The Photograph as Contemporary Art

Charlotte Cotton has an impeccable CV. She was the curator and head of the Wallis Annenberg Department of Photography at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), curator of photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum (1992-2004), the head of programming at The Photographers Gallery (2004-2005) in London. More lately she was the founding creative director for Media Space, the National Media Museum upcoming London photographic gallery.

This book is her attempt to place modern photographic practitioners into a context of contemporary art. It’s a big task; she has considered over 200 artists in just 220 pages and she has attempted to control the offering by classifying them into eight categories or themes. Her aim, as stated in the introduction is: ”…to give a sense of the spectrum of motivations and expressions that currently exist in the field.” The themes are an attempt to group photographers not by subject matter or style, but by a common ground in working methods and motivations.

She starts with “If this is Art”. Under this heading she considers events that have been staged specifically for the purpose of being photographed. There is a fine line between this and her second section “One Upon a Time” which is mostly concerned with tableaux. Of course there is nothing contemporary about these approaches. The Tableau Vivant was an established practise at the dawn of photography and a popular Victorian pastime was to create tableaux, these were photographed both as a record and as a part of the activity.

“Deadpan” is about the aesthetics of photography; the picture is more important than the photographer’s interpretation of it. She calls it deadpan because the pictures follow a “…cool, detached, keenly sharp type of photography…” in which it “…moves art photography outside the hyperbolic, sentimental and subjective.” The subjects here are dramatic images with maximum visual impact, designed for gallery walls and they lose a lot of their impact by being reduced.

The ordinary and the mundane are the subject of “Something and Nothing”. This chapter describes how anything to the modern photographer can be a suitable subject, in many cases the more commonplace the better. By being photographed, the ordinary is promoted to the extra-ordinary. We are forced to give our attention to objects that would otherwise not be worthy of it. These are given what she describes as “luscious and sensual treatment.” They are photographed in unusual juxtapositions, stacked in apparently gravity defying ways or simply breathed upon.

With the growing spread of camera ownership and the extension of picture taking abilities into other devices, the pictorial cataloguing of family life is now second nature. The fifth chapter, “Intimate Life”, shows how art photographers have taken this concept, including some of the technical idiosyncrasies of the characteristically inexpert manner of the picture taking.

With the rise of the use of television to carry documentary information to masses the commissioning of photojournalists to record events has declined. To fill the gap documentary photographers have turned to the art gallery as a way of showing their work. “Moments in History” explores some of the techniques they have used to bridge the gap and to present “…allegories of the consequences of political and human upheaval.”

The examples in “Revived and Remade” can be seen in terms of copying, either style or other works, the intention however is somewhat different. It is relating pictures not to what they represent but to how they are viewed. “…photographs were seen as signs that acquired their significance or value from their place within the larger system of social or cultural coding.” A picture’s meaning is determined by reference to other images or signs.

The final chapter concerns itself with the materials of picture making. “Physical and Material” covers a number of strategies from the basic choice a photographers when choosing what media to use and ranges to appropriated images, collages, even photographs used as part of sculpture.

With this emphasis on motivation, it would be wrong therefore to approach the book expecting a catalogue of artists and an appraisal of their work and as mentioned earlier, there is not the space to do this justice. Yet the book does present an introduction to a large number of active contemporary photographers and as such can be a useful springboard to further study.

Its division though of the entire output of these photographers into just 8 categories is somewhat arbitrary. I am reminded that theory follows practise in these matters; that artists who are evolving the medium are creating genres which analysts attempt to classify later. To categorise the ins such a way, especially as the author points many cross the boundaries between the divisions, serves to straitjacket their interpretation somewhat. Only history when it looks back at the early 21st century will accurately classify the relevance of these works and categories.

For me therefore, the book, whilst meeting its stated aim of providing a spectrum of the motivations of current artists, falls somewhat short of being a useful analytical tool. This is not meant to demean the book’s value. It will serve a useful purpose on my bookshelf and I will refer to it from time to time. But I think I will use it more as a catalogue and bounce off it into deeper research.

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