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Photogeliophobia: Fear of Funny Photography (A Diagnosis)

Tim Davis
published in Aperture Magazine, 2013

Master, should I tell the usual jokes
 which always make the audience laugh?…

: Don't you dare, unless you want to make me sick.

-Aristophanes, The Frogs

I taught my first photography class in the batty aftermath of 9/11. Muddling through a few sad sack sessions, I decided the only way to deal with the utter upheaval was with humor. I showed slides of photographs that approached the world with levity and joy, starting with Helen Levitt and ending with Joel Sternfeld, and asked the students to go out and scan the world for some such thing. They were particularly roused by Sternfeld's American Prospects, in all of its grandiose lighthearted glory, giggling at the cycloramic puns of color, the sense that a photograph could be great story your wiseacre uncle would tell, from a world radically more sane than the one outside. I got a cell phone call just as the class broke up. Still a novelty to me, I fumbled for the phone like a man who's lost a live grenade in the lining of his coat, only to hear Joel Sternfeld on the other end. He asked if I could teach his class in a few weeks and before I could even agree, I told him I'd just showed his work to my students, which received, I overstated, quoting A Thousand Clowns—one of my favorite movie comedies—"outright prolonged laughter." There was a conspicuous silence on the other end. Not the silence of a dropped mobile network, even this novice knew, but the one Emily Dickinson described as "Wrecked, Solitary, Here." Joel rang off. I never taught his class.

(Enter a blind old man with a violin)

Mozart: Play us a little Mozart, would you?

(The old man plays an aria from Don Giovanni. Mozart laughs loudly.)

Salieri: And you can laugh at that?

Mozart: Oh come, Salieri,

Don't you think it's funny?

Salieri: No, I don't.
When Raphael's Madonnas are defiled
 by worthless daubers, I do not find it funny. When a contemptible buffoon dishonors
 Alighieri with his parodies, I do not find it funny.

-Pushkin, Mozart and Salieri

There are no published case studies of Geliophobia, the fear of laughter, but the History of Visual Art mostly is one. Despite how unbearable life would be without it, artists get anxious letting laughter leak into their work. I blame the Modern—the period when novelty and restraint unseated art's social function— but its scarcity runs at least back to the Romans, the last people not to care if their art wasn't taken seriously. At the Yale Art Gallery there are three large banks of study slides: "Painting," "Sculpture," and "Minor Arts." Professional photographers, condemned by Baudelaire as a society of "poor madmen," who "rushed, like Narcissus, to contemplate its trivial image on the metallic plate," feel the need to stay serious and avoid having too much fun.

Even the funniest of photographers, such as Oscar Gustave Rejlander, the jaunty Swedish artiste who used a cat's eyes as a light meter, felt the need to garnish his pie-in-the-face jokiness with a sprig of scientific inquiry. His 1872 double self-portrait with Crying Child was made to prove that laughter and tears were indistinguishable in a still photograph. He sent a stereo card of the two images to Charles Darwin, who had hired him to make plates for The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Rejlander was a great clown, who loved to appear in his own constructed images in gaudy costumes, and whose cut and paste techniques would enable generations of amateurs who felt no anxiety at all about expressing silliness. But Rejlander was concerned about not being taken seriously. His funniest pictures are about laughter, hiding the humor behind theoretical comedic masks. And on February 12, 1863, he delivered a speech at the South London Photographic Society entitled "An Apology for Art Photography," in which he sounded quite humbled: "A funny thing it is that some people actually prefer the chalkings of a boy on the walls and shutter to the finest photographic pictures! Just think how superior are the mackerel and ship at sea we find drawn on the pavement in coloured chalks! I am ambitious, too--I wish I was in Dixie! I do! I do!"

"The secret source of Humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in Heaven."

-Mark Twain

I met Anna Gaskell at the opening of her 1995 MFA Thesis show, and was so struck by her beauty and poise that I squirted away like a watermelon seed from our brief introduction and sidled up to the work on the wall. Here were images of this elegant Des Moinesian's face contorted like a Harold Edgerton apple, with fluids flowing from orifices, and the human body appearing anything but impermeable. With a fast strobe, Gaskell had photographed herself sneezing, yawning, and orgasming. I commenced giggling. These pictures were pure slapstick—the purest form of humor—where the simple sanctity of the body must be defiled. The reason the Three Stooges were never as funny as Buster Keaton, say, or Harold Lloyd, was that there was nothing sacred being abused. I decided Gaskell was destined to become the Lucille Ball of contemporary photography, the purest of pinups capable of utter mayhem.

When I did begin to see her work on gallery walls, at her exhbition, Wonder, in 1997, I kept looking around the room for Lucille Ball. The pictures, staged narratives using girl models, still contained a delirious obscurity, and a sense that something was askew in the world, but mystery had replaced buffoonery. The pictures felt less risky to me, and I guessed that Gaskell had discreetly dropped the humor from her work when it entered the public conversation. Gaskell did eventually exhibit the sneezing pictures at the Aldrich Museum in 2006, and published an interview about them: "I was thinking about how as a kid I had interpreted a Bible story where the prophet Elisha brings a boy back to life and the boy sneezes seven times. I had overlooked the miracle and thought that sneezing had saved his life!" And I had overlooked the spiritual pantomime these pictures were performing. The photographer wasn't afraid of humor, but this viewer was reliant on it.

