Artist Talk: Bad Pictures of Bad Subjects

On April 20, Lyle Rexer of the School of Visual Arts virtually visited Lawrence University students and faculty to speak about the “de-skilling and re-skilling of photography.” Rexer’s topic, “Bad Pictures of Bad Subjects,” focused on the complexities of images that appear “bad” or mundane, as well as their effect on popular culture and the art world. He stated that he gravitated towards “all these places where nobody’s paying attention” in photography, especially in the age of social media, where there are few barriers to entry for photographers and viewers. There are complexities to images that appear simple or vernacular, primarily ignored by the art world, since they are viewed as offensive or threatening. His focus is paying more attention to the idiosyncrasies of these images and decoding the purpose behind them, even though they are often dismissed. These photos make viewers question what they know about art photography and art in general. 

The “bad pictures” Rexer highlighted do not necessarily make for unpleasant viewing or lack of valuable interpretation. Instead, they do not fit into the art world vision of what constitutes as an adequate photograph, due their removal from prescribed artistic norms. They break barriers and have become increasingly more popular. Rexer shared some seemingly mundane images that crop up frequently in his research, such as photographs of swans and cups in fences, and shared the complexities behind these images, despite them often being objectively “bad” photos. The spontaneity of these photos arguably elevates the meaning. His interest and dedication to these mundane photographs was clear, and it’s evident that these photos, though labeled simple or unartistic, hold purpose and demonstrate skill. 

He shared a photographic history of how the photographical canon changed from the 1960s and analyzed how snapshots became popular. Over time, framing has become less important in some mediums of photography, whereas spontaneity “as if someone has come upon a scene” has become more valued. This is elevated due to the popularity of social media forms that emphasize the importance of spontaneity and personal expression. “Pictures are being primarily made to be shared,” Rexer stated. The goal of this photography is communal, meant for circulation, display and easy access. Photography is commonly used as a documentary project for life, as “an aestheticized version of reality.” Everyone has an ability to create images, due to the accessibility of phone cameras. Photographers often switch between modes of photographic devices, which has become easier and creates a variety of images that can lend itself to “bad pictures” more easily. These pictures appear to lack depth, but “things that look light … have some other things going on behind them” even if they “traffic in clichés.” Photographs that appear to have very little intention still are open to vast interpretations and reactions from a multitude of viewers, which makes them worthy of attention. 

Lyle Rexer’s website and contact information can be found by here. He has written multiple books on the subject of photography and outsider art.