Posts tagged ‘photographers’

May 23, 2014

Book Review: The Photography as Contemporary Art by Charlotte Cotton

by Suzy Walker-Toye

I found this book very interesting & thought provoking. It’s split into 8 chapters, Cotton really packs a lot into each one. These chapters divide up contemporary art into categories or themes to “avoid giving the impression that it is either style or choice of subject matter that predominantly determines the salient characteristics of current art photography. [p7] The chapters try to group together photographers who share common motivation & working practices to understand the ideas that underpin contemporary art photography before understanding them visually.

The first chapter, If This Is Art, challenges the stereotypical lone-photographer-snapping-away-at-life notion by introducing artists who have created performances and happenings  (I love that term) especially to photograph them. This style, conceived in the conceptual art of the 60s, works because the photograph is the intended final outcome (the object presented as the work of art). The photographic style can play on the notion that these are only casual documentary photographs of the event. This challenge lifts these out of the documentary photography category and into the art category.

Some of the photographers introduced in this chapter include:

Philip-Lorca diCorcia who set up a flash on some scaffold in the streets of New York which would be triggered by random passers by so that he could take ‘portraits’ with a long lens of people who do not know they are being photographed so they do not compose themselves.

Sophie Calle whose blend of artistic strategy and dally life compelled her to eat (and photograph) only food of a single colour per day and to follow a strange man she’d accidentally met twice in one day all the way to Venice and document the journey he unwittingly led her through. For her work The Hotel she took a job as a chambermaid and documented guests person effects to discover (or imagine) who they might be.

Shizuka Yokomizo who sent letters to strangers houses asking them to stand at the window at a certain time so she could photograph them from the street, the opposite of diCorcia, these people are all shown posing in anticipation of being photographed by some unknown woman.

We are looking at strangers looking at themselves in photographs, for the windows act as a mirrors as they anticipate the moment they will be photographed. [p32]

David Shrigley who’s work uses shock & witty visual puns.

The anti-intellectual form of photoconceptualism relies on a fast turnaround of ideas and, for the viewer, an immediate comprehension and enjoyment of their meaning. [p38]

Mona Hatoum whose (rather unpleasant looking) work Van Gogh’s Back, [p40] plays on the association of the swirly patterns in Van Gogh’s starry skies with the swirly patterns in the hair on the soapy mans back. Also, the interplay between various 2D and 3D representations (back vs painting and back vs photo of a back).


The second chapter, Once Upon a Time, focuses on story telling within art photography and the how contemporary artists use ‘tableau’ photography. I was introduced first to this style of photography in the seduced by art exhibition (I wrote up my study visit too this in my part 2 PDF), where photographers (especially in the 18th & 19th century) would stage photographs in the way of paintings to make use of common cultural understanding that those paintings had already provided in terms of props, composition, symbolism etc. This chapter also carries over from the last, emphasising that the final photographs often come together as a result of a collaboration, where the photographer is the artist, producer and directer in a whole cast of actors, crew, stage and props.

Artists introduced in this section included:

Jeff Wall (who was also featured in the seduced by art exhibition) is one of the leading practitioners of tableau photography. His photographs often play on the idea of staged scene vs casually glanced at scene so that often his photographs appear to look like straight reportage, however he uses compositional devices that might be found in Renaissance paintings.

Wall sets up a tension between the look and substance of a candid, grabbed photographic moment with his actual process, which is to preconceive and construct the scene. [p50]

Also, he chooses to display his work on giant light boxes, not quite a photography, not quite a painting but by its spatial & luminescent qualities suggest the experience of both. For example the one he showed in the Seduced by Art exhibition, destroyed room, was made on a transparent film, a very large one of a kind print, a unique image (like a painting would be). It pays homage to a large painting in the Louvre, Death of Sardanapalus by Eugène Delacroix, see my write up in the part 2 PDF notes for this exhibition.

Philip-Lorca diCorcia is again featured, this time Cotton talks about his Hollywood series in which he pays men he meets in the area to have their portraits taken and names the photographs with the name & age of the man and how much he was paid to pose. This encourages a kind of storytelling in the mind of the viewers.

Liza May Post’s images are surrealistic and dreamlike. She makes strange props and the figures are often in contorted, slightly off balance poses, such as in Shadow [58].

