together - was all the multi-tasking and apparent savvy on display. Their plan was conceived in advance of meeting up at the Olan Mills Portrait Studio, located in the basement of the Kmart in midtown Manhattan, to have their portrait made. Close examination of the image confirms that they are all dressed much more conventionally than usual. In fact, they look downright collegiate. Everyone except Mila is wearing a button-down shirt with a collar, over which they wear a V-neck or crew-neck sweater. (She's wearing a mock-turtleneck-style pull-over.) Everyone's hair is neatly combed. They are fresh-faced, in a breezy kind of way, full of rosy glow and youthful bloom. They could be a Gap ad. They could be a blended family from a retro television sitcom. They could be a gospel group. Everyone seems happy, relaxed, and natural. No one looks remotely like an artist. By all appearances, there's not a non-conformist in the bunch.
The first time I saw the photograph I did a double take. My immediate response was, Geez, everybody looks so good. So good, that I wondered if I had been flat-out oblivious to their charms, (Had I not noticed before? How beautiful and wholesome and clean-cut they look!) I immediately turned from the photograph to scan their actual faces, per chance to see them again for the first time. I was on a veritable reconnaissance mission to discover those same beaming beautiful benign faces, the ones that gaze from the photograph and project such sweetness as to suggest they've never tasted anything but milk and honey. Of course, those faces were nowhere to be seen. Sitting around the seminar tables, shuffling through the business of that Friday morning, the group bore no resemblance to the "Stepford" kids who came to life at the Olan Mills Portrait Studio. Instead of those blissed out students and their manicured similitude, the artists who manufactured that image are, in actuality, much more casually disheveled and uncoordinated.
The photograph is typical of the portrait work turned out by franchise photographic studios that set up shop in big box stores and malls across America. The same corporate entities travel the school circuit every year to produce the official school portraits that every child's parents can order in sets, so all the relatives can have one. Descendant from 19th century photographic studios and itinerant photographers alike, Olan Mills Portrait Studio is probably the best known of these commercial franchises. One reason why they are so popular is that they know how to make people look good. Olan Mills photographers all seem to possess a knack for working with babies and children (and, obviously, graduate students, too), for getting them to cooperate and to deliver on cue their most charming smiles and gestures. The "look" of their portraits is consistent - flattering light, soft backgrounds - and the repertoire of poses and expressions they use to communicate emotional buoyancy are synonymous with the way we're taught to compose ourselves for the camera. From one decade to the next, their photographs have been indexical with school days, family life, growing up, and the American dream.
So engrained is the look and style of an Olan Mills photograph in American life, that it speaks fluently about culture - about being a kid, about being in a family, about life at school, about middle-class values, about times and experiences that are supposed to be flush with innocence. Olan Mills photographs function not only as icons of American cultural experience, but markers of personal history where more shadowy experiences might also be stored - anxieties that follow us from childhood throughout adult life; anxieties about self-image, how we see ourselves, how we imagine the world sees us. We have good sense of the Olan Mills experience and what kinds of clients the franchise photographers typically serve. What does it mean, however, when graduate artists go to the Olan Mills Portrait Studio, ready for their group close-up?
The collaborative, commemorative photograph pokes playfully at the distinction between high and low art; their art, versus what comes out of the Olan Mills franchise, the latter known for portraits that are absolutely standardized in such a way that their predictability becomes a measure of their value. The MFA students, about to graduate into professional practice, enlist the aid of an "operator" (as photographers were once called), an actual photographer who works for the franchise studio, who no doubt has a "skill-set" and a marketable talent, so to speak, and yet who may or may not regard their job as an "artistic practice." Their name is never officially recorded or attached to the process. These terms of engagement alone suggest the potential for self-conscious reflection on the part of the collaborative artists, in relation to the Olan Mills operator, about their own practice and position within the production line.
Seen one way, their Olan Mills group portrait, served up home style, is indexical with the idea of school days - that is, all the school days, from kindergarten cribs to graduate school crits - as one lump sum. That's like nestling an MFA degree into a roster of normal things, right alongside Mom's apple pie. We appreciate the wellspring of humor that results from this gesture. They are walking out of NYU with a "terminal degree." No more being a student, no more being part of a class, no more graduation. That's it. Time to reinvent yourself, again. It's a joke, right? Well, yes and no.
Seen another way, their group portrait functions to suggest or recall something about family life. It reads less like NYU MFA Class of 2009, than a sit-com or cinematic version of a family group - The Brady Bunch, or Eight is Enough or the singing von Trapp family from the sugary film version of their life, The Sound of Music, all of which involved families with lots of children. Hold on tight to your dream. Are we dealing with a "Peter Pan syndrome"? Does this group portrait portend a collective desire to retreat into the Never Never Land of perpetual youth? Does our creative crew want to delay forever their entry into the so-called real world?
