Postmodern photography is an approach that on the surface looks quite dull and dreary. Deliberately so. In the art world postmodern photographers are elevated to heroes, but when I look at some of their works, I cannot avoid thinking a lot of this is the emperor’s new clothes. Is it really so?
In my post last week about ethics and where to draw the line for acceptable alterations in photography; in a few comments I referred to postmodern thinking, particularly when the relation between reality and photography was discussed. Postmodern photography is very closely linked to the understanding of how a photograph renders reality. One could actually say it is other way around; how a photo doesn’t relate to reality – at least in the eyes of some postmodern thinkers who state that a photo is not a capture of reality but of our collective recollection of all imagery from the past. Not surprisingly postmodernism turns its back on the ideas and thoughts about photography that has been developed and refined by generations of photographers – with their understanding again based on the development of the visual language through centuries of painters.
Artists regularly want to re-invent the medium in which they work. Boredom, a need to experiment and an urge to simply challenge the status quo take hold. This has always been the way art evolves; first refining and developing earlier ideas, then overthrow them. These revolutions are sometimes significant, sometimes not. In photography, one of the most radical changes began in the late 1970’s and the beginning of the 80’s and amounted to a rejection of what until then had been the accepted norm compositionally, expressional, philosophically as well as to what subject to capture and how subjects should be rendered.
I think it’s not coincidental that postmodern photography came about the same time digital photography started to develop. The digital revolution spurred the development of the new thinking. Postmodernism had already evolved in architecture and was slowly spreading to the art world. With digital imagery, the way for postmodern thinking was paved for photographers as well. Digital photography suddenly made it much easier to alter the photographic expression – the consequences of which I discussed in the previously mentioned post – and to separate a photograph into its various parts for them to be treated independently. The digital technology transferred a continuous tone into bits; that is zeroes and ones. The photo was decomposed, which is – at least part – the idea that postmodern photography is grounded upon. Deconstruction, as it is called, is an underlying force in the ideology of postmodern photography.
Postmodernists believe meaning cannot be determined by surface appearances since everything from a photograph to a television program is a text that must be decoded. The act of deciphering the text – or a photograph as is the subject for discussion here – and unveiling the hidden assumptions behind it is what Jacques Derrida, one of the major figures associated with post-structuralism and postmodern philosophy, calls «deconstruction».
What is postmodern photography then? There is no one and simple definition of the movement. As a matter of fact it can hardly be described as a movement since postmodernism encompasses so many different directions. Nevertheless, the notion that there is not a single truth of experience is at the core of postmodern thinking. Postmodernism embraces the idea that the context a piece of artwork is shown or seen in changes its meaning or interpretation. Furthermore, as mentioned, deconstruction is a significant element of postmodern photography. So is appropriation. Appropriation is the act of borrowing – stealing some would call it – imagery or forms to create something new. One of the most well-known examples of appropriation is Sherrie Levine’s Untitled (After Edward Weston), for which the artist simply made a copy print from a reproduction of the famous 1926 Edward Weston image Torse of Neil and claimed it as her own. Denouncement of authorship is also part of the postmodern dogma and closely related – or a precondition even – to appropriation. Postmodern artists challenge the essential assumption of a discrete, identifiable, recognizable author. Every idea is, in fact, a conglomeration of past ideas. Hence a work of art is a collective vision, not a singular on.
In photography the postmodern idea very much breaks with any and all accepted and established rules and principles. In many ways it conforms to an almost boring expression. Compositionally, for instance, any dynamic elements and any accepted or clever harmonies are discarded. The focus is on static balance instead of dynamic, no vectors, no rich colour themes, frame shapes as close to anonymous as possible (with the passive square format being preferred) and divided either equally or inelegantly. Certainly, strong diagonals are to be kept out of the picture. Hence there is a strong preference for frontal, squared-up viewpoints, and the use of normal or slight long focal lengths, and certainly always avoiding ultra-wide lenses.
For the exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape, one of the first showing postmodern photography, the curator, William Jenkins declared that the theme was «stylistic anonymity», focusing on content to the exclusion of form: «The pictures were stripped of any artistic frills and reduced to an essentially topographic state, conveying substantial amounts of visual information, but eschewing the aspect of beauty, emotion and opinion.»
Paradoxically by denouncing and disowning established photographic skills, postmodern photography replaces it with its own set or rules and principles. Plain is not lack of intent or compositional considerations. The viewer is being manipulated into believing that apparently plain composition means plain, unadorned truth. The difference between a postmodern style – if I may use such an expression – and the traditional – neither which is conformed to one standard, though – is that part of the manipulation is taking place at a conceptual level, rather than an openly-declared manipulation of the geometry of the image. The same may be said about the aim of keeping the photographer’s personality out of art work; it’s quite a paradox as well, because postmodern photographers such as Cindy Sherman, William Wegman, Nan Goldin and Lorna Simpson – to mention a few, have gained huge worldwide recognition and have influences the way photography is look upon and exerted.
So, is postmodern photography the emperor’s new clothes as I stated in the beginning of the post? Yes, some of it is in my opinion. I find some postmodern work simply plain and boring – almost as intended – but raised to the sky by pretentious acclamation. In particularly I too often find this theoretically discourse lofty and pompous. George DeWolfe, an award-winning photographer and teacher, claimed in an issue of Camera Arts that postmodern art is the result largely of academic theorists and critics posturing hegemony over art with words. DeWolfe makes a strong argument about the «failure» of postmodernism and the course needed to bring art back to the individual artist. It seems as Dylan would say «there’s a battle outside and it’s raging».
At the same time I am always encouraged by anyone daring to break with conformed and established «truths». Postmodern is certainly challenging the established photography world and belief-systems. And it has produced some stunning work, namely by artists such as the ones mentioned above, which brings photography forward into our contemporary times.
What I find to be most agonizing is this antagonism between modernism – or traditional photography – and postmodernism and this tendency to identify with one camp and reject everything from the other – this battled I was just referring to where the front lines are sharp and insurmountable. Why not take and learn from all of them? None of them has been appropriated (excuse the pun) and fenced off, and we can all, if we want to, join in. Why not experiment? Why not follow different stands? The history of photography is made by those who did.