The origins of the word “deadpan” can be traced to 1927 when Vanity Fair Magazine compounded the words dead and pan, a slang word for a face, and used it as a noun — the following year, the New York Times used it as an adjective to describe the works of Buster Keaton.

It’s hard to trace when the term “Deadpan” was first used to express a now widespread understanding of this particular style of photography, but it was used deliberately to describe the works of photographers such as Thomas Ruff, Alec Soth, and Edward Ruscha throughout their careers. Charlotte Cotton devotes an entire chapter to Deadpan in The Photograph as Contemporary Art and a lot of subsequent research on the topic references that essay. The style became increasingly popular in the 1990s, especially with landscape and architectural subjects. Cotton notes “Deadpan photographs, so technically well-done, so pristine in their presentation, rich with visual information and with a commanding presence, lent themselves well to the newly privileged site of the gallery as a place for seeing photography, moving the medium towards a central position in contemporary art.”

Deadpan photography can be described as having a distinct lack of visual drama. Images have a cool, detached, and unemotional presentation and are almost clinical in presentation. Within a series, they often exhibit high consistency and neutrality in lighting and composition. Lighting is flat, contrast is low and composition is simple and minimalist - often providing an understated sense of scale.

The style appears to originate in Germany, descending from Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) - a movement in German art that arose during the 1920s as a reaction against expressionism. The style is encapsulated in the photographs of Albert Renger-Patsch (1897–1966), August Sander (1876–1964), Erwin Blumenfeld (1897–1969) and, much later, Bernd (1931-2007) and Hilla Becher (1934-2015). The Bechers are best remembered for their studies of the industrial landscape, where they systematically photographed large structures such as water towers, coal bunkers, or pit heads to document a disappearing landscape in a formalistic manner - creating art from industrial archaeology. The Bechers’ signature style harnessed clean, black-and-white pictures taken in a flat grey light with straight-on compositions that perfectly lent themselves to their presentation methodology of large prints containing a montage of nine or more similar objects to allow the study of types (typology) in the style of an entomologist (the scientific study of insects).

The Bechers’ work appeared in ‘New Topographics: Photographs of Man-Altered Landscape’, a touring exhibition that began in America in 1975 and is considered an important cultural marker of photography’s recognition as an art form. Their vision influenced a whole new generation of young German artists at the Dusseldorf School of Photography. The school encouraged its students to create independent, artistically led pictures instead of focussing on vocational skills like photojournalism. Their students - including Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky, Candida Hofer and Thomas Ruff - took these ideas forward, influencing a large number of other artists to the point where commentators suggest that a significant proportion of the work on gallery walls in Europe and the USA could be described as Deadpan. It is a style that has come to dominate the art photography market.

New Topographics was a significant milestone for the Deadpan aesthetic. The show was an early attempt to appraise European and North American photographers’ reinvestment of topographical and architectural photography with the implications of contemporary urban generation and the ecological consequences of industry. One of the major figures of this earlier period was the American photographer Lewis Baltz (1945–2014), an influential instigator of the critical reworking of photography. His cool and minimalist black-and-white photographs map the uneasy encroachment of industrial and housing developments onto open landscapes. In their own way as significant as the Bechers’ work, Baltz’s photographs of the 1970s and 1980s harnessed the medium’s documentary capacity to depict fast-changing social environments with a conceptual precision that gave it the right tenor for art-world status. After moving from America to Europe in the late 1980s, Baltz worked with colour photography to represent the new high-tech environments of research laboratories and industries like his Power Supply (1981–91) series. This shift to colour photography was necessary for Baltz to focus attention on the spectacle of ‘clean’ industries, and the codification and zones of data carried by these pristine spaces.

