Reading – The Photograph As Contemporary Art – Charlotte Cotton

With the presence of ever expanding technology, photography has continuously evolved over time. With new techniques and options available to photographers, there is a seemingly limitless opportunity for photographical artists to explore the avant-garde. For instance, with the introduction of colour photography which began to slowly take precedence from the 1970’s.

Chapter 1 – If this is Art

Chapter 1 of this book discussed how photography began to evolve as a contemporary art, equal in it’s status to other forms of art such as painting and sculpture. The artists in chapter 1 were exemplified for their impact on how photography has become a medium in which an artist can express themselves within contemporary art practice.

Conceptual art used photography to convey short lived artistic ideas and actions, with its capacity to depict things. Photography was used to emphasise the act being documented was of artistic importance. So the idea/subject in the photograph itself was more important than the way the picture was shot, the materials/equipment used. or even skill of the photographer shooting the image.

The versatility of photography which could be used in fine art or as a form of documentation began to undermine the conventional idea of what was considered an artistic act. Photography has positioned itself as a way to document artistic ideas and as an art form in itself.

I was drawn to the work of Sophie Calle and her project “Suite Venitienne” in which she depicts a topic of everyday life and explores her artistic concept with the use of photography. I studied this work further here

Photography creates a snapshot in time, sometimes taking a mere second or less to shoot the actual picture, it can appear spontaneous leaving the artists concept open to interpretation. Exploring the seemingly mundane depictions of everyday acts in life and then using photography and an artists preconceived idea as a medium to creating a depth and proposable message behind the picture, rather than as a means of simply documenting something. This was depicted well in Erwin Wirm’s work with “One Minute Sculptures” in which he handed out instructions to willing everyday participants which had no need for any particularly specialised skill, turning them into works of art within their daily lives.

Another point this book brings up is the use of text and words to accompany an image. Kenneth Lum’s work used a caption alongside his images to define it’s message and explain the work’s meaning. Wim Delvoye used humorous punchlines and David Shrigley added surrealistic signs to his photographs, which gives his images a more lighthearted feel which would perhaps be the opposite to a viewers own conclusion had the image not been accompanied by words. This brings up a very important question as to whether added text to explain an artists message is a necessity or not. I think this is very much dependent on each body of work and how much of a direct approach an artist would like to take.

Many of the artists in the first chapter use a particularly voyeuristic technique and a lot of the work exampled gives me the feeling of an almost perverse fascination into the lives of the subjects portrayed. There is a slight uncomfortableness about some of the work and it almost feels like I am intruding on a stranger by viewing these images, but it creates a sense of “cannot look away” even though you feel that morally, perhaps, you should. It creates a sense of conflict within me which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it makes for slightly uncomfortable viewing but invoking such a reaction in me, I feel, proves that the artist has done a good job.

Chapter 2 – Once Upon A Time

The second chapter looks at storytelling in contemporary photography or as it is known as Tableau-vivant photography (living picture). With this type of photography everything is carefully considered, from costume, set and lighting. Set are usually theatrically (cinematically) lit. With this type of photography, a message within the photography can be clearly and carefully constructed with all details considered and some photographers such as Gregory Crewdson go to great lengths with the process being not dissimilar to the makings of a movie.

Tableau photography appeals to me in the sense that it can make a vision of photography and its potential to portray a message seem limitless, providing you have the necessary budget, equipment and time of course! But the idea that if I can imagine it, I can portray it, just as a painter would with a picture sends my imagination running wild and of course, there are many different emotions you can draw from a viewer. Charlie White (Ken’s Basement) plays on a humourous, child like side with fictional fairy tale characters being intertwined with realistic scenes of teenagers together in normal settings. Tom Hunter (The Way Home) depicts a different feeling, one more sombre and shocking element of a woman who has drowned on her way home.

People aren’t always used in Tableau photography. An artist can simply use the architecture or scene to create their photos. Rut Blees Luxemburg makes good use of lighting and water reflections. Her pictures are dramatic and beautiful. I looked at her work in “Liebeslied” further here.