One of the great uses of tableau photography is as a format that can carry intense but ambiguous drama that is then shaped by the viewer’s own train of thought. [p58]

Frances Kearney whose series Five People Thinking the Same Thing depicts people doing ordinary  domestic tasks facing away from the camera. This title starts you wondering what it is that all these different people are thinking about, these thoughts are not revealed and you as the viewer are left to let your imagination run free from the clues within the pictures.

Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, and Charlie White take photographs that border the gap between art & fashion, which is where my mind went when I saw the title to this chapter (it made me think of Tim Walker who was not mentioned).

The physical beauty of the prints, combined with the moral ambiguity of the narrative, makes for an unnerving visual pleasure. [p65]

Gregory Crewdson, builds highly detailed sets in which he stages strange and disturbing happenings to photograph.


Chapter three, Deadpan, relates to a type of art photography that has a distinct lack of visual drama or hyperbol… instead these photographs have a visual command that comes from their expansive nature and scale [p8/9]. Well damn, how is one to really appreciate what Cotton is saying about these images when they are reduced down to such a small scale to be reproduced in the book? I haven’t seen any of the images mentioned in ‘real life’ so I would have to just imagine their image if they were huge. It does really bring home that some images are photographed almost exclusively for exhibition though, in this internet generation its often easy to forget this and make snap judgements on images you see reproduced so small. This brings to mind the Flickr effect, where images are judged first and for most by their thumbnail size impact. None of those images in this chapter would do well don flickr 😉

Some of the photographers introduced in this chapter include:

Andreas Gursky, whose huge images are often 2m by 5m to stop you in your tracks. At this size they can be packed with detail that simply cannot be appreciated when they are shrunk down to be reproduced in a book, see Chicago, Board of Trade II [p84] for an example of what I mean, I have actually seen this in a gallery space (I recognised it but I can’t remember for what exhibition, I thought it was prix picket but he wasn’t in the 2012 one I went to) and it was most impressive.

Gursky often places us so far away from his subjects that we are not part of the action at all but detached, critical viewers. [p84].

Jacqueline Hassink, whose images of boardrooms I got to see during the study visit to the Prix Pictet exhibition (see write up here).

The results of her systematic approach spell out the generic links between corporations, regardless of the nature of their business, and the values that each corporation attaches to itself through the demarcation of space. [p91]

Joel Sternfeld, whose images from the series When it changed featured in the same study visit to the Prix Pictet exhibition, the following quote from the book equally applies to that series as to the image on p108 to which it is referring.

Joel Sternfeld’s portraits do more than raise the question of what we can assume to know about the sitter from their outward appearance. They also propose the facts of what has transpired [p107]

Ed Burtynsky, whose images have also featured in previous Prix Pictet competition themes, I’ve only seen online and I’m books (more’s the pity). I wanted to make it to the flowers gallery exhibitions of his series Water  which looked amazing (even on the internet) last year but I didn’t get there before it finished.

While social, political and ecological issues are embedded into his subjects, they are visualised as objective evidence of the consequences of contemporary life. [p86]


Chapter 4, Something and Nothing is a funny one, its a chapter about how images ordinary every day objects can challenge the viewers perceptions of photography, i.e. how contemporary photographers have pushed the boundaries of what can be considered a credible artistic subject. Ranging from window reflections to discarded clothes these images are more about the subject (and lack thereof) and how they are conceptually altered because of the visual impact they are given by being photographed and presented as art – its the R. Mutt of photography.

 All the photographs in this chapter, in subtle ways, attempt to shift our perceptions of our daily lives. There is something anti-triumphant and open ended, yet still resonant, in this form of photography [p126]

Artists introduced in this section included:

Peter Fischli & David Weiss, who’s Quiet Afternoon series is a selection of images of ordinary objects stacked up in a surrealistic and often comedic manner.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who’s untitled billboards [p118] are required to be displayed (by the owner) on at least 6 billboards at any one time and depict an unmade bed, with the imprint of the couples bodies still visible on the sheets.

 The photograph’s depiction of such an intimate scene is given its drama by being placed into the public contexts of urban streets and highways for the scrutiny of passers-by [p118]

Anthony Hernandez, who takes photos of abandoned buildings, documenting what is overlooked (socially and politically as well as visually).

Wolfgang Tillmans, who’s images are all very different (in both subjects and processes) have many recurring motifs such as the spontaneous sculptures made by clothes have have been casually discarded – either hung up or dropped on the floor.

