'Everything is at its lowest point of energy'

an interview with Chris Packham, curator of 'uninteresting photographs'

Writing about weird, anodyne and often upsetting spaces can feel like a very solitary and private act. With that in mind, I’ve decided to conduct and share some occasional interviews to better explore the world of modern architecture and its representations and discontents. This is the first.

I’ve long had a sort of grubby fascination with social media as a platform to curate images. Last year, for instance, I interviewed Crystal Bennes about her carefully-managed collection of development hoardings. In the past, I’ve followed Facebook groups like Boring Dystopia and Shit London, greedily sifting through each new contribution.

What connects these curatorial projects is an attempt to contain and anatomize certain varieties of late capitalist space; the “terrain vague” described by Ignasi de Sola Morales. Junctions of leftover, un-designed, and surplus architecture which arouse in us feelings of nonspecific ennui and angst. Images which embody the lapsed, mucky future that we find ourselves mired in. It’s why I was so glad to discover Uninteresting Photographs, a twitter account managed by Brooklyn-based writer and editor Chris Packham. As the name suggests, this account brings together images that become interesting by virtue of their sheer banality. As I also learned, there remains a certain ‘low’ energy contained within each ‘uninteresting’ photo; a quality that lends it a distinct and evocative aura of artistry, even while these same images map a quite sterile terrain. The ur-architecture of American modernity; vast yet sunken.

I’d like to extend my thanks to Chris for agreeing to the interview and for being so candid and interesting about his process.

First, tell me about yourself.

I’m Chris Packham, a writer and editor from Kansas City, now living in Brooklyn with my spouse, a brilliant public school teacher. I’ve written for newspapers and magazines since 2003. I spent many years as a freelancer for the film section of the Village Voice before it was purchased by a rich dilettante who decided he couldn’t handle the responsibility and shut it down instead of looking for a buyer. Now, I copyedit science news for Phys.org and I’m the copyeditor for Inside Philanthropy, a news site about foundations and private philanthropy.

What constitutes an ‘uninteresting photograph’? Perhaps it’s better to ask, what makes an uninteresting photo so interesting?

The best uninteresting photos are totally inert—everything is at its lowest point of energy; you don't have the sense that anything happened before the photo was taken, or that anything is about to happen. Generally, the photos I’m looking for are shot by amateurs who don’t know how to take a good photo, or don’t care because the photo serves some utilitarian (and usually commercial) purpose.

I tried to find images that made me feel a particular kind of despair that derives from working soul-crushing office jobs in sterile environments. So there was a curatorial bias toward cruddy office parks and buildings. Surprisingly, many of the people who followed the feed liked it because it was peaceful or weirdly nostalgic for them. When you put a lot of low-energy photos together, they do build into a sense of stillness and calm, though I really was trying to make people depressed. I think the feed creates a cumulative impression of a particular U.S. geography that includes strip malls, crackerbox houses in cul de sac developments, streets with chain-link lots and muffler shops, gravel lots behind concrete-block auto shops, industrial parks with vinyl-sided warehouse buildings. That’s the territory I wanted to engage with. 

What are the key ingredients you look for when searching for photos?

Again, I generally look for shots by totally disinterested photographers. I like photos with indifferent composition, like a big rectangular building that occupies the whole rectangular frame. Because I’m looking for dull subject matter, shades of beige and tan tend to predominate. 

I don’t use photos that are shot from a high angle, no panoramic vistas. I don’t like to see hills in the distance. The viewer is trapped in the scene, in the middle of a parking lot or inside an office breakroom with fluorescent lights and no view of the horizon. 

I had improbably high standards for boring photos, and I realize that it barely matters now, but here's a bullet list of some of the rules I made myself follow:

  • Photos had to be of reasonably high resolution.

  • No photos of toilets—come on, man. That's low-hanging fruit. And it turns out that people are actually super-interested in toilets: I got around 20 DMs per day of submissions of uninteresting photos, and I would say a full third were either toilet pictures or photos of stall walls taken from the vantage of a toilet.

  • No photos of buildings in which a "for sale" or "for rent" sign is visible. I didn’t want the feed to look like Zillow.com.

  • No trailer parks. That feels judge-y and classist, and people who live in trailers but rent the land in a trailer park are in the most precarious economic situation you can possibly find yourself in.

  • No photos that include animals or children—no matter how uninterestingly photographed, that's just playing with fire, interestingness-wise.

  • No photos with people smiling and posing for the camera, candids only.

  • No filters, inasmuch as I could determine whether a filter had been used (I’m colorblind).

  • Photos were posted as I found them, unedited and uncropped.

  • OK, OK, if a photo had an ugly black border, I’d crop out the border because I didn’t like the way it looked in the feed.

I should also talk about photos of people. I avoided photos in which a single person was the focal point, no matter how boring the picture was. It was super-important not to convey the idea that I was making fun of individuals. Uninteresting Photographs was never intended to be mean.

Photos of large groups of people are ideal, because there is no individual focal point. I love wide shots of business people in hotel event spaces, the registration tables at seminars, the audiences at seminars, seminar venues, seminar presenters and PowerPoint slides displayed on projection screens at seminars. I did a lot of Google Image searches on the keyword “seminar.”

“I had improbably high standards for boring photos”

Those PowerPoint presentation photos, toward which I am a bit biased, are perfect, because there is no good way to frame a person and a projection screen. The photo always looks unbalanced; the person is diminished by the scale of the screen and is therefore not a focal point; the room lighting is too dim to see the person; the screen is usually too bright to read. I have no idea why corporate PR departments insist on taking those pictures. They were always the least popular images I posted, but I felt it was important to include them because so many of the photos in the feed were devoid of human occupancy.