Chapter 3 – Deadpan

Deadpan photography has been around for decades usually descibed as a photo devoid of emotion. I wonder if there is such a thing and if it is possible for a photograph to be truly devoid of emotion. As I begin to explore chapter 3 of this book and study the photographs, I can see some of the techniques they use to create this aesthetic. Faces, with blank expression, staring straight at the camera and placed centrally. Landscapes, taken from a distance, There is no stage, no dramatic lighting and seemlingly an indifference to the subject from the photographer. There is a lack of vivid colours to these photographs but most examples are in colour. The black and white examples usually lack a strong dramatic contrast, which wouldn’t fit with this aesthetic. The photographs simply exist as a record of what was exactly as it was.

The angles used by the photographers offer no insight into the photographers perspective and scenes have a sense of dehumanization and emptiness.

However, when you view deadpan photographs, I believe it isn’t to create the same, detached emotion within the viewer, you want people to raise questions, have opinions and wonder about the subject depicted. You want the viewer to come up with their own opinion, unaffected by the photographers viewpoint. They are given no clues.

As I view the photographs in this chapter, I find myself raising my own questions.

John Riddy’s photograph Maputo, I wonder about the weather, it seems cold. I study the textures of the flaking paint on the walls and stare at the train placed centrally, wondering who is aboard and where is it heading. Something makes me feel like the train is perhaps empty and stationary, perhaps it is abandoned or out of use? I do not necessarily question myself about the photographer, only briefly to wonder what lead him there.

Rineke Dijkstra’s photographs of women having recenty given birth at varying intervals over a week is very raw to me. It brings my own experience of childbirth to mind and I wonder about the photographers aim with these photographs. Childbirth and the weeks that follow aren’t usually a time when a woman can hide her emotions well, so these particular sets of photgraphs feel almost forced to me and isn’t necessarily a true depiction of “things as they are” or a record of what was. I don’t garner any sense of warmth or attachment between mother and child, the appear as if they are almost prisoners attempting to hide their emotions.

However, I wonder if this is possible? Certainly Deadpan photography is probably the closest you could come to being devoid of emotion and unbiased, but I question whether it is completely possible. For a start, there always seems to be an effort by the photographer to create an emotionless scene. This isn’t an easy feat, there has to be a conscious effort to remove yourself from the photograph and become more robotic. We, as human beings, are full of varying emotions everyday, we cannot switch our brains off and many factors will shape the photographs we take that particular day even down to the scenes we choose to photograph. We use our senses to explore the environment for suitable subjects, ones that we are drawn to. This pull to a thing, place or person is a type of emotion in itself. So, the choice of subject may give a viewer some clues about the photographer themselves. Secondly, a scene is usually constructed, composed and thought about by the photographer. Even if they are unaware of this process and it happens subconsciously, it still happens. One does not (usually) pick up their camera, close their eyes and shoot whatever lay in front of them. There is an element of effort and work within a photograph, which tells us something about the process that the photographer went about. So, are we influenced still by the photographer? Even if the influence is very minor and barely existent, I believe that we are, and that there is nothing wrong with this.

Chapter 4 Something and Nothing

The photographs in this chapter require much thought and “seeing” the world  by the photographer when bringing ordinary, everyday items into central focus. The viewer may ask, what significance does this object have? And what lead it to become significant. Both of which could be conjectured for quite a while if there is no other information available. My opinion is that this form of photography causes people to ponder, perhaps brush it off as nonsense or see something more in the meaning than simply the object itself, objects can take on a whole new meaning when you view them at a different angle or perhaps even just a small part of them.

Wim Wenders Wall in Paris Texas gives meaning to the hole in the Render draws me in. It speaks of old, something hidden and a peak into the buildings history. I am left wondering why a seemingly brightly decorated building (due too the colours on the brickwork underneath the render) has been covered over with a mundane, boring grey. It’s as if the building is past its prime and had it’s day and is now left to stand, decay and go unnoticed by people passing by. I also enjoy visually the textures and contrast in colours that are produced here.