Jeff Wall, crops up again, this time with an image of a mop & bucket.

Wall’s careful construction of a grouping of peripheral things prompts questions about our own relationship with photographs: Why are we looking at this? At what point in history and our own lives did a corner of a floor represented in a photograph become iconic, worthy of our attention? [p131]


Chapter five, Intimate life, concentrates on photographs revealing personal relationships.

We generally take pictures at symbolic points in family life, at times when we acknowledge our relationship bonds and social achievements. They are moments we hold onto, emotionally and visually”[p137]

Using the style of a family snap, many of these images seek to capture moments during which a camera wouldn’t ordinary be brought out. Some of these images could be said to be sensationalist however, the photographers are somewhat immune to criticism of exploration of their subjects because of the autobiographical nature of this style of photography, the subjects are typically friends & family of the photographer and sometimes the photographer themselves. This chapter was my least favourite, probably because I couldn’t identify with the photographers or their subjects, why would you want a camera in your face during those moments (as the subject)? And I couldn’t conceive of getting a camera out during those moments as a photographer, it seems so crass, intrusive and emotionally detached to be taking pictures during those moments, does that make me less of an artist – probably – but a nicer human being.

Photographers introduced in this chapter included:

Nan Goldin, who’s ongoing series of images of friends & lovers pretty much started off this style of photography.

The Ballard of Sexual Dependancy, for example, was a personalized contemplation of the nature of subjects such as sexual relationships, male social isolation, domestic violence and substance abuse. [p139]

Nobuyoshi Araki, who’s images are seen as a visual diary of his sexual life featuring young Japanese women in various states of undress.

Richard Billingham, who’s images are of his family in their cramped and untidy council flat in the West Midlands. I actually saw some of these in the 1997 “Sensation” Exhibition at the Royal Academy.

Ryan McGinley, who is following in Nan Goldin’s footsteps, by recording his lifestyle (in the same area although 30 years later).

Yang Yong, who’s images are staged as a collaborative effort of him and his friends to starve off boredom.


Chapter six, Moments in History, takes a look a the work of photographers who bear witness to the ways of life and events of the world. It is primarily documentary photography and its use as art. Starting with ‘aftermath photography’, where photographers go into war zones and sites of other social and ecological disasters to photograph what is left.

In the literal scarification of the places depicted, contemporary art photography presents allegories of the consequences of political and hunan upheaval. [p9]

The chapter also touches on how documentary projects about isolated communities which once would have graces the pages of editorial magazines are now turning to galleries to present the work.

Artists introduced in this section included:

Sophie Ristelhueber who has documented the aftermath of conflicts in Beirut, Kuwait and Iraq and is seen to be one of the most influential photographers working in this mode.

In some of her starkest visualisations of the decimation created by war, burnt tree stumps act as metaphors for the loss of life as well as the ecological richness of the region. [p168]

Paul Seawright, who’s commissioned work (by London’s Imperial War Museum) responding to the conflict in Afghanistan is reminiscent of the early war photographs by Roger Fenton from the early to mid 1800’s.

Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, who’s work I was introduced to by these videos on What is Conceptual Photography, and then again later in the Deutsche Borse 2013 study visit.

In this chapter of the book, Cotton touches on their work with reference to Benetton’s Colors Magazine and work from the series Ghetto (2003).

The fact that the activity in the prison was edited out and slowed down long enough to be visualised on Broomberg and Chanarin’s large-format camera relates the project to nineteenth-century documentary photography , and also serves to detach it from the conventions of photojournalism. [p177]

Martin Parr, who’s brightly coloured images from his Common Sense series test the boundaries of documentary photography, taking hundreds of photos and editing them down into a narrative about British cultural idiosyncrasies which may be dying out.

Common Sense epitomises photographic promiscuity – the taking of hundreds of photographs, which in their combination offer one dynamic and subjective image of the world. [p183]

Luc Delahaye, who’s images from Various works 2008-2011 won the 2012 Prix Pictet competition on the theme ‘Power’ (see my write up on that exhibition here).


Chapter seven, Revived and Remade, explores the postmodernist photographic practice of exploiting our pre-existing cultural knowledge base of imagery.

