Tall Poppy Syndrome

"Tree Line, Mollymook," Amy Stein and Stacy Arezou Mehrfar, from Tall Poppy Syndrome.

Wall in the Grand Canyon,” Timothy O’Sullivan. Wheeler Survey, 1871.

To make Tall Poppy Syndrome, Amy Stein and Stacy Arezou Mehrfar “embarked on a month-long road trip around New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state. They set out to meet everyday Australians and explore their reaction to this cultural phenomenon,” which they summarize as “a term used to describe a social phenomenon in Australia in which successful people (the ‘tall poppies’) get ‘cut down to size,’ criticized, resented, or ridiculed because their talents or achievements distinguish them from their peers.”

(For background, have a Wikipedia entry. I knew the historical metaphor by way of Livy, but I wasn’t familiar with the modern usage with its connotations of envy/resentment/leveling.)

I’m not sure what to make of the book as a document of Australian reactions. The portraits in the book are mostly either deadpan or distracted. The book reads to me more as an extended riff on visual themes of height, stature, and proportionality, and the camera’s ability to render subjects as typical or atypical.

My favorite images are the ones which invite comparisons between the height of human subjects and the land around them — a sort of reversal of the old-school survey-style photographs in which humans figures are conspicuously included for scale. In the photographic history of the American West, the human figure was a measure of the vastness of geography; in Tall Poppy Syndrome, trees and rocks demonstrate the diminutive stature of human figures, while roofs and walls fall above or below the tops of their heads, like a height chart tracking the growth of children — or maybe more like one of those “are you tall enough to ride this ride” markers. But the way that Stein and Mehrfar persistently play with perspective and composition does not provide a fixed measure; the net effect is a sense that the size of a person is a constant question coming from all directions.

They make repeated use of uniforms — whether company-issued garb for workers, safety gear for miners, team uniforms for athletes, or the functionally convergent design of surfers’ wetsuits. These photos, alongside those of cattle and of parking lot trees, students in a classroom, committee members at a table, seem to pose a question regarding the relationship of a subject to its type. The camera as a documentary tool has always tended either to enshrine the specificity of individuals, or to record the instance of representative anonymous types. Stein and Mehrfar’s photos seem carefully ambivalent in this regard, again, posing a question.

These questions push back against the photographers and against the viewers, because they are really not questions about the subjects, but about how we see them — about how photographers see them through a camera’s viewfinder, and about how readers see them through the pages of a book. In many ways, the medium of photography is a process of determining poppy height. I’m inclined to take Tall Poppy Syndrome as a reminder to do so with awareness and care.

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