The Photograph as Contemporary Art – part 1

A copy of Charlotte Cotton’s ‘The Photograph as Contemporary Art’ was bundled with the course documents so, clearly, it is considered as particularly important reading matter. Therefore, I am reading this one cover-to-cover and using it as my first exercise in comment and review.

I am currently half-way through (finished chapter 4) and, to be honest, finding it hard going. Partly, this is the dense text (it would be interesting to run a Gunning Fog Index analysis on some passages) and partly culture shock. I have a background attitude of regarding photography as a craft activity first and art second. While I can understand the idea that technique is considered secondary to content, I have real difficulty with the concept of creating something that is deliberately technically poor, in the name of “art”. With that out of the way, here are my thoughts on the first half of the book:

The introduction sets out the content of the main chapters and riffs on the idea that photography has now come of age as an art form. It is no longer a matter of justifying or validating the medium, but of discussing where it is and how to advance it.

Chapter 1 “If This Is Art” implies the question, “Is it art?” I suspect my (current) answer is apparent from the fact that it is the only chapter in which I have not underlined any passages for future reference. I could not identify with any of the work presented and the phrase, “the emperor has no clothes” comes to mind. A question for self-reflection: am I a naked-emperor detector or just a Philistine? Supplementary question: are they the same thing? No answers at present, but a topic to reflect on and perhaps return to in a  year or so, when I am more immersed in this strange new world.

Chapter 2 “Once Upon a Time” looks at the use of single photographic images to tell a story. All of the works described are the result of very careful planning, even those that have a “candid” look. Most have elaborate set design and construction and many have actors as subjects. There is a parallel with cinematic technique and storytelling, and we see the photographer as “director/producer” leading a team rather than acting alone. Mostly fascinating but I occasionally asked myself if there was a point.

Chapter 3 “Deadpan” looks at the deadpan aesthetic. Cool, sharp and detached. Most images shown in this chapter take pains to avoid imposing the personality or opinions of the photographer. Question: is this simply record photography or is it something more? I need to research some of the photographers featured. Generally I was happy with the landscape and architectural images but less so with the “portraits”. My working definition of a portrait is a likeness that tells me something about the character of the sitter. Deliberately suppressing that character seems to negate the concept of portraiture. The only image that appeared to display character turns out to be a waxwork.

Chapter 4 “Something and Nothing” is my favourite chapter so far. It is about the presentation of ordinary or mundane objects as art forms. The early images are still-lifes, whether consciously or unconsciously arranged. I particularly like the snow-covered tree on p127 and the discarded suit on p129. I was less convinced about the “constructed disorder” image on p131

In truth, there is no such thing as an unphotographed or unphotographable subject. (Cotton 2014)

Cotton, C (2014) The Photograph as Contemporary Art – third edition, London: Thames and Hudson


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