Overall, I do enjoy the sense of seeing the ordinary in a different way. There is certainly infinite ways in which we can produce a photograph and many subjects can be found around us, without having to travel far at all, if only we make the effort to really see those things. As well, different photographers may see different things around them and be drawn to objects for varying reasons. I believe this type of photography requires much inner thought and contemplation. I can’t say that I personally always like or enjoy what I see, some of the photos exampled, I may even pass by without a second thought and dismiss. For instance, we all view the world in many different ways, beauty in objects is in the eyes of the beholder and we won’t all agree on this, so I can appreciate it as someone’s representation of beauty or whichever point or view they were attempting to convey.

 Chapter 5 – Intimate Life

Intimate photography, described as being in likeness with the ordinary “family” snapshots interests me a great deal. It gives a viewer not only the chance to perhaps see something they wouldn’t usually have access to but it also tells us quite a bit about the photographer themselves. Nan Goldin is a fine example of this. Her photography has evolved over time as her life has transformed and become something different, if you view her past work and her more recent work, you can see a shift in her own mood and emotions and it gives you a glimpse into where her life currently in. In this instance, photography can be an expression of oneself, the way we visualise the world around us, what catches our eye in a crowd that warrants a photograph. It says something about the photographer when such moments are shot in an intimate way as opposed to a deadpan narrative of recording the scene unbiasedly.

When you photograph “what you know” a sense of intimacy will naturally be present in your work and it doesn’t always have to portray difficult, dark or unusual moments to classify as intimate or warrant recognition. Just recording how the world, specifically your world, is seen through your own eyes is enough to make it intimate.

Chapter 6 – Moments in History

The place of reportage photography in contemporary art appears to have taken the stance of portraying thwe aftermath of a situation. Is this, therefore the only method offered in contemporary art to portray important moments in history? It is certainly an interesting angle to take. The empty shell of what has been left behind, the consequences of actions taken. I understand that photographers must attempt to stay relevent and perhaps photography that is taken right in the midst of action isn’t considered “fashionable” anymore but, for me, it still remains relevent and I certianly believe it still has it’s place within contemporary art photography, however I understand the need for a shift in perspective, otherwise the photos may look like they should appear in newspapers as opposed to art galleries.

Chapter 7 – Revived and Remade

Modernism in photography focused on the camera as a techincal and mecahnical tool and highlighting the qualites that went with this. In contemporary art, Postmodernism followed. Postmodernism, in contrast was a reaction against the ideas and values of Modernism. Modernism was seen as utopian vision of human life, one on which beliefs about the future were built on. Postmodernism has it’s basis in skeptism and challenges the idea that there are set universal truths or certainties. There is more surrealism, abstractism and conceptualism present. However, there is no one approach in postmodernism and it takes on many forms. Postmodernism has its basis in history and memory however and takes on a kind of irony as a result. Zoe Leonard and Cheryl Dunye’s work “The Fae Richards Photo Archive” is an example of this. Disguised as a collection of vintage photographs from the past, it is hard to tell whether they are real or not. However, the story about “Fae Richards” life, starkly contrasts that of many black artists of the time.

Post modernism breaks the rules and has an anti-authority stance, there is a sense of freedom and an “anything goes” attitude with the artists depicted. This allows the photpgraphic artists to explore themselves and their work freely.

Chapter 8 – Physical and Material

With the rise of digital, photography has shifted in many ways. There is an abundance of photography in our daily lives, it is easily accessible, easily displayed and shared and can overwhelm with the sheer volume of it. This has lead some photographers to give a renewed attention to the physicality and materiality of photographs. Old techniques are given a new lease of life with analog approaches being used and their relevence displayed. The artists in this chapter prove that analog still has it’s place within this very digital orientated world and give their own interesting angle on things as they see them.


  • Cotton. C. (2016) The Photograph as Contemporary Art. Thames & Hudson, World of Art.