October 2009
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Month October 2009

What Hello Kitty can teach us about contemporary photography

In case you didn’t know, Hello Kitty, the fictional Japanese cat character, is turning 35 tomorrow. For over three decades folks from all over the world have been in love with this basically expressionless character – she has no mouth, and only rarely emotes with her eyes.

So what’s there to love? Well, in a most basic way, Hello Kitty allows the viewer to project whatever happiness, sadness, or ambivalence onto her. Hello Kitty doesn’t tell you what you should be feeling or thinking. She’s basically there, as a supportive and uncritical mirror.

In Charlotte Cotton’s book, The Photograph as Contemporary Art, there’s a whole chapter dedicated to a similar theme in contemporary photography – the deadpan aesthetic. In this approach to making mostly portrait photographs, the viewer isn’t given a specific emotion to read. Instead the idea is that the viewer is allowed to project whatever emotional or narrative conclusion they ‘d like onto the photographed subject.

Boy in Longmont, CO park © 2009 David Mejias

Boy in Longmont, CO park © 2009 David Mejias

As our media saturated societies have matured, we’ve grown suspicious of how marketers and advertisers use imagery to try to force along an emotional response to a product or service. Hello Kitty and the deadpan aesthetic work because of their detachment. For a change, we, the viewer or the consumer, are given some semblance of control.

Keats, negative capability, and keep on keepin’ on

Across the street from Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Across the street from the LA County Museum of Art ©2009 David Mejias

The poet John Keats had a pretty tough life. He died at the age of 25, the girl he loved didn’t love him back, he struggled financially, the critics weren’t fans, and he was often plagued by creative insecurities. He still managed to become one of the most influential poets of all time.

In a letter to his brother, dated December 22, 1817, Keats writes:

” …several things dovetailed in my mind, and at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously–I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

Keats conclusion was that although we cannot answer all questions about our work and our world we should keep working, producing, writing — photographing.

As a freelance creative I often try to make sense of my world, my work, my criticisms, and my future. All of this analysis is mostly in vain. Has worry ever produced much?

I think Keats had it right. We need to learn to just be in the uncertainty, the mystery, the doubt. All we can successfully do is put our heads down and keep working.

“The only thing I knew how to do
Was to keep on keepin’ on like a bird that flew,
Tangled up in blue.” – Bob Dylan, Tangled Up in Blue