If you tell a joke in the forest, but nobody laughs, was it a joke?

-Steven Wright

For the photogeliophobic photographer, California is the easiest place to hide. In my short tenure there, I found humorlessness as ubiquitous as sunlight, and as bad for the complexion. But in the late 1960s, a levity overtook a set of thoughtful photographic artists that still serves as an inoculation against the congenital photogeliophobia. I wish I wasn't the one hired here to discuss William Wegman's Crooked Finger, Crooked Stick video from 1972. I wish it were Glen Beck ("Comedy is comedy"), or E.M.Cioran ("I cannot contemplate a smile without reading in it: Look at me! It's for the last time.") But I'm holding the bag. If this essayist were forced to explain California to a bloom of alien geographers, I'd show them Crooked Finger, Crooked Stick. "Wow, what a neat stick. Boy is it crooked. Oh, that's nothin', you oughta see my finger." In slurry black and white a credulous voice —the voice of a totally nice, totally dumb guy— compares the crookedness of a finger to the crookedness of a stick. This is a work of art made in a world with no anxiety, no pain or fear. It is so unwary, that thousands of years of philosophy melt away in its presence. It is not even absurd, since absurdus, in Latin, means "out of tune," and Crooked Finger hovers in a universe without dissonance. No Old Testament, no Thomas Hobbes, no Antonioni. It radiates instead with the straightforward hopefulness of the science lab. Where Rejlander hid under the mantle of seriousness in his experiment, Wegman trundles into the banality of the truly experimental. The pressure is off. If it doesn't work, heck, we'll just try it again. No progress. No Decisive Moment.

Forget that the video was actually made in Wisconsin, and that Wegman hails from New England; he is a California artist, and this is California art: sunny, unsentimental, unreflective and more than a little dumb. These also turn out to be the perfect growing conditions for humorous photography. It is in this climate that Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan started rifling through corporate and government archives for their 1977 book, Evidence, discovering 8x10 glossies of unparalleled unintentional silliness. The pictures evince one of photography's purest conundrums. We can know what these photographs are of, while having no fucking idea what they are about. In this conundrum we can detect the tiniest tremor of California artists' photogeliophobia. They hide their humor in plain sight, letting it bleach bone black and white in the obvious, deadpan midday sun.

I was working this engineering job and...It wasn't a gulag but it wasn't a fun job... So one day I was in this conference call, kind of bored, didn't really have to be there and I just started writing these Dr. Seuss poems after seven or eight years of doing just Hemingway. And that night I just brought it home and threw it on the table...and after the kids were in bed I heard my wife laughing in the other room. Like Christmas morning I peeked around the corner and she's laughing at my stuff, actually having pleasure in it...I had just written a 700 page a Joycean to see someone taking pleasure in it was just unreal...After that I said OK, so, you are heretofore permitted to be funny.

-George Saunders, The Sound of Young America Podcast

How to reach the fearful and distribute the Saunders cure? Well, the metrics tell us to look for those who don't admit to being photographers. I'm not talking A.W.U.P.s here, those "Artists Who Use Photography." Those folks, running from the casual veracity of the lensed image, are the most anxious to be taken seriously. The nakedest and least ashamed photographers who feel Saundersian permission to be openly funny are usually sculptors. Take Daniel Bozhkov. The photographs he makes, say, of the Hemingway-scented perfume he created called "Eau d'Ernest," or of his crop-circle portrait of Larry King taken from the air called "Learning to Fly over a Very Large Larry," are all bit parts in enormous, elaborate performative systems. He didn't just make a photograph. He attended a gathering of Hemingway lookalikes in Key West and gathered their input. He produced an actual scent, made a commercial for the stuff featuring robust, white-bearded Papa-types and sleek models in Hemingway's actual favorite Istanbul hotel. He sold Eau d'Ernest in fancy Turkish perfumeries, but also made knock-offs that were sold on the street. Bozhkov's photographs, unembarrassedly funny, are mere illustrations in cockeyed, delirious, imaginative essays about how meaning leeches into the world. So although his self-portrait called "Darth Vader using a Brita Filter to Clean the Black Sea" has found life as a solitary photographic image online and in group exhibitions, it is in fact intended to be buried in a deeper system which included 30-second commercials of Darth doing his thing purchased on Bulgarian television. The photographs themselves are far from phobic, but they're shy about standing out in public, like the joke opening a lecture at a Medieval Philology conference.

So, even the bold are fearful. I'm afraid. But enough about me, let me tell you a little about myself. A photographer walks into an amusement park, where his wife and little sister persuade him to go on the roller coaster. This photographer gets nauseous on escalators. As the sun sets beneath the rain, he stares at the horizon, desperate to hold onto any sort of equilibrium. He makes it through the experience feeling like Byron's Don Juan on the ship leaving Spain:("here he grew inarticulate with retching.") On the way out, the high school kids working the ride try to sell passengers a picture that's been snapped of them on a precipitous descent. They've seen thousands of these images pop up on the screen over the long summer, and are as inured to them as corndogs. But when the image of the photographer pops up on the screen, looking soulless and devoid while surrounding riders scream with glee, they break up and fall on the floor laughing. The photographer's wife shells out the nine bucks for the image in its marbled cardboard frame, preserving for all eternity the terrible suffering of the photogeliophobe.

Tim Davis,
April 2013