Summary of Modern Photography
The birth of Modern Photography heralded a significant aesthetic change in photographic output as well as a shift in the way in which photography was produced, utilized and appreciated. Modern Photography encompassed trends in the medium from the early 1900s through to the 1960s. The move from early photography to Modern Photography is distinguished by a departure from the language and constraints of traditional art, such as painting, and this change in attitude was mirrored by changes in practice. Photographers started using the camera as a direct tool rather than manipulating images to conform to traditional notions of artistic beauty (a custom particularly associated with Pictorialism). In pioneering this move, modern photographers eventually disrupted the wider conventions of the art world by expanding both what was considered art and what was deemed an acceptable subject matter for it.
Although Modern Photography does not start until the beginning of the 20th century, earlier photographic innovations provide a technological and contextual framework for later developments and are important in understanding the stylistic changes of the period. Some of the key approaches of Modern Photography are unique to the medium whilst others align with wider art movements such as Dada and Surrealism. In contrast to earlier relationships between photography and artistic groups, which tended to be imitative, Modern Photography became fully embedded in these movements and provided a new and powerful medium for experimentation and expression.
Important Photographs and Artists of Modern Photography
Stieglitz promoted this photograph as his first truly "modernist photograph" and it is this image that marks his departure from the Pictorialist style and his abandonment of the idea that photographs should imitate paintings. The photograph depicts steerage (lower class) passengers aboard a ship sailing from New York to Europe, which Stieglitz was also travelling on. The majority of those shown are likely to have been skilled migrant workers who had entered the US on temporary visas to work in the construction industry and were now returning home. It was probably taken whilst anchored at Plymouth, England and was developed in Paris some days later.
In the photograph, Stieglitz creates an image that is as much a study in line and form as a straightforward depiction, with the decks, passageways, and ladders creating a series of bold, intersecting lines and spaces. Later, Stieglitz stated of the image that "I saw shapes related to each other. I saw a picture of shapes and underlying that, the feeling I had about life". Due to this emphasis of geometric shapes the photograph has been cited as one of the first proto-Cubist works of art.
Although taken in 1907, Stieglitz did not immediately see the potential of the work. He later realized its importance and published it in Camera Work in 1911 in a special issue devoted to his own art and its modernist focus. In the issue he also included a Cubist drawing by Picasso, drawing his own parallels between the two and arguing that the photograph as a medium could be as innovative and as modern, as any work of avant-garde art. Picasso himself also acknowledged the similarities, noting that "this photographer is working in the same spirit as I am".
Photogravure - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
This is one of the most important photographs in establishing Modern Photography and a noted early street photograph. Strand said that the woman's "absolutely unforgettable and noble face," prompted the photograph which is in direct contrast to the formal, posed studio portraits of the period. One of a series of street portraits using a handheld camera with a false brass lens attached to its side, so the subject would be unaware, Strand's street photographs were influenced by his teacher and mentor, Lewis Hine, who pioneered social documentary photography for purposes of social reform.
The piece combines this focus on social documentation with a modernist aesthetic which highlights pattern and form, with the diagonal lines of the rectangular blocks mirroring the woman's gaze and framing the image. The viewer is immediately aware of the contradiction between her dignified face and the oval peddler's badge (required by law) and the simple and bold sign announcing her disability. As the curator Peter Barberie notes of Strand, "For him, the camera was a machine - a modern machine... He was preoccupied with the question of how modern art - whether it's photography or not - could contain all of the humanity that you see in the Western artistic traditions." Blind was published in a 1917 issue of Camera Work and immediately took on an iconic status within the new American photography movement.
Platinum print - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Depicting a march of Mexican agricultural workers seeking better working conditions, this image combines social documentary concerns with an emphasis on the appearances of modernism, combining art and politics (like other photographs of the period). The workers are depicted from above and behind so that their backs and hats fill the frame, suggesting a crowd beyond the confines of the photograph. The workers are faceless making them anonymous as individuals but as a mass they are powerful, surging diagonally upwards across the frame. This is further emphasized by the lack of a clear focal point in the image.