Andreas Gursky (1955-) has become something of a figurehead for contemporary deadpan photography. He moved towards using large prints in the late 1980s, and through the 1990s pushed photography to new heights and widths. His works make for imposing objects – pictures to stop you in your tracks – and he has become synonymous with work on a monumental photographic scale. Gursky was one of the early adopters of digital imaging tools, and has brought traditional and new technologies together, using large-format cameras for maximum clarity and digital manipulation to refine and tile multiple image files into a single photograph. Significantly, his photographs are not primarily contingent on being viewed as part of a series. He shifts his photographic approach only gradually, more in the realms of his photographs’ production values (such as size and framing) than in obvious changes in concept, tenor or subject matter. Instead, he operates like a painter might: each satisfyingly complete picture adds to his oeuvre and every photograph he releases has a good chance of contributing to the high reputation enjoyed by his work as a whole. Gursky has worked in connected themes throughout his practice, and his photographs stand as discrete but consistently recognizable visual experiences. His signature vantage point and, it is often claimed, his first critically acknowledged innovation is a viewing platform looking out over distant landscapes and sites of industry, leisure and commerce such as factories, stock exchanges, hotels, and public arenas. He often places us so far away from his subjects that we are not part of the action at all but detached, critical viewers. From this position, we are shown a mapping of contemporary life governed by forces that are not possible to see from within the crowd or from a monocular perspective – the pseudo-simulation of human vision with which photography has traditionally been credited. Human figures are usually minute and densely packed in a mass; when individual actions or gestures can be picked out, they are like notes within chords of general activity. At their most vivid, these works give us a sense of omniscience: we see the scene as a whole made up of tiny constituent parts and feel akin to a conductor in front of an orchestra.

Although Gursky commands a dominant position in our understanding of the capacities of deadpan photography, he by no means holds the patent on either this style or its range of subjects. Many photographers have similarly been drawn to analyzing the world with the thoughtfulness and precision that is possible in their medium. Sze Tsung Nicolás Leong’s (b. 1970) History Images rely on considerate, slow photography to provide a stunning frame through which to meditate on the impact of accelerated change in contemporary China. In the early 2000s Leong photographed in China’s rapidly developing cities, including Beijing, Guangzhou, Nanjing and Shanghai, with the purpose of recording, “histories… in urban form.” Leong portrays not only the epic scale of the structural transformation of China in the early twenty-first century but also the removal of the material remnants of the region’s history, itself the logical conclusion of the eradicating ideology of China’s Cultural Revolution (1966–76). By visualizing the moments between the erasure of this material, and architectural remnants and the creation of a new urban future, Leong marks out the very concept and dynamics of history.

Taryn Simon’s (1975-) American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar (2007), remains one of the most singular photographic chronicles of American mythology and structural history of the 21st century. Simon took on the almost insurmountable challenge of photographing a spectrum of hard-to-access sites and scenarios across the United States. Simon’s photographs are dazzling in their envisioning of the hidden workings of American structures, procedures, and phenomena – both in terms of the sustained ideological narrative of American Exceptionalism that they collectively speak to, and in their strangely pedestrian and even banal material presence.

Edward Burtynsky’s (1955-) photographs of Californian oilfields, the landscape is shaped by industry, with oil pumps and telegraph poles weaving across its surface as far as the distant ridge of mountains in the background. While social, political and ecological issues are embedded in his subjects, they are visualized as objective evidence of the consequences of contemporary life and the exploitation of the earth. Polemical narratives are raised for the viewer, but this information appears to have been given impartially. Deadpan photography often acts in this quasi-factual mode: the personal politics of the photographers come into play in their selection of subject matter and their anticipation of the viewer’s analysis, not in any explicit political statement through text or photographic style.

American photographer Richard Misrach (1949-) has created poetic commentaries on landscape devastation and man’s destruction of natural resources, most notably in his ongoing photographic series Desert Cantos, begun in 1979, which centres on the landscapes of the American West. For Border Cantos, Misrach collaborated with the Mexican artist and sonic architect Guillermo Galindo (1969-) along the United States–Mexico border. Misrach’s photographs are inspired by and installed with Galindo’s sculptural forms and soundscapes, which are made from objects such as water bottles, shoes and utensils left by migrants, humanitarians, vigilantes and US Border Patrol officers along the border. The photographs are dirge-like visualizations of the environmental and human trauma of this contested site, which has become a symbol of nationalistic force without impunity and a so-called ‘constitution-free zone’. In Wall, Near Los Indios, Texas, Misrach singles out an unfathomably disconnected portion of the ‘border wall’ held on a small patch of grass, encircled by vehicle tracks in the surrounding dirt on a misty landscape. The image embodies the impossibility of constructing a continuous wall through the 2,000-mile border terrain, and acts as a mournful monument to the consequences of political, social and environmental division.

