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1. looking attractive in photographs: tending to look good in

photographs, forming an attractive subject for photography

or (esp of a person) having features, qualities and a general appearance that look attractive in photographs

2. producing or emitting light: Biology – phosphorescent

organism 3. produced or caused by light: Medicine – a physical

reaction that is caused or aggravated by light

As with each of the three interlinked terms, Unphotogenic has hints of both Untidiness and Unwieldiness about it. It could be descriptive of a certain ugliness (not necessarily visually appealing, pretty, attractive or ‘good-looking’ in a conventional sense), the ungracefulness discussed in relation to Unweildiness, something with ragged edges (an Untidiness where it is hard to identify the focus/centre and the periphery), something that is irregular, or lumpy and bumpy – but again “unphotogenic” is speaking to something quite particular.

When we talk about a photogenic subject (often a person, although the term is also applied to places), we are referring to one that usually appears physically attractive or striking in photographs. The state of being photogenic may or may not necessarily be related to the subject’s attractiveness in real life or ‘in the flesh’. This also implies that there may be a difference between the image captured through a single camera lens (with its ability to frame, edit, focus) and the experience of ‘being with’ the subject in question. The camera may fail to reproduce visually elusive qualities like charisma, charm or enthusiasm - traits that would positively influence the subjective experience/perception of the subject in ‘real life’, making them appealing or attractive. In this

way, Unphotogenic might describe something that is not classically good-looking or not visually impressive, spectacular or ‘dramatic’. Traditionally (when photography was a less ‘available’ medium), these qualities would also have related to the picturesque – something visually appealing, pleasing, distinctive or impressive, often by virtue of quaintness or unusualness or through seeming fit (or ‘worthy’) to be the subject of a painting or a photograph. Unphotogenic may, therefore, relate to that which falls outside of the visually impressive.

In our contemporary context, with the ubiquity of cameras built into our communication devices (mobile phones, laptops etc) and our built environment (CCTV, intercom systems etc) alongside the portability of images (the ease of displaying, publishing, ‘sharing’ and disseminating these images; their low cost in terms of production and distribution; the ‘instant’ or concurrent taking and showing of digital images), even our everyday (face-to-face) encounters cannot exist outside of the reach of photography. We can no longer experience the world without acknowledging the camera’s influence and gaze 1 . This may be particularly apparent in the wider discourse of live and visual arts, where the systems of exchange, distribution and dissemination involved in the wider discourse of artists’ work relies heavily on photographs. If the ‘photogenic’ artwork has become a convention (and a necessity), is Unphotogenicness to do with ‘unconventionalness’?

It is also worth considering the origin of the word photogenic. If

1 This statement is made in relation to how so much of our daily lived experience is filtered/mediated by the lens – through daily encounters with mass media representations (TV, print, online etc), but also through our own habits of constantly taking photographs, comparing ourselves and our experiences of the world with framed/ mediated images (“Wow, this is just like a film” or the notion of a “Kodak moment”, or “That would make a great picture”). We may often find ourselves, ‘in’ our lives (consciously and subconsciously, even when the action of taking a photograph is not actually involved) involved in continuously composing and publishing images ‘of’ our lives. Our relationship with making and sharing images becomes an ongoing part of what Goffman would term ‘front stage’ (Goffman, 1959), and like Goffman’s ‘front stage’ there are few occasions in daily life that are truly outside of this frame.

we take photo- to stand for the shortened form of photograph 2 and -genic to mean ‘produced by’ (from the Latin genus = race/ stock/kind, the Greek genos = race/kind or gonos = birth/ offspring/stock) (Photogenic, 2010), we could consider something Unphotogenic to be something that is not ‘born of’ photographs or photography. It also points towards the ways in which photography relates to, is used in, or produces, the artwork (and its extended life through mediation, recording, dissemination, distribution, discourse, archiving etc.). Unphotogenic suggests an unfriendliness with the camera – something that is not at ease with or favourably disposed to the camera, easy for the camera to understand/deal with, or something that is not necessarily ‘on the same side as’ (or sympathetic to) photography.

Unphotogenic could signal a resistance to the pictorial, graphic, camera-friendly, photographable, attractive or seductive – a subject (artwork, person, building etc) that is not concerned solely with ‘appearing’ and ‘appearance’ (Debord, 1967:Thesis 12) - simply creating images, or imagery (‘of’ pictures and the picturesque). I would like to suggest that achieving ‘photogenicness’ is bound up in technical processes - the skill (and luck) of the photographer, the lighting, the ways in which the subject is trained to pose for photographs (developing ways of smiling or postures that we learn will elicit specific effects) and the efforts that go into creating a photogenic scene in the studio (building sets, scenography etc). The Unphotogenic artwork could propose a situation where the artist does not need to adopt the position of scenographer as a default - where their primary concerns are not simply the visual aspects or ‘look’ of the work. In this way, I would use the term Unphotogenic to refer to the possibility of designing a performance situation that is not tailored to (or ‘made for’) the scope of a camera’s lens but made towards the scope of a task – something that is not born of photography or (particularly) interested in producing photographs.

2 (rather than the original “produced or caused by light” from the Greek phos)



Debord, Guy (1967) Society of the Spectacle trans Black & Red (1977), [online] Available at: reference/archive/debord/society.htm (Accessed 20 May 2010)

Goffman, Erving (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, London: Penguin

Photogenic (2010). Online Etymology Dictionary. [online] Available at: (Accessed 01 March 2010)