Italian-born, Modotti immigrated to San Francisco as a teenager and began acting in theatre and film and working as an art model. Edward Weston whom she met in 1920 influenced her photographic practice. They became lovers and moved together to Mexico City in 1923 where they opened a photo studio and associated with political figures such as Leon Trotsky, and the painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Modotti remained in Mexico after Weston returned to the States. She eventually moved to Moscow, joined the Soviet communist party, and gave up photography in 1931 to dedicate herself to social causes. Following her early death at the age of 46, Modotti was known primarily as Weston's muse and mistress, but the discovery of a large collection of her photographs in 1999 led to a re-evaluation of her work in its own right, and a solo exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art in 2013.
Gelatin silver print - The Museum of Modern Art, New York City
Noire et blanche
Part of a photo series by Man Ray, this Surrealist image depicts a woman, her face with closed eyes reclining on a surface, while in her left hand she holds an upright African ceremonial mask. The woman is Kiki de Montparnasse, one of Man Ray's favorite models and also his lover. The work's title refers both to the black and white film and to the juxtaposition in color between face and mask. The ovals of the woman's face and the shape of the mask, both wearing a serene expression, create a connection between the two, both are objectified and the high polish of the image emphasizes the beauty of the object, whether face or mask.
Created at a time when African art was enormously popular and collectable, there have been numerous readings of the image with one of the most sustained suggesting that in it Man Ray tackles the theme of the double, a common one in Surrealist art, which symbolized the split between the conscious and unconscious mind. The work can also be viewed as an attempt to neutralize difference or as a reflection of contemporary attitudes towards race and gender, making it problematic in post-colonial terms.
Gelatin silver print - The Museum of Modern Art, New York City
Pepper No. 30
For two decades Weston created close-ups of peppers, eggplants, shells, artichokes, and other organic forms that emphasized their sensuous and sculptural beauty and this is one of his best-known images from this period. In this photograph, lit with rich tonalities, the pepper becomes a monumental form which evokes human curves. Weston achieved the contrast between the pepper and its background by placing it inside a tin funnel to photograph it. The resulting light gave the image a three-dimensional quality of which he said "It was a bright idea, a perfect relief for the pepper and adding reflecting light to important contours". His intent was not only to depict the beauty of the pepper but the qualities beyond the subject itself, as he noted it was, "a pepper ‒ but more than a pepper; abstract, in that it is completely outside subject matter".
Silver gelatin contact print - San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Secretary at a West German Radio, Cologne
This image of a secretary at a radio station depicts a fashionably dressed and coiffed young woman seated on a chair smoking. The image projects a strong sense of the character of the sitter and this photographic honesty was part of the realist movement known as Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity). This was one of a series of portraits produced by Sander during the 1920s and '30s, some of which were published in his major photography book: Faces of Our Time (1929). Sander sought to create "a physiognomic image of an age", and a catalogue of "all the characteristics of the universally human". Sander divided his portraits into one of seven categories, based on social standing and occupation of the sitter. In doing so, Sander created, not only, a unique collection of portraits but a social history document that records the German class structure of the period.
In this image, the sitter holds a cigarette whilst looking directly at the camera as if challenging the photographer. In portraying her smoking (an activity previously considered unsuitable for women) and clearly in control of the situation, Sander shows her as an emancipated, working woman capable of managing her own career and finances. The portrait consequently highlights a dichotomy between the individuality of the sitter and the limited number of categories of classification defined by Sander and this reflects wider issues in German society at the time. As the art historian Lynette Roth notes: "If typecasting and classification were introduced during the Weimar period in order to negotiate an increasingly complex society, then ambiguity in even the most definitive Weimar period portraits serves as evidence of ongoing disorientation".
Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur - August Sander Archiv, Köln, Germany
Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California
A contemporary survey found Migrant Mother to be the most widely recognizable photograph ever made and it is the quintessential example of social documentary photography. The image features a woman framed by two of her children and holding a third in her arms. The family's poverty is apparent in their worn and dirty clothing, and the hardship they face is conveyed in the mother's expression and in the body language of the children who turn away to cling to her. Lange was part of a group of photographers along with Jack Delano, Walker Evans, Russel Lee, Carl Mydans, and Gordon Parks, who were hired by the Farm Security Administration to document "the American way of life", particularly emphasizing the effects of the Depression and the Dust Bowl. The images were intended to support the social reform efforts of the Roosevelt administration and this is reflected in the caption for the photo that read, "Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California".
Lange later said of the experience, "I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food...[she] seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it." Later the subject of the photograph, Florence Owens Thompson, contradicted this version of events noting that they were based at the pea pickers camp temporarily whilst their car was being fixed and whilst poor, were not in the same desperate position as other families living more permanently at the camp.
Though Lange's story emphasizes the human element of the encounter, the photograph is also notable for its modernist sense of composition. The lines of the woman's arm on which her head rests, the lines of the children's arms and bodies as they lean into her, and use of tone and contrast create a simple and symmetrical image which adds to the power of the message.
Gelatin silver print - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Blossom Restaurant, 103 Bowery, Manhattan
Abbott's image depicts the Blossom Restaurant, as viewed from the street, with a barbershop to the right. Signage, announcing items and their prices, fills the windows, and a man, looking at the photographer, pauses on the steps leading from the restaurant, whilst another man can be partially glimpsed behind the barber shop pole. The image itself is divided into sections by the line of the street, the strong verticals of the windows and doorways and the diagonal stripes of the barber's pole, which together convey a sense of fullness and dynamism replicating the busy nature of the city, thus the photograph captures a brief moment in the ever-changing urban environment.
Abbott was a leading Straight Photographer who felt the image should convey "the shock of reality unadorned", a phrase she coined to describe the work of Eugene Atget which she had encountered in Paris in the 1920s whilst working for Man Ray. Atget had a significant and lasting influence on Abbott's work and like his photographs her images often contain juxtapositions between old and new. Returning to New York in 1928, she was struck by how the city had changed and began taking photographs to document what she saw, working for much of the late 1930s as part of the WPA's Federal Art Project.
Gelatin silver print - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Fort Peck Dam, Montana
This picture presents Fort Peck Dam as a modern icon of engineering with the massive architectural structure as the focus of the image, filling much of the frame. The dam's size is further emphasized by the inclusion of two human figures in the foreground who are dwarfed by the looming concrete buttresses. These individuals also serve to highlight the vulnerable position of the worker in a changing industrial landscape. At the same time, the work is also a modernist study in line and form with the geometric shapes of the structure defined by vertical bands of light and shade. The image appeared on the cover of the first issue of Life magazine where it symbolized the modern age that the publication sought to represent as well as defining the style of Photojournalism that was to become a key feature of the magazine.
Bourke-White is best known as a pioneer of Photojournalism, but she first received critical acclaim for her industrial photographs such as Steel Mill (1930) and this image shows an understanding of the structure of a photograph. Later in the 1930s she photographed people impacted by the Dust Bowl, and her Life photograph of African-Americans displaced by flooding standing in front of a sign that depicted a smiling white family and read "The World's Highest Standard of Living'" became an iconic image with a lasting social impact. Becoming the first woman war correspondent, she took photographs in Europe during World War II and photographed Buchenwald when the concentration camp was liberated.