The group, posed by the Olan Mills representative/photographer/operator to project a collective image of success, radiates optimism. Nothing is revealed pertaining to the anxieties of being an artist, the debt burden they've taken on, the difficulties of a creative life, the on-going challenges of living through "our times." One member of the group, Peter Clough, suggested they used the Olan Mills form ironically, but the "content" is intended to be sincere. The content to which he referred derives from experiences these artists have discovered in acts of collaboration, in conversations, in exhibitions, and in other communicative aspects of shared studio life that have fostered emotional depth. The Olan Mills style, as it turns out, is perfectly suited to conjuring and projecting familial bonds. The artists' sense of solidarity - translated visually as conformity - piggybacks on cultural clichés that we're all one big happy family, but at the same time it is mobilized to express the depth of feeling they share for one another. They reveal themselves, but within the context of a spoof. They deploy the iconic value of the Olan Mills photograph as a means to represent the communal dimensions of their life experiences together (objectively) and to express their feelings (subjectively). The result is a photograph that is exquisitely Postmodern in its chameleon functions. It is simultaneously ironic and expressive, iconic and indexical.
It's ironic for artists to turn over the means of production of their imagery to the photographer-technician who works for Olan Mills and who is trained to make everyone look good according to standardized aesthetic conventions. It's ironic to employ a big franchise operation whose portraits don't figure in art discourse to make portraits that will circulate as art. The irony resonates from this group portrait to another photographic work made more than twenty years ago.
David Robbins produced "Talent," 1986, a group portrait of a dozen and a half artists who were his peers - Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, Ashley Bickerton, Jennifer Bolande, Richard Prince, Louise Lawler, and others. Emerging in the early to mid '80s, they were seen as "the next group" and they were associated, in one way or another, with what was known as "commodity art" and the "Pictures" generation. Their art was heavily influenced by the media and mass culture and, significantly, they were among the first artists to consider themselves Postmodern. The conceptual dimension of Robbins' work underscored the equivalence of the artist as "talent" by appropriating the ready-made form of the "head shot," used by models, actors, singers, and other creative types, as a disposable means of advertisement (following Cindy Sherman's lead with her "Film Stills.")
The stable of artists represented by Robbins in "Talent" were all incredibly young, wholesome and beautiful. Each had the look of celebrity, whether or not they possessed any talent. There was irony in Robbins' set of black and white photographic portraits. His work spoke about the shared strategies of a generation of artists who were as influenced by Conceptual Art as they were by Marcel Duchamp, who questioned art's relation to capital, and who shared a proclivity for appropriation and critique. By using a photographic format associated with marketing, Robbins clearly framed the artist and the artwork within the discourse of commodification.
Robbin's "Talent" and the untitled photograph produced collaboratively by the NYU MFA Class of 2009, are remarkably similar in their self-conscious appropriation of a pre-existing photographic product that is relatively valueless. Black and white glossy headshots had no artistic value in the '80s and the same might be said now for Olan Mills Studio portraits. Though valueless in a monetary sense, each product is replete with its own language and cultural currency. Both Robbin's "Talent" and the untitled collaborative portrait produced by the NYU artists signify art's acquisitive energy; its proclivity to colonize all available forms of cultural production; and its ongoing interest in projecting the artist as a kind of cultural flaneur who strolls flea markets, box stores and malls alike for inspiration and material.
If the artists who emerged in the '80s ever wondered what future generations would bring to the table to distinguish themselves, or what would come along to trump institutional critique and the ironic maneuvers intended to reveal layers of cultural simulacra, I would say that the intent of the NYU graduates to introduce expressive elements coded as sincere, represent the very sort of rupture that might have been difficult to envision at the height of Postmodern rapture twenty years ago.
What might we regard as the "sincere" quotient in the 2009 photograph? The collaborative group is quite vocal on the subject of their affection for one another. They genuinely like each other and the Olan Mills style is perfectly pitched to produce the visual synthesis that underwrites an expression of familiar and the familial values. Robbins' photographic work projects the rising artists of the day as a stable of stars who are related but ultimately indifferent to one another (they are presented as a sequence of individual heads shots rather than a cozy group brought together in a single frame). He characterizes the fame of the '80s artists (and their desire for such) with a spectrum of effects that identify them as celebrity personas, and suggests overlaps between art and show business and advertising (think: SoHo meets Hollywood meets Madison Avenue). The NYU collaborative group chooses the family as its model. They go for what might possibly emerge as a new model of practice: the homespun artist who values coziness and whose center of gravity is thoroughly personal and communal.
I write this text as the art world is precariously pitching about in the turmoil of economic meltdown. The second gilded age, as they're calling it, has just crash-landed and we stand in the midst of a veritable debris field. Don't look now, but it's likely that the personal and communal model promoted in the Olan Mills model photograph points to a new variant of future-practice. We'll check back in about twenty years.
- Jan Avgikos, Newburgh, NY