The essence of the style is neutrality with a foundation laid by a high level of technical competence and pristine visual rendition. Before high-megapixel digital cameras, the style was the preserve of large format cameras and printers capable of producing the immense scale and precise detail that the classic Deadpan print requires. An Andreas Gursky print is typically 2 x 4 metres and filled with an overwhelming level of detail.

If we move away from the global scale of Burtynsky and Gursky we continue to find the recurrent themes of Deadpan, what Stephen Bull refers to as a coolly detached and systematic approach, an approach which harks back to the Bechers. Subjects are consistently treated without sentimentality, with objectivity and an absence of obvious narrative so the audience is offered few hints on how to read the end result. We are left in doubt as to Edward Ruscha’s views about gasoline stations, or whether he even has a view other than the one through his camera but 26 Gasoline Stations is seen as a seminal work that, perhaps above all, showed that there was an ordinary world that had escaped the cameras of the great landscape photographers like Ansel Adams or the documentarists like Dorothea Lange. The idea of documenting something just because it was there without adding any gloss, or comment or political or social viewpoint and leaving it to the audience to bring their own context is as much a part of Deadpan as the seemingly infinite detail offered by Gursky. This pursuit of the ordinary was taken up in the 70s by Stephen Shore whose road trips into “middle America” were a reaction to his insight that photography had fallen into three distinct camps, the amateur snap, the important and global subject and the commercial world meaning that no-one was seriously documenting the everyday, the ordinary, the seemingly unimportant that, was of course, what makes up most of the world.

Deadpan lends itself to this factual, uncluttered, seemingly untouched and bland recording of what is there. If we take the Bechers as a foundation example of, what is now called, Deadpan we are offered a totally unemotional, matter of fact and unadulterated view of Germany’s industrial past. This factual representation is effective for such subjects but Shore showed that it could equally well be used to diarise ordinary America. For the Bechers it enabled the typology of redundant industrial architecture, for Shore it allowed him to emphasise and communicate the ordinary. His high-detail, perfectly framed, high-resolution photographs of American streets are as un-judgemental as the Becher’s water towers. It is a pure form of documentation.

When discussing Deadpan writers emphasise that it is dispassionate, unemotional and neutral; Greg Cook writing in the Boston Globe asks whether its popularity is the result of a detached, analytical approach that reflects the uniformity of our mass-produced world. He wonders whether it offers a refuge from emotion, from worrying about ecological disasters, terrorism and social issues. A bleak purpose for any art form.

An interview with Kai-Olaf Hesse, a contemporary German photographer, and time spent looking more closely at the life of Bernd Becher helps one recognise that a dispassionate presentation is not the result of a dispassionate photographer. Hesse makes the point that merely recording the real world in, what he calls, a disimpassioned style does not mean that the person behind the recorder lacks passion. In fact, he believes that the opposite is true and that, to look at anything closely, means the photographer must have some passion for their subject. This certainly appears to be true for Bernd Becher; his typologies were based on his fascination with industrial architecture which dates to his childhood in the Ruhr. He knew that the huge industrial structures that intrigued him were destined to disappear as Europe moved into a new post-heavy industrial era. He is quoted as saying he “was overcome with horror when I noticed that the world in which I was besotted was disappearing.”

It would be inappropriate and no doubt incorrect to suggest that the Bechers’ motives were simply to document structures that they knew would disappear. Bernd Becher had started as a painter and his dedication to New Objectivity suggests that this was a man with strong artistic instincts. He saw the mega-structures of the Ruhr and the other post-industrial places he visited and photographed in terms of his own childhood memories, as examples of man’s ability to continually and repetitively mold the landscape, as things of surprising beauty and craftsmanship, as art forms and as function-rich subjects. These elements were blended into a unique, compelling and, now much copied, style that presented these edifices as stark structures that give little hint of the powerful emotions that drove his and Hilla’s work but the key to the approach was that they invested emotionally in these subjects and this investment explains the continuing fascination with their work. We are offered seemingly neutral archaeological pictures and are invited to find all the elements that made them such strong subjects. We might not find Becher’s memories but the other components are there if we want to look for them.

In many ways this perfectly summarises the Deadpan approach. It is a potential partnership between the artist and the audience. The artist has invested observation, selectivity, technical excellence and no little passion into the work but their view on the subject matter, their subjectivity is hidden in the layers of objective information they present. The viewer is invited to make their own investment of context and subjectivity and together we find the art hidden behind the neutral screen.