Gelatin silver print - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Accused Gestapo Informer, Dessau, Germany
This perfectly timed photograph captures the public denunciation of a young Belgian woman as a Nazi collaborator. The woman accusing her stands to her left, angry and dynamic in her allegations and seated at a desk is a serious looking man, the camp commandant of the transit camp at Dessau where the image was taken. The camp was located between the American and Soviet zones and provided accommodation for displaced persons, forced laborers, political prisoners, refugees, and prisoners of war, returning from the Eastern front of Germany which had been liberated by the Soviet Army.
At the time the photograph was taken, Cartier-Bresson was engaged by the American Office of War Information to make a documentary film about French prisoners of war and refugees. This was a film by a prisoner about prisoners, since Cartier-Bresson had been taken prisoner by the German army in June 1940 whilst working for the French Army's film and photo unit. He was held for more than three years, successfully escaping on his third attempt and returning to France with forged papers. This image was shot during the making of the film and directly communicates Cartier-Bresson's meaning of 'the decisive moment', in this case the moment of reckoning.
Gelatin silver print - Magnum Photos, New York
This image shows three white painted patches on a dark concrete wall, while just above the wall the tops of a few trees are partially visible. Siskind started out as a social documentarian and was an active member of the New York Photo League in the 1930s. Subsequently, in the early 1940s, his work changed and he began to focus on close-ups of walls, peeling paint, and small objects in such a way that the images became abstract. Elements of Siskind's pictures were often condensed or foreshortened giving them a two-dimensional appearance and this can be seen here in the lack of depth between the wall and trees, of this he noted, "First, and emphatically, I accept the flat plane of the picture as the primary frame of reference of the picture".
This image exemplifies one of the key approaches to abstract photography which is to focus on a fragment of a natural scene, so that texture, form, line, become the dominant focus, isolating the image from its context. Through his work and his close friendship with Franz Kline, Siskind's images both borrowed and had a significant influence upon the Abstract Impressionists.
Silver gelatin print - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Ontañón's image depicts a basin (la palangana), viewed from above, in which the portraits of the founders of a Spanish photographic collective float, the photograph includes Ontañón's own image. The group, founded in 1959, took its name from this photograph and were known as La Palangana. Members focused on social photojournalism, emphasizing the camera's functionality and using it to depict the everyday realities of Franco's Spain. They worked mainly on the outskirts of Madrid and in nearby villages and their work marks the beginning of Spanish Neorealism.
The basin is similar to those used in the photographic developing process and consequently the photographers themselves appear to be developed in the same manner as their photographs. The white bowl fills the center of the frame and contrasts sharply with the dark geometric shapes of the chair and the strong diagonal lines of the flagstones giving the image a modernist appearance. This image embodies, both the group's dismissal of artistic pretension, and their focus on practical processes and the everyday - echoing modern and postmodern ideas in the wider visual arts.
Gelatin silver print - Museo Centro Nacional de Arte: Reina Sophia, Madrid, Spain
Laying the Foundations: Early Photography
Although Nicephore Niepce is credited as the inventor of photography he experimented with early photography techniques throughout the 1820s (the earliest surviving photograph dates from around 1826), his photographs required an extremely long exposure time and the results were imperfect. Louis Daguerre refined Niepce's work during the 1830s resulting in the creation of the daguerreotype which only needed a few minutes of exposure and produced a sharp, clear image. The details of this process were released in 1839 and this date is considered to be the start of photography as a viable medium. Subsequent discoveries and developments, including those by Henry Fox Talbot, continued to make photography easier and more affordable.
In its earliest forms, photography was seen as a scientific tool and its first practical usage was in botany and archeology. Despite innovations in the fields of artistic photography this use remained important with photographers such as Eadweard Muybridge, known for his studies of movement in the 1870s, continuing to exploit its scientific applications. As the medium spread and became more accessible, photographers began to experiment, producing portraits as well as tableaux, the latter often inspired by historical and literary works. There were a number of key figures in this move including John Edwin Mayall, Julia Margaret Cameron, Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), and Oscar Rejlander in the UK. In the United States photographers such as F. Holland Day, Alfred Stieglitz, and Edward Steichen led the way with Stieglitz notably introducing photography into museum collections and art galleries.
