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The Photograph as Contemporary Art

The Photograph as Contemporary Art 

 by Charlotte Cotton. 

World of Art series: Thames & Hudson.

Writing about contemporary anything is like running to catch a train that never slows down at a station. The author is forever destined to have missed the latest one, no matter how fast she goes.

For nearly two decades, Charlotte Cotton has taken on this challenge with four (as of 2020) editions of The Photograph as Contemporary Art.

Anyone who is mystified or simply clueless about contemporary art photography can be thankful that she has continued to roll this particular boulder up the mountain, no doubt knowing she will be starting the task again once it is completed.

Cotton divides contemporary art photography into nine broad categories and devotes a chapter to each.

She acknowledges that individual artists are rarely so cooperative as to fit nicely into concise classifications, but even if there is much coloring outside the lines, the categories do serve to help the reader understand the broad perspectives that artists today are working in. Cotton chose the categories based on the artists’ motivations and working practices.

It is characteristic of the challenge Cotton faces that the original edition listed just seven categories. Each edition gets a little thicker, with the latest version nearly 100 pages longer than the first 200-page edition.

The book might be best described as a tasting menu of artists. Most receive a single photograph and a long paragraph outlining their work and their place in modern art practice. Like a tasting menu, the best use of the book might be to sample the works of many artists and then take a deeper dive toward those that the reader finds interesting.

But it would be selling the book short to suggest that it is merely a compendium of short descriptions of individual artists.

The introductions that accompany each category keep the book from becoming a random mishmash of short descriptions of individuals. Cotton provides insight into how each category fits into the history and current practice of photography as contemporary art.

Contemporary art generally, and especially contemporary art using photography, can be baffling to anyone raised on twentieth century photography, whether one prefers the f64 Group style of straight photography or the portraits of Mary Ellen Mark or the street style photographs of Robert Frank or Garry Winogrand. Cotton’s book serves as a useful introduction for anyone wishing to better understand what has been going on in the world of art and photography over the last 20 years.

Cotton begins the tour with If This is Art, which focuses on photographers who pursue a directorial approach to their photographs. Staging them rather than “discovering” them. These might be characterized as the opposite of the Cartier-Bresson “decisive moment” approach.

Once Upon a Time looks at the use of storytelling in contemporary art photography. According to Cotton, “this area of photographic practice is often described as tableau or tableau-vivant photography: a stand-alone picture with a resolved pictorial narrative loaded into a single frame.”

Deadpan draws on the tradition of straight documentary photography applied to contemporary culture and life. Photographers often embrace banal subjects that would not ordinarily be considered worthy of a photograph, but which, when presented in the gallery on the printed page embody deeper social meaning than the subject might ordinarily command.

One of the most popular genres since the 1990s, Deadpan has roots that go much deeper. The godparents of Deadpan might be Bernd and Hilla Becher, but one can see within it echoes of Robert Frank, August Sander, Walker Evans and others. The landmark 1975 exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape might be considered the birth of Deadpan.

Unlike many of the other categories, Deadpan may come the closest to a reasonably consistent photographic “look,” although the practitioners cover a wildly broad range including Stephen Shore, Rineke Dijkstra, Martin Parr and Andreas Gursky.

If Deadpan leans toward the banal, Something and Nothing might be said to take banal and multiply it several times over. Cotton describes it as showing “how ostensibly ordinary, everyday objects and observations can be made extraordinary by the act of being photographed.”

If Deadpan photographers are often focused on social observations through their straightforward viewpoint, Something and Nothing photography seems more focused simply on the objects themselves and their aesthetic or distinctly non-aesthetic qualities. These may be the modern-day equivalents of Weston’s peppers or the still lifes of Minor White and Aaron Siskind.

Intimate Life “looks at how narratives of domestic and intimate life have been presented in contemporary art photography.”

It draws on the traditional use of photography by amateurs to document home life and merges it with the photojournalistic tradition of exploring “how the other half lives,” except that the “other half” is often the photographer’s own family and social circle.

Nan Goldin’s unflinching documentation of her personal life and the lives of her friends in “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” forms the foundation and inspiration for many of those working in this genre. While photographing “the other” has a long tradition that includes documentarians like W. Eugene Smith and portraitists like Diane Arbus, photographers working in the Intimate Life vein are more likely to turn the camera inward, breaking the wall between photographer and subject.

Photographers in the Moments in History category seek to document human experience and events in an era in which most outlets for photojournalism have either died or become so atrophied as to be essentially non-existent in the mass media. Photographers working in this tradition continue to soldier on and may find within the walls of the gallery a more receptive, if limited, audience.

These artist/documentarians often focus not on an immediate event, but on the aftermath of those events and on the impact on those who either survived the event or were left behind by those who did not survive.

Revived and Remade is largely a rejection of the “Great Photographer” tradition which selects and elevates individual practitioners. Those who pursue this category are described by Cotton as postmodernists who “examined the medium in terms of its production, dissemination and reception, and engaged with its inherent reproducibility, mimicry and falsity.”

Artists in this category are often less photographers than they are finders and repurposers of existing photographs. Well known examples include Richard Prince, best known for rephotographing Marlboro billboards and Sherrie Levine, whose rephotographing of Walker Evan’s portrait of a depression-era woman remains controversial 40 years later.

Since her first edition was published Cotton has added two categories, Physical and Material and Photographicness.

Physical and Material focuses on artists who use traditional chemical-based photographic processes, but often in unconventional ways, including creating art without the use of a camera. Photographicness examines artists who “invite us to pay close attention” to “present-day networked, commodity-centric culture, where the digital media environment of the Web, social media and mobile imaging technologies are significant controlling factors.”

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