The Emperor’s New Clothes?

Obelisken på Place de la Concorde med Eiffeltårnety i bakgrunnen

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.

56 thoughts on “The Emperor’s New Clothes?

  1. Thank you for introducing this term and those artists that produce them. I am not even aware of this form of art has definition to it. I thought it was referred to as abstract or conceptual. I like them and would say I like them a lot. I think it takes courage and very creative because it is not only about seeing objects but it involves making the components of pictures them self (I am not talking about the process of taking a picture here). Good read post!

    1. I am very happy if I was able to introduce you to some new and excellent photographers. It does take a lot of courage to create (something I have written about before).

  2. I really like how you ended this, Otto. I agree. Why battle when we can learn from it all? Thank you for another thoughtful and thought-provoking post.

  3. Since quite some time now the capacity of man to think independently shall be restricted and confined, according to the powers to be. Thus, also postmodern photography probably is just another brainchild to achieve that most strange thraldom.

    This is a most valuable post as it clearly discloses the emperor’s cloth and finally also suggests for positive action. It remains to be seen, what the new standards shall be …

    Many a thanks for pointing things out!

  4. The statement that nothing is original anymore, is so true in art of all kinds. It seems to me that people try too hard to push the envelope and find something that is original. And some just end up with a mess in my opinion. Every creative does what they feel they need to though, and there is room for all kinds of interpretations.

    1. I am not sure I agree with you that nothing is original anymore. It really depends on how you define the word, because as I see it; each person is unique and will bring his or her own interpretation into the creative work even when it’s been “done” before. So, yes, there is certainly room for all kinds of interpretations.

  5. This much is clear: if meaning is to be “decoded,” someone has to have the decoder ring. More often than not, post-modernists (particularly the academics and critics) declare themselves to be the sole possessors of that ring, then set about deconstructing everything to death.

    Post-modernist literary criticism is (in my very humble and just-barely informed opinion) an abomination. It is possible to analyze a novel or poem to its very death, and today’s literary studies seem determined to rid the world of narrative, or any of the other traditional components of literary production. It sounds as though many of the same issues are alive and well in the realm of photography, as I know they are in film.

    Granted, most of us have lost our taste for the overly-sentimental and florid art and literature of certain eras. Simplification and creative adaptation of traditional forms have led to satisfying changes. But to dismiss the artist, the possibility of meaning, and the appropriateness of seeking to communicate meaning to a viewer or reader? That seems foolish in the extreme: tactics meant only to harden the division between “in-groups” and “out-groups.”

    1. I very much agree with you, Linda. Much of the discourse is simply hardening the division between those inside and those outside. And, yes, it’s certainly possible to analyze a poem or a photography to its death.

  6. You’ve raised so many issues in this post, and so many things to think about, but I think in the end it doesn’t matter what the “experts” think. Does the piece work? Are people drawn to it? Old fashioned concepts like composition exist because they work. Stealing someone else’s work is still stealing. You can paint your face purple and get some attention, but does a purple face really have any long term value? I’m a traditionalist that enjoys seeing people push boundaries, but I often feel like some people are just throwing mud in the sandbox and hoping something sticks.

    1. No doubt, some people are throwing mud, but every so often even mud can form a captivating expression, no? I do have problems seeing stealing as anything but stealing as well. Thank you for the comment, Linda.

  7. Another excellent article Otto! I think the emperor’s new clothes sums things up quite nicely. I often feel so helplessly out of step photographically as I strive to capture the beauty around me whilst what gets attention, wins the prizes, is ugliness in so many forms. If we can photograph what is ugly, if we can photograph despair, we can get ourselves noticed it seems to me. I was invited to join LensCulture some time ago. I’ve been shortlisted in one of their competitions and have even been editor’s pick but not for my landscape work. What attracted attention was a series of photographs I produced for my successful associateship panel for the Royal Photographic Society. The photographs were taken at a derelict and disused docks. I suppose in this instance, as a photographer, I could see the beauty in the ugliness as it were and the docks had a strong personal connection for me. It was a project I was very glad to have carried out but it was outside of what is normal for me as a photographer.
    The reason I raise Lensculter is because on receipt of a recent newletter, I was ready to just junk my photography equipment and give up. What was hailed under the banner of ‘exciting new photography’ was a picture taken as part of a series called Illuminence by a Japanese photographer called Rinko Kawauchi. The picture was of a rose, you can see a copy of the photograph in question here if you don’t know it,, quite frankly it’s a photograph that any one of us would have thrown away had we had taken it. Can it be wrong on so many levels that it becomes right? Not in my opinion. Some of Rinko’s work in this series is very beautiful but this? According to the blurb, the photograph was Inspired by the subtle aesthetic of wabi-sabi—a philosophy of reduction, modesty and the beauty of imperfection. Well it sounds good doesn’t it? I’m at a total loss when I see something like this. I remind myself that I take photographs for me. I can’t beat them, I could join them (perhaps) but I’ll stick to what I’m doing for the most part. That’s not to say I won’t push myself outside of my comfort zone, but I can’t see myself producing ‘mistakes’ and getting those that set themselves up as experts in the photographic world to buy into the idea perhaps proclaiming me an exciting new photographer, getting featured in all the magazines and awarding me the top prizes… or can I? Have I got enough ‘front’ to pull it off I wonder. I’d have to come up with the appropriate pseudo-intelectual art speak twaddle, preferably something foreign sounding or exotic in origin.. hmm let me thing.. 😉

    1. I didn’t know the photo you refer to by Rinko Kawauchi. I had to laugh, though, when I looked it up, not out of disrespect, but because of the reaction it led to. I can only agree with you. In my world there is no beauty of imperfection here – only imperfection. Still, I think it’s valid that Rinko pushes the limits and challenges us. In a way any reaction is better than no reaction, and that Rinko’s photo certainly did lead to a reaction. I realize that new ideas and concepts may take time to become recognized for their artistic values, and for that reason I am also willing to take in photos like this. But, still, my reaction is like yours. Contemporary art is by nature difficult to digest, but it certainly doesn’t help much with all this pseudo-intellectual art speak twaddle that you refer to. lol. I think the best we can do, each of us, is do what we feel close to – and still let us be pushed outside of our comfort zones from time to time.

      1. Thank you very much, Otto, for your lectures which are to me not only about postmodern photography or deconstruction but about life itself. The past is important and we should learn from it, but life changes all the time and new techniques come up, so lets take precious experiences and melt them with new ones! I wish you a very good week. Best regards Martina

      2. This was a very informative post on post modernism photography. Chillbrook’s example of the photo by Rinko Kawauchi is, for me, an example of much of what happened to art as it shifted from attempting to document a physical reality to exploring an abstract conceptual reality.

        All Mass Media contains values, beliefs and ideologies. These are the intended inherent/implied(?) context of the the message that is being conveyed by the medium. The problem that faces the artist as they explore abstract concepts is that the receiver needs more information to decode the message.

        Rinko Kawauchi’s rose conveys meaning if you know the context. In a sense, the photograph can not stand on its own conveying the intended message. It is as if one takes a few lines from a complex lengthy narrative, poem sequence or a couple of notes from a musical composition. They are fragments of a more complex message. To appreciate the images you need to see a sequence, perhaps in a special gallery setting, with some sort of preamble/gallery guide.

        There would be those that say that having to explain or provide some guided introduction defeats the