As part of an attempt to have their work recognized alongside other, more established, art forms, these photographers adopted the language and values of fine art. This can be seen in Henry Fox Talbot's book The Pencil of Nature (1844). This was one of the first collections of photographs to be published commercially and each image was accompanied by a short description explaining the scene and the processes involved in its capture. The book utilizes art terminology and clearly demonstrates how Talbot understood the photograph in terms of the painted image.
Pictorialism: Photography as Art
Between 1889 and 1914, the international Pictorialist movement developed. Pictorialists emphasized beauty over factual accuracy, producing soft focus images with painterly qualities. To achieve this they invented a variety of darkroom techniques to alter the image during the developing process often adding color, visible brushstrokes, or other surface manipulation.
New photographic societies, focusing on the Pictorialist style helped to define and spread the movement. Groups included the Linked Ring Society (1892) in England, the Club de Paris (1894) in France, and the Vienna Camera Club (1891) in Austria. The Photo-Secession group (1902) in New York became one of the most influential Pictorialist groups and counted Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, Clarence H. White, Frank Eugene, F. Holland Day, and Gertrude Käsebier amongst its members.
Originating around 1904, Straight Photography sought to make a truthful record of what the photographer saw. It is usually considered the first movement of Modern Photography and the point at which photographers ceased trying to imitate established artistic modes. On the whole, images were neither manipulated in the taking or by post-production darkroom processes (although there is some significant variation relating to this point). Images tended to emphasize careful framing, sharp focus, and clear detail, utilizing these traits to distinguish photography from other visual media. Photographers took pictures of the world around them. And industrialization led to an increase in urban photography, particularly a great variety of street scenes.
The style was widely promoted by Alfred Stieglitz as a more pure form of photography than Pictorialism (which he first heralded, but later moved away from). Other key figures of the movement included Paul Strand (who produced some of the first, iconic images and influenced Stieglitz), Ansel Adams and Edward Weston who founded Group f/64 in the early 1930s and produced images with a focus on the American West. Ultimately, Straight Photography served as the foundation for the majority of photographic innovations over the next 60 years, encompassing Photojournalism, Documentary Photography, Street Photography and "The Snapshot Aesthetic".
It seemed at first that still photography would not suit the artistic goals of the Italian Futurists who were in thrall to speed, dynamism, and violent energy. It was only with the invention of "photodynamism" in 1911 that Futurism made its own contribution to modern photography. The term was introduced by brothers Anton Giulio and Arturo Bragaglia who used their camera to induce a sense of "visual vertigo" by creating photographic movement through multiple exposures. Indeed, Anton had published the first of three editions of his book Fotodinamismo Futurista in 1911 and his theories were well received in photographic circles and widely adopted by other European avant-garde artists. These early experiments in movement and portraiture - Fortunato Depero, for example, produced a series of "gestural" self-portraits during the first wave - more or less defined Futurist photography until Marinetti and Tato published the "Manifesto of Futurist Photography" in April 1930.
The manifesto gave birth to a decade that is widely considered the most productive in Italian photographic arts. It was a decade that saw photography merge with other Futurist art forms including dance, painting, and performance art. Filippo Masoero for instance developed novel conceptions of space and movement by photographing Italian cities from the cockpit of an aeroplane. And, like other European schools, the Futurists were drawn to the moving image too: "the expressive medium most adapted to the complex sensibility of a Futurist artist" as its manifesto put it. Though little remains of early experimental Futurist cinema, Anton Bragaglia's 1917 full-length futuristic melodrama Thais stands as a widely exhibited testimonial to the movement's cinematic legacy.
