The Photograph as Contemporary Art – part 2

Chapter 5 “Intimate Life” starts well, with the proposition that all aspects of life are worth recording, not just symbolic events, rites of passage and happy stuff. We read of Nan Goldin and others recording the minutiae and the traumas of a bohemian or countercultural lifestyle and being ‘discovered’ by the art world. Some of the mid-chapter examples appear to be conscious attempts to emulate her. Some examples are successful; others appear narcissistic or opportunistic. While the minutiae of family life is worth recording, I have to question whether it is worth publishing outside the same family.

There is some good work but the spectre of deliberate mistakes rears its head again. “The use of seemingly unskilled photography is an intentional device …”

The chapter ends with some very strong material, particularly Breda Beban’s ‘The Miracle of Death‘ series, with her partner’s cremated ashes pictures in the places that he spent his life.

Chapter 6 “Moments in History” looks at documentary photography in the art world. Cotton refers to these photographers adopting an anti-reportage stance, preferring to take a considered view of the aftermath of events, rather than being in the thick of the action. The use of medium- and large-format cameras appears to be a deliberate attempt to place this material in  the realm of art, rather than using the 35mm or digital cameras appropriate to modern reportage.

Most examples are long-term projects with the photographer becoming involved in the everyday lives of the subjects. Is this very different in principle from reportage photographers working ’embedded’ in military units in action? I suggest that these projects are reportage but on a longer timescale.

Chapter 7 “Revived and Remade” explores the idea that the photographic image does not have a meaning of its own, but only by reference to other remembered images, signs or icons. The prime example in the first section is Cindy Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Stills‘ series, in which she is both photographer and subject putting herself in costume and in the context of iconic film situations. This introduces other examples of self-portraits, with the photographer playing parts and reenacting significant events.

A second section deals with ‘faked archive’ projects such as the ‘Fae Richards Photo Archive‘  and ‘The Atlas Project‘ in which the photographs are just part of the story. These projects can include a reversion to historic processes, including daguerrotype.

The final section deals with ‘archive retrieval’ projects, not involving new photography but attempts to find meaning in ‘found’ or discovered materials.

Chapter 8 “Physical and Material” deals with post-modern concepts arising from the ephemeral nature of digital photography, coupled with its ubiquity and sheer volume. We also see some new ways of thinking about photographs as objects, which can themselves be photographed, leading to uneasy flirting with plagiarism – I had particular difficulty with Sherrie Levine’s ‘After Walker Evans‘ series in this respect.

I had difficulty identifying with much of the work described in the late parts of this chapter and found myself, once again, musing about naked emperors.

Overall, the book is a baptism into this strange new ‘art world’ that I have signed up for. Much is recognisable but there are also areas that I cannot identify with. I suspect that a second reading will be required after a period of marinading – perhaps at the beginning of Level 2.

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


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