This includes the remaking of well-known photographs and the mimicking of generic types of imagery such as magazine adverting, film stills or surveillance and scientific photography. By recognising these familiar kinds of imagery, we are made conscious of what we see, how we see, and how images trigger and shape our emotions. [p10]

Why couldn’t Barthes just boil it down to a simple sentence or two like that? Anyway, this type of photographic practice raises all sorts of interesting questions on concepts such as originality, authorship & photographic veracity. This chapter also touches on reuse of existing images, which brought to mind the study visit to the Deutsche Borse photography prize. Mishka Henner, Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin and Cristina De Middel’s entires into that prize would all feel at home being mentioned in this chapter and I was reminding of each as I read through.

A few of the photographers introduced in this chapter are:

Cindy Sherman, who’s work typically sees her pose in her own photographs portraying generic female characters. For example, her Untitled Film Stills series is sixty-nine images of scenarios that depict a single woman figure and could be from stills from black & white fils of the 1950s & 60s.

One of the most startling aspects of the series is the ease with which each feminine ‘type’ is recognisable. Even though we know only the gist f the possible film plots being staged, because of our familiarity wit the coding of such films, we begin easily to read the narratives implied by the images. [p193]

Nikki S. Lee, who’s work is part performance, part photography. The artist changes her appearance (her weight, hair, eye and even skin colour) to assimilate herself into a certain social group by scrutinising their clothes, mannerisms, social conventions and body language. The photographs are either taken by a friend or a member from the group. Her projects have ranged including Hispanic,Strippers, Punk, Yuppie and Wall Street Broker .

Vik Muniz, who appropriated Hans Namuth’s famous photograph of Jackson Pollock by recreating it in chocolate syrup and then photographing it (p190). Muniz has also make similar illusions with other substances such as chocolate, thread, dust, wire, sugar, soil and even spaghetti.

This suitably dripping re-presentation of the famous artist makes for a dynamic mental relay: we recognise this as a photograph of a drawing of a photograph of, what has become, a syrupy mystification of the creative act of the artist. [p191]


The final chapter, Physical and Material, is focused on photography where the nature of the medium is part of the narrative of the work. For some photographers this simply means to use analogue technology rather than digital when creating an artwork, for others this is appropriating existing images to find new meanings (although you could argue this is curation and not photography). This chapter also touches on artists who only use photography as one facet of their various media practice.

“There has been a shift in the current understanding of what photography encompasses and what it means to propose photographic works of art. More than ever this involves some sort of disclosure of the context and conditions that have shaped the completed artwork. Contemporary art photography has become less about applying a pre-existing, fully functioning visual technology and more concerned with active choices in every step of the process. [p219]

Artists introduced in this section included

Sherrie Levine, who appropriates the work of Walker Evans, rephotographing famous his photographs as objects, mounting them, framing them and presenting them in contemporary galleries. This is akin to Marcel Duchamp granting iconic status to ordinary found objects (except these photographs were already famous in their own right so it still seems like cheating to me).

Christopher Williams, who has an obsession with corn and corn byproducts and how they infiltrate every aspect of our lives, even photography (where a by-product of corn is used as an ingredient in the lubricant used to polish lenses and also in the chemicals used to make fine art photographic prints).

Sara VanDerBeek, who makes small sculptures which include appropriated images and then photographs them with dramatic lighting as the finished work (she doesn’t exhibit the sculptures themselves).

Michael Queenland, who makes art installations for which large abstract photographs are just one part, a “transformative tool of quotidian objects and experiences” apparently.

Within pan-media practice, photography is used in various ways, as an ingredient that can either intentionally disrupt or consolidate the overall narrative of an installation or artwork. [p227]

Eileen Quinlan, whose on-going series Smoke & Mirrors is a personal reflection on making analogue photographs and the luck and happenstance which goes along with that physical process.

Jason Evans, who’s online project The Daily Nice, is a photo a day project of something visually intriguing with a happy tenor which responds on how web behaviour can shape the scope of contemporary photography


The conclusion of the book is a relatively short and upbeat paragraph so I’ll keep mine short too, we are encouraged with the introduction to these artists to engage with the wonders of life and to recognise the beauty and magic that is still to be found photographically.

In an era where we receive, take, and disseminate as well as tag, browse and edit photographic imagery, we are all the more invested, and more expert, in the language of photography than ever before, and we have a greater appreciation for how photography can be a far from neutral or transparent vehicle for bridged and framed moments or real time. [p240]

Well after reading this book I now I am. Recommended.

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