Constructivism and Bauhaus
The artistic method of both Constructivism and Bauhaus embraced the idea of a new technology for a new world. Their photography (like their art generally) was characterized by a precision and geometric simplicity that saw the artist assume the mantle of technician. While a large group experimented with the medium, the two outstanding figures in Russian constructivist photography were El Lissitzky and Aleksander Rodchenko, both of whom were invested in the idea that modern art should help "construct" (hence Constructivism) rather than merely reflect or represent the real world. El Lissitzky was a qualified architect who had produced "modern" self-portraits that equated the role of the photographer with that of an engineer. In his famous 1924 Self-portrait, known as The Constructor, for instance, El Lissitzky forms the centre of a geometric montage featuring a superimposed hand with compass, a drawn circle (produced by the compass presumably) and modern (san serif) typography. Rodchenko, on the other hand, was widely regarded a photojournalist but, having submitted six photographs, including Mother and Courtyard of Vhutemas Seen From Above, to the 1928 Ten Years of Soviet Photography exhibition, he was awarded a special prize for inventing a new genre altogether - "technical photography" - which was a blend (or construction) of documentary and art photography.
The Bauhaus might be similarly defined by two pioneering artists, László Moholy-Nagy and Walter Peterhans. Until their appointment to the Bauhaus School in 1929, the Bauhaus camera had been used simply for documentation purposes. Having established a dedicated photography school (within the advertising department) the two men developed a culture of avant-garde experimentation based on the School's two aesthetic positions known as the "Nueue Optik" (New Vision) and the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity). In this spirit, Moholy-Nagy produced a series of still life compositions that he called "photograms" (making images by placing objects on photographic paper and exposing them to light) that were inspired by Man Ray's well known "Rayographs". Peterhans, meanwhile, was best known for his still-life images of everyday objects whose shapes and textures he revealed through painstaking lighting strategies that lent his objects an otherworldly effect.
Dada and Surrealist Photography
Driven by the devastating effects of World War I, the large and international movements Dada and Surrealism sought to create a new kind of art that reflected the chaos and absurdity of modern life. More preoccupied with concepts than aesthetics, they broke down the traditional barriers between different types of art, utilizing photography as an important medium for expression (Surrealist Film was a force and a deeply explored topic as well). Photographs followed the tenets of the movements presenting objects which had been disassociated from their usual context, distorted human forms, and photographic composites. These images aimed to invert viewers' understanding of what was normal and offer new perspectives on social and political issues.
Working in Paris between 1897 and 1927, Eugene Atget viewed himself as a documentary photographer, capturing the sights of the old city. His work, however had a profound impact on many Surrealists from Andre Breton to Pablo Picasso. Man Ray purchased a number of his photographs in the 1920s and was inspired by his use of light and reflection and his images of shop mannequins. As one of the most prolific photographers of the Surrealist movement, Man Ray created some of its most famous photographs including Le Violon d'Ingres (1924). Additionally, he experimented with a range of techniques including solarization and photograms (which he called Rayographs) in which objects were laid directly onto light sensitive paper.
Photomontage also became an important technique and this was pioneered by artists including George Grosz, John Heartfield, and Hannah Hoch who were all associated with the Berlin Dada branch. Photomontage first appeared in 1916 and early works pointed out the futility of war; the medium continued to be used for political and social comment throughout World War I. Photomontage was, later, adopted by the Surrealists and can be seen in the work of Salvador Dalí. Other photographers associated with Surrealism include Brassaï, Dora Maar, Raoul Ubac, Claude Cahun, and, Manuel Álvarez Bravo.
Although there are earlier examples of high fashion being depicted in photographs, the first modern fashion shoot is attributed to Edward Steichen, who photographed gowns designed by Paul Poiret for the April 1911 issue of the magazine Art et Decoration. These images were genre defining in that they did not just record the appearance of the clothing but also conveyed a sense of the garment and its wearer. The field of fashion photography grew rapidly during the 1920s and '30s, with magazines such as Vogue and Harper's Bazaar leading the way and employing famous in-house photographers including Horst P. Horst, George Hoyningen-Huene, Cecil Beaton and Martin Munkacsi.