Where do you find these images?

All photos were stolen from websites, photo hosting sites and forgotten online file dumps. For this reason, I never sought to capitalize on the sizable audience the feed eventually attracted. I didn’t want to make money posting other people’s work. I am a mildly unethical curator, not a monster.

Algorithms like the ones that power Google Images favor popular photos, that is, photos that people actually found to be interesting or useful. To be honest, Google Images is not very good these days; surprisingly, Bing image search is quite a bit better. However, you have to trick any search engine into surfacing uninteresting photos, because the bias is toward popularity, or toward characteristics in photos algorithmically selected as likely to be interesting.

Here is a list of useful search terms I figured out in 2019:

seminar

staff party (year)

trade show highlights

sales conference highlights

regional conference (year)

plenary session (year)

warehouse space for rent

office space for rent

quarterly meeting

annual conference (year)

awards dinner (year)

sorry for the bad shot

sorry for the blurry photo

sorry for the bad focus

sorry for the bad lighting

sorry out of focus

sorry for the bad angle

previous gallery next

next in gallery

previous in gallery

event photo gallery

DSC0002, 0003, 0004, etc

dsc0002, 0003, 0004, etc.

DSCF0002, 0003, 0004, etc.

IMG_0002, 0003, 0004, etc.

P000_0002, 0003, 0004, etc

dsc0004, 5, 6, etc.

IMG_0002, 0003, 0004, etc.

DSCF0001, 0002 etc.

CIMGXXXX (i.e., CIMG0231)

and also “Cricket Wireless”

I suppose that an uninteresting photo alludes to an uninteresting place. I keep thinking about Marc Auge when he described "non-places" (conference centres, function rooms, the lobbies of chain hotels). Are these kinds of space accumulating as we enter an increasing elderly kind of capitalism. Will the whole world become uninteresting?

Well, I don’t know who Mark Auge is, but the author William Gibson often considers interstitial spaces in his work, which sounds a bit like what you’re alluding to. He writes about spaces intended as transitional, “between spaces” that people pass through on their way to someplace else. What does it mean when you have to stop travelling through an interstitial space? And what if you actually had to live there? If you find yourself living inside an airport terminal, a disaster has probably occurred.

“There is nothing more depressing to me than a modern office.”

It seems to me that for a long time, the demands of capitalism required spaces that were wholly utilitarian—indifferently designed and hastily constructed. Industrial parks are a pretty good example. They’re flat and unpretty because while capital does need aesthetics, it’s really low on the list of priorities. Spaces for conducting business—convention halls, hotel event spaces, offices—have converged on a certain aesthetic homogeneity that is partly a visual language intended to foster a shared sense of work or commercial intent. There is nothing more depressing to me than a modern office.

Over the last couple of decades, balloon-frame buildings with mixed-material facades—think six stories on top of a pedestal that’s either a parking lot or retail space—have dominated residential and commercial construction. Everything looks like that now. There’s a sense that the homogenous aesthetic of modern architecture is metastasizing and taking over the planet, but I don’t 100 percent think that’s accurate. Seeing the effects of the pandemic and the resulting collapse of American economic resilience makes me doubt that we’ll ever see a fully “beige dystopia.” Those photos of weeds growing in decaying buildings in Chernobyl might be a likelier scenario.

What kinds of reactions have you had to running the account, and — in fact — what inspired it in the first place?

In 2015, when I first had the idea for Uninteresting Photographs, I started a public Facebook group, also called Uninteresting Photographs. This was a terrible choice, because the group was immediately swamped with Hilarious Internet Comedians who deluged the feed with images of swimsuit models, rageface Donald Trump, Chuck Norris spin-kick gifs, and flaming RTVs jumping over buses.

Several years later, I tried again with a Twitter feed and no outside contributors. Posts were every hour on the hour because (1) it is the most uninteresting schedule, and (2) I wanted people to have an initial sense of consistency that might eventually devolve into a feeling of relentlessness and despair as the sheer psychic weight of inert, beige imagery accumulated on their souls. Haha, JK.

Posts were deliberately organized to avoid any visual conversation between photos. A boring office interior might follow an empty expanse of parking lot, following a badly framed PowerPoint presenter with an audience. This was important, because providing any context between photos would be, in some way, interesting. Each photo was alone on a contextual island, demanding that the viewer consider them on their own terms. 

After the first two weeks or so, I figured out the alt-text interface on Buffer, the scheduling service I used, and began including detailed alt-text descriptions of every photo.

“Each photo was alone on a contextual island, demanding that the viewer consider them on their own terms.”

The alt text is as boring as I could make it, consisting of simple declarative sentences with no jokes or editorializing. For some reason, Twitter does not make exposing the alt-text captions easy, but if you dig through the source or install the right software, you will not be rewarded for your efforts with anything remotely interesting. It's an important principle that vision-impaired people have as much right to be bored as visually abled people. I have written the phrase "the walls are beige and the lighting is fluorescent" many thousands of times. I can type “there are utility poles and power lines in the background” via sheer muscle memory.

Did you ever follow Boring Dystopia on Facebook?

No, I’m afraid I don’t know Boring Dystopia, but it sounds like my kind of thing.

Finally, what are your plans for the account?

I'm keeping the feed online; I ended regular updates on January 15th, after one year of posting. It was a lot of work! However, since the pandemic lockdown, I've been updating the feed with occasional posts.

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