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Between Art and Photography:

 International Trends in Art and their Influence on Photography                        





Photography is part of art and as such it partakes of the trends dominating the art world. This participation proceeds on two fronts, the first is as part of the tradition of the Image, and the second as a part of (as material used in) the various trends in recent art. The history and tradition of the Image, also often referred to as ‘Visual Culture’, is photography’s inheritance and home, with the traditions of painting and film-making continuing to cross-fertilise with the world of photography. The poster is a key indicator of the public’s love for the photograph and is its main expression as mass or popular culture (second only to home photography, now boosted for the first time since its original explosion in popularity with Kodak, by the ubiquity of the digital camera, most especially in its popular partnership with the mobile phone).


The twenty-first century has inherited six trends from the twentieth century; the Image; the Found Object, Minimalism, (Post-)Conceptualism, Performance and the Found Experience (or “Little Anthropology”). I want first to look at what role photography plays in these trends (in the process giving a short definition of each one) so reviewing their influence on photography, augmenting the documentary and popular memory functions of its origins and the painterly influences that have sustained ‘art’ photography.


The category of the Image, which has played a key role in human culture from the cave paintings of the Paleolithic to the virtual digitality of the present, includes matters realistic, dream-like and abstract (in painting, the traditions of recognisable depiction, of vision or surrealism, and of abstraction). The addition of the new technologies of computer technology, digitality, virtuality and video do not alter this fact (changes are quantitative, ease of reproduction and alteration, rather than qualitative). The treatment of the image has increased its scope exponentially, with anything imaginable now being capable of synthesis (a privilege hitherto preserved for painting) and all manner of alteration possible to received image material. Not least of which the photograph (which before digitality relied upon collage and montage), which has been defined by the variety of its relationships, or, better, its distances, from reality (the first shot or image registration). So photographs may be a record (documentary), altered, realistic but manufactured (art or propaganda), unreal (or surreal) either through alteration or manufacture, and finally allusive, ambiguous or just plain unreadable (abstract). And of course all trends in the realm of the image have an influence on photography (photographic practitioners may be artists working in other media, or filmmakers) and photography may be incorporated in them either as part (document or found object) or whole (as in Conceptualism when the idea is more important than the image and which is often not immediately classed as part of ‘Photography’). As part of the impact of technology on experimental photography, many artist-photographers continue to use all means available to create original images, combining recorded (or digitally altered images) with (digitally) constructed images.


A hundred years on, the Found Object trend continues to be the most scandalous of artistic traditions – permitting the inclusion of all things. ‘Ready-mades’, which may quite literally be anything, are collected and mixed together to form original or surprising configurations. This inclusiveness of content or object, almost regardless of taboo or transgression, a feature of all the arts in the 20th century, is also found in the photograph (most famously in the cases of Robert Mapplethorpe, Cindy Sherman and Andres Serrano). The photograph may itself be used in an art work as a Found Object either as feature or object (as featured in the output of Robert Rauschenburg, but most cogently in the work on memorialisation as found in Christian Boltanski’s use of the photographic portrait). The use of the photograph as the basis for the image as used in Pop Art, can most notably be found in the opus of Andy Warhol. So the photograph, perhaps more than other art forms, is well placed to continue to show what had been previously thought of as unshowable (whether for reasons of censorship, received notions of decency, or previous lack of interest in a given subject area). Photography will continue to excavate the underbelly of society, and show what some might perhaps prefer to remain hidden – likewise the motivation for this process will remain equally poised between delivering the truth and shocking the market.


Minimalism. Apart from the minimal object as photograph’s content, Minimalism as a sculptural, object-based or musical form has little use for the photograph as such. Its ambitious spin-off, Land Art, however, relied heavily on the photograph to make its constructions known and in their on-going survival as record (for most of us Land Art only ‘exists’ as a photographic image, Michael Heitzer, Eva Hesse, ). Landscape as art, as a worthy object of aesthetic appreciation, whether altered (Land Art) or unaltered, will continue to rely on the photograph for its means of transmission, that is, photography has replaced the painting as the dominant means of landscape presentation (the tradition of Ansell Adams, as exemplified in China by Feng Jianguo/冯建国, attests to this continuing pre-eminence).


Present day Post-conceptualism is the heir to 1970s Conceptualism in art. Therefore this tradition inherits Conceptualism’s passion for records and documentary images, enlarges its scope through the installation or site-specific work (but weakens its interrogation of the relation of image to word by substituting a striking, playful, provocative or transgressive contrast as the heart of its aesthetic structure). Amongst such images not the least important is the photograph (usually in that form of the art photograph known as the ‘staged photograph’). This importance of the photographic image continues in modern day Post-conceptualism, the most successful artistic trend of our time, now a fully globalised phenomenon – the first truly globalised art movement in the history of the world. So Conceptual Photography (like Conceptual Painting) provides images where the idea ( the ‘concept’) rules the means of presentation and content of expression – the realization of the idea in the minds of the audience being a key part of the artwork’s effect and a measure of its success. Likewise in the more wide-ranging (and often more shallow) effects of Post-conceptual photography and the use of the photograph for Post-conceptual ends.


Performance. The photograph features in Performance Art as backdrop or as additional material (evidence, document, object). However the main use of the photograph in this genre, together with video or digital recording, is as a record of the event in question and as the event itself in its (re)showing in exhibitions and displays (from the art work of Anna Mendieta to recent records of ritual as part of the art work).


From Found Object to Found Experiences, to a form that combines documentary material and aesthetic presentation, or ‘Little Anthropology’, is but a short step. A short step for Art History, but a direct continuity for Photography with its dominant tradition: the documentary image. Objects, images and performances are recorded as video events or diaries or collected together as installations which aim to show a culture, a slice of life or way of being. A conceptual element often adds a sense of questioning or implied criticism. The photograph plays an important role in this, as documentary type images are incorporated into what is often a multi-media presentation or experience. ‘Little Anthropology’ has, until recently, been more in evidence in the West, most notably in Europe, where it has been part of the trend of identity politics (which displaced the avant-gardes of the 1960s and 1970s). This manner of revealing, showing or witnessing is a way of presenting and learning about, other cultures or communities, particularly those that are felt to be threatened or contested in whatever manner (exiles, immigrants, refugees), as well as a way of documenting, of understanding the ‘other’ within (excluded or misunderstood communities, gangs, underclass living, communities reliant upon drugs or prostitution, etc). This turn of attention and process of presentation follows a similar turn in the object of study of Anthropology in the last few decades of the 20th century (replacing Cultural Studies and even Sociology, with their reliance upon a pre-formed and pre-judging ideological rationalism, as an informed and informing source of criticism of contested identities and social problems). However this trend has also been gaining ground in China, in part as heir to the tradition of anthropological record, or ethnography, of its minority cultures, in part due to the recording of urban change, as stimulated by the rapid creation and transformation of Chinese cities (both trends relying on the documentary photographic image). This manner of presentation was featured in a recent exhibition in Beijing’s 798 art district (Iberia Gallery, ‘The Face without World View’, Dong Wensheng/**, 2009) where giant colour photographic images made-up the main part of the installation which occupied a large part of the substantial gallery space (also augmented by maps, sound recordings and objects).

In recent decades the documentary photographic tradition has taken on all questions to do with the varieties of human identity, not least the question of ‘minorities’, ‘sub-cultures’ and the ‘subaltern’ - so of ‘the other within’ (alternative life-styles and sexualities). Indeed for some time the best examples of this trend have expanded the documentary tradition into a kind of critical anthropology (classic practitioners include Nan Goldin and Robert Mapplethorpe). Negative is the depiction of this border as freak-show. Positive is the inclusion of all forms and levels of human life.


Make a painting of a stone and you have the realm of the Image, place the stone in a museum and you have a Found Object, if several stones are arranged into a simple form we have Minimalism, if several stones are arranged to form a word we have Conceptualism. Fill the gallery with stones and you have Installation art. If the stones are used as part of a ritual we have Performance. If the topic of the previous two  types represent the life of a community then we have a Little Anthropology or Found Experience. The photographing of these activities constitutes one kind of photography: another is when the photograph itself is used as part of the original art work.


Photograph the stone in its natural context and you have the genre of Documentary; use the stone in a violent contrast to something surprising and you have (post)Conceptualism, photograph the stone as part of a man-made landscape and you have Land-art or (if the stone is part of a traditional Chinese Garden) Art photography. Place it in a dream-like context and you have Surrealism. If the photograph is black and white, possibly of documentary origin, but evincing a high degree of formal qualities, then we have a Classic.



Colour versus black and white. Some critics still refuse to allow that the colour image is a legitimate form of art photography (Graham Clarke). However this battle has long been lost; since the 1970s colour photography has become accepted as a legitimate means of expression and colour photographs have become part of the photographic canon (se especially Eliot Porter, Ernst Haas and Harry Callahan, foremost among which William Eggleston, whose notion of ‘colour as form’ helped to inaugurate this change). Yet looking back at the treasures of 19th century black and white photography and the continuing importance of black and white photography as a tradition in the present, one can see why many still regard the colour photograph as a kind of populist frivolity (the stuff of glossy magazines and family portraits). Colour documentary shots still do not feel as gritty as black and white… It is worth asking the question: Why is this? Colour is more immediate and more ‘natural’ with respect to our sense of vision, so colour logically should be preferred in this genre… yet, the black and white image retains its priority. Actually, in magazine reportage, the colour image has taken over, and the black and white image remains as a ‘special choice’ for serious events. To be augmented by black and white’s affinity for ‘removed’ (semi-present) effects, here offering the restraint that is appropriate to a serious topic and also the ‘grittiness’ that clearly is opposed to the abundance of expression of (most) colour images (the distance in time suggested by the lack of presence of the black and white image is sensed as more ‘honest’ than the ‘illusory’ immediacy of colour). So the issue is in part cultural and historical; the received tradition of the black and white photograph is the historical bearer of the documentary image and colour is a comparative late-comer: and in part the effect of the special sense of removal or mediation, of the black and white photograph, which paradoxically appears to offer (by means of this mediation) a more serious form of the present. See for example, the many exhibitions recording the damage of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, such as that in 798’s Inter-Gallery (Jin Ping/**, 2009). Almost all have featured the black and white photograph as their preferred medium of expression.


Size matters. In the realm of presentation and format, the size of photographic imprints (usually in colour) continues to grow. While in part a luxury of established or well-funded artists, this trend nevertheless represents an exploration of the impact and aesthetics of the large scale image and its most apposite content or object (following on from the impact of the advertising hording on the reception of the image by mass society). In some cases we are talking about borderline installation art as the print size takes over an entire wall (see the work of Gurtsky and followers including, for example, Burtinsky).


Other trends /“Other’s” trends. The representation of minorities, of those previously excluded in some way from mainstream culture (sub-cultures) or from the received canons of ’High Art’ (the ‘low’), and so representing an-other’s culture, or culture’s ‘others’, continues to be a major part of (post)modern photography. The photograph as documentary record, but also as rhetorical or persuasive device, can everywhere be seen playing a role in the politics of culture and identity (as in the works of Gao Bo/高波). This use of photography can be read as an offshoot from prior forms of documentary and ethnological study (and often includes the influence of Conceptualism). Now this kind of photography plays its role as part of ‘Little Anthropology’s’ received experience and can be found in major galleries all over the world - so echoing parallel process of giving voice to minority or ‘subaltern’ cultures and groups across the word and as evinced in global trends in literature, drama, performance and the theory that accompanies them (Post-modernism, Deconstruction, Post-colonialism). Such trends, focusing on identity, on ‘the Other within’, as well as more exotic forms of anthropological documentary, have been growing in strength since the 1980s.


Another alternative or ‘other’ trend in photography is, what is often called, the ‘Minor’ trend, as opposed to mainstream or ‘Major’, dominant or majority fashions; a kind of ‘fringe’ or alternative to what are often more overtly commercial trends. The Minor as a genre is best represented by the photography of the ‘Micro-sacred’, the finding of the sacred in the everyday, a kind of continuation of the Still Life into our modern sense of place, an heir to the tradition of art photography – yet often taking its cure from current trends in Philosophy and Cultural Criticism. In general these types of photographic art tend to circulate in national, regional, and even international, exhibitions whilst not being bought up in significant amounts by any of the major (and so market-forming) national, regional or international galleries.


Global/Local. National and regional cultural features continue to inflect the types of trend listed above, giving, what are often global forms, a particular regional flavour. Key here is the role of and attitude to tradition; as for example, in the case of nationally privileged, ideal or traditional landscapes, usually as an inheritance from local painting (which then find their way into both advertising and art photography). Language group or type is another regional indicator (here defined by its appearance, by the type of script tradition, Latin, Cyrillic, Arabic, Hindu, Chinese and other types of character). As is the type, school or degree of visibility of religion (as can be seen, for example, in the influence of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, or of Daoism and Buddhism as approaches to Nature and the representation of a variety of objects and persons). Regional styles of clothing, most especially in the decision to feature or depict ‘traditional’ clothing, also plays this role as does, whatever might be considered as the given, or, more likely, as the culturally informed ‘typical’ kinds of the Face (with its accompanying Gaze, as normally inflected for gender and generation). In a globalised marketplace such ‘markers’ remain a key means of distinguishing between what are often identical genres, styles, and means of expression or presentation (the photographic image, its textures and its objects, its means of construction as well as the uses to which it is put, has become, like art itself, globalised).


Since the inception of the Magnum photographic agency in 1947, also coincidentally the date when Polaroid was first marketed, and especially since the landmark event in 1955 of the ‘Family of Man’ exhibition at the MOMA, New York, photography has moved to centre stage in the world art scene. The 60s, 70s and 80s quickly saw the opening of many photographic museums and galleries as key national institutions. All this was coeval with the rise of the trend we now call ‘Postmodernism’, where the image is now considered to be everywhere and so nowhere; so ubiquitous as to be invisible, offering the possibility of a continuous and inescapable self-referentiality and inter-textuality of the image world (all images are made from the memories of other images, our eyes are trained to look for the images like the images we already know, as in the work of Cindy Sherman) So confirming the arrival of photography, and especially documentary photography, as a key player in our appropriation and understanding of the world around us. The photograph continues to hold a central place in culture as perhaps the most privileged means of image recording, representation and reproduction.


If Documentary images are the dominant 20th century genre in the world of photography… then it is the ‘Classic’ photograph, especially the ‘Classic’ black and white’ photograph that still rules the galleries and the hearts of the public (as witness the history of auctions, the poster and the postcard).

How does this relationship work? From bottom of the pyramid, from home and holiday snaps, to the middle layer, the documentary image used in recording and reporting in magazines and in the press, and so to the top of the pyramid, arriving at the realm of the art photograph and its genres (portrait, landscape, surreal image, the instant caught, the symbolic moment), home of the ‘classic’ photograph (the image that has survived, and offers a special, valued, and valuing, version of the past). Present day photography is a broad-based pyramid where the collectors and public alike (through the medium of posters) can be found collecting the ‘classic’ type (usually black and white) photographic image; with the best documentary photographs (evincing the most promising arrangement of form) becoming ‘classic’ over time. The work of Henri Cartier-Bresson is still the iconic example of this process (in China the painterly documentaries of Lu Nan/吕楠 play this role).


A quick look at three genres will illustrate this process. In the world of the Landscape, whilst the landscapes of Ansell Adams (in black and white) are still the benchmark by which most landscape photographers are judged, the depiction of the urban and the everyday is now most often done in colour as a new trend from the 1980s (see, for example the work of William Eggleston and Martin Parr, representing two opposite poles of colour photography). In the realm of the Portrait, the two figures who have transformed how we approach this everyday genre are Cindy Sherman, who stands as the classic self-referential post-modernist (all her portraits are of herself) and Robert Mapplethorpe, who has courted transgression to the point of inviting censorship. In a world obsessed with images of celebrity, the portrait can not but help live on in a variety of forms (for a gentle parody of this, see the work of Xiao Quan/肖全and Guan Ce/管策). At the apogee of Art photography; we might mention the Still Life images of Ernest Haas, for his intense use of colour; an appropriation going well beyond the use of colour as a medium: now employing colours as a painter might – as a feature or essential, meaning-laden component, each requiring thought and calculation, and not taken for granted as a kind of general means of expression (as with Kodak colour, or the ‘home snaps’ look - cultivated by some photographers in the 1990s as a demotic form).


It is important to note a third general tradition or school of influence in photography, that of Surrealism. Normally a part of art photography (as exemplified by the work of Man Ray), it has recently been found joining hands with conceptual photography (and as a ‘hook’ in documentary style photography). From basic (definitive) estrangement to the depiction of inner psychologies and the world of the dream (or nightmare) Surreal photography provides many of the most unsettling, as well as many of the most striking images in modern photography (see Kon Mitchiko, and in China the popularity of the genre is evinced by the work of Rong Rong/荣荣& inri, Han Lei/韩磊), Wang Yao Dong/王耀东, Jiang Zhe/蒋志, Feng Qing Yu/冯请钰, Wang Ning De/王宁德, He Yun Chan/何云昌, and more recently Qiu/ and Lu Youpeng/鹿右鹏),.


If the legacies and uses of Conceptualism are crucial to art history in China, not least in its role as a source of innovation, but also of copycat fashion (see the use of the ‘surreal detail’ to suggest conceptual ‘depth’ in recent photography), then the other key historical legacy is that of the world of painting (traditional and modern, Chinese and Western), functioning as a kind of visual memory, offering prompts in the realm of form and presentation as of choice of content. An omnipresent inter-text (as much in the art-photography of Hong Lei/洪磊as in the documentary investigations of Lu Nan/吕楠). All feed into the world of the image and its reading. Both Conceptualism and Art History are particularly important to an understanding of modern photography, as much as for the background inspiring experimentation as for basic comprehension and orientation.


By the mere act of framing, making the everyday into the extra-extraordinary; gift of photography to the world.










Copyright Peter Nesteruk, 2012