In the post-war period new names in the field emerged such as Lillian Bassman, Norman Parkinson, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and David Bailey with many of these photographers favoring a more spontaneous and energetic approach. Irving Penn noted his role was "selling dreams not clothes" and consequently images became increasingly focused on modern women and their activities. Penn's statement also captures the tension between art and commerce which is apparent in fashion photography and this overlap continues to drive creativity and innovation within the field.
The golden age of Photojournalism began in the 1930s in Europe and became associated, in the post-World War II period with magazines such as Paris Match and Life. Photojournalists relied on photography to document and tell a news story, sometimes as part of a journalistic written account and sometimes independently in a photo-essay. Proponents adhered to strict standards of honesty and objectivity to record events. Noted early photojournalists include Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Margaret Bourke-White, Agustí Centelles, Tony Vaccaro, and Erich Salomon.
Documentary Photography has close links with Photojournalism, bearing many of the same hallmarks with both terms being used to describe photography that chronicles people or places, recording significant historical events. Documentary photographers, however, tended to be less influenced by the need to capture breaking news or to explain and entertain through their photographs. This enabled them to engage in longer term projects, recording what they saw and experienced over a period of time and this often allowed them to highlight the need for reform in some capacity.
Although in existence much earlier (there is a large body of documentary photographs relating to the American Civil War), this style of photography came to popular attention around 1935, when the Farm Security Administration in the USA recruited notable photographers including Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, Russell Lee, and Jack Delano to document the American way of life. The program ran until 1944 and amassed an extensive pictorial record of Americans during the Great Depression.
Abstract photography refers to non-objective images that can be created by using photographic materials, processes, or equipment. Like all works of abstract art, the resulting images do not represent the object world, yet may have associations with it. The earliest examples of abstract photography appeared in the mid-19th century in images of scientific experiments that were later viewed from an artistic standpoint. The first intentionally abstract photographs were Alvin Langdon Coburn's Vortographs in 1916. László Moholy-Nagy's photograms and Man Ray's Rayographs are noted examples of abstract photography in the 1920s. Abstract photography became a more defined movement following World War II, due to photographers such as Aaron Siskind, Henry Holmes Smith, Lotte Jacobi, and Minor White.
Street Photography and Snapshot Aesthetic
Street photography depicts spontaneous encounters or situations on the city street. An early pioneer of the genre was Paul Martin who shot unposed images of people in London during the late-19th and early 20th century. This idea of spontaneity and capturing people's daily activities was further developed during the 1930s by the Mass Observation Project which sought to record life on the streets of Britain through transcripts of conversations and candid photographs. In the early 1950s Henri Cartier-Bresson developed the concept of 'the decisive moment'. This was the point when "form and content, vision and composition merged into a transcendent whole" and he applied this idea to his both his street and Documentary Photography. Other key practitioners of the style were Helen Levitt, who captured life in New York City's close-knit neighborhoods in the 1940s and 1950s, and Joan Colóm, who explored the Raval neighborhood of Barcelona in the 1960s.
The Snapshot Aesthetic is closely associated with Street Photography and developed with the introduction of the hand-held camera, which enabled photographers to capture a precisely observed instant of everyday life. Early practitioners include Lisette Model and, most famously, Robert Frank whose book The Americans (1958) was hugely influential in post-war American photography. The Museum of Modern Art's 1963 exhibition of Henri Lartique's previously unknown snapshots was pivotal in the acceptance of the genre into mainstream photographic circles. Other photographers such as Garry Winogrand, Joel Meyerowitz, Nan Goldin, and Wolfgang Tillmans subsequently adopted the snapshot aesthetic to emphasize everyday, even banal, subject matter and images - images that were often blurry, askew, or erratically framed - resembling the snapshots of an amateur photographer.
Photographic innovations have kept pace with developments in art generally, and just as Postmodernism superseded Modernism, a similar pattern followed within photography. Postmodern photography avails itself thus of all previous photographic and artistic styles and movements while acting as a tool for conceptual artists who will typically utilize a range of media in the production of their work.
The general ethos that brings the various strands of Postmodern art together is that there are "no rules" and Postmodern art will very often ask the spectator to reflect on what art is, or, what art should be. Indeed, one of the defining features of Postmodern photography is the idea of the "banal", and photographers such as Lee Friedlander, William Eggleston, Jeff Wall, and Andreas Gursky have all sought to re-examine "banal" (or "boring") subject matter through their camera. These photographers share a preference for color too; a quite clear departure from Modern photography which had typically been rendered in sharp or expressionistic monochrome.
One of the most influential essays on postmodern photography was Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936). In it, Benjamin directly addressed the idea of originality and authenticity in art, both key concerns for Postmodernism. Benjamin put the argument that "mechanical reproduction" (photography, in other words) had revolutionized the art world. Before the invention of the camera, to appreciate art, one visited an art gallery. By "making many reproductions," however, the camera had allowed copies of the artwork to "meet" the spectator in her or his own environment. Though the copy lacked the "aura" that surrounded the original work, Benjamin still saw this as a positive step forward - a "shattering of tradition" as he called it - because mass-reproduction made art more widely accessible and thereby more democratic.
The idea that fine art could lend itself to mass-reproduction was popular with Postmodernists because it challenged the "elitist" label that was often attached to the idea of the fine arts. Many of these ideas were explored initially through Pop Art and in the new freedom that allowed artists to integrate high culture with popular (or consumer) culture.
The catalyst for the shift in postmodern thought was Roland Barthes's famous 1968 essay "The Death of the Author". Barthes's argument was that knowing what the artist's objectives were (their worldview) was irrelevant to reading the work of art and that true meaning "belonged," not to the artist/creator at all, but rather to the spectator/viewer. The spectator was then free to interpret the artwork as she or he wished and the idea - or "myth" - of the male modernist genius (Jackson Pollock or Andy Warhol) was effectively debunked. In theory, this meant that there were no right or wrong way to interpret art and as such there could be no one defining truth - only truths. This reverse in thinking led to the collapse of the old modernist hierarchies (often referred to as the "grand narratives") and a new generation of politically motivated artists emerged, most of whom were concerned with exploring the idea of identity through the Postmodern concept of "the self". In the field of photography, artists such as Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Robert Mapplethorpe, Molly Landreth, Zanele Muholi and Jeff Sheng exemplified this ideological swing.
It is tempting to think that somehow the old modernist ideals had been destroyed once and for all but in reality high art and postmodernism would bleed into one another. Indeed, Conceptual art practices dominated the art world during the 1970s and '80s and photography, as practiced by the likes of John Hilliard, Sherrie Levine, John Baldessari, and Ed Ruscha, featured prominently in the Conceptual sphere.
As a result of the steady innovation of photographic artists, the photograph is now almost universally accepted as a work of art and most American and European art museums have a photographic department, devoted to collecting and exhibiting photography. Having said that, some institutions have been slow to acknowledge the importance of Modern Photography, not least Tate Modern in London that only began growing its collection in 2009 having previously viewed photography as no more than an applied, or common, art.
Useful Resources on Modern Photography
- Paul Strand: Master of Modern Photography (Philadelphia Museum of Art)By Peter Barberie, Amanda Bock, Martin Barnes, et al.
- Group f.64: Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, and the Community of Artists Who Revolutionized American PhotographyBy Mary Street Alinder
- August Sander: Face of Our Time: Sixty Portraits of Twentieth-Century GermansBy August Sander
- Photography: A Cultural HistoryOur PickBy Mary Warren Marien
- A Companion to Modernist Literature and CultureOur PickEdited by David Bradshaw and Kevin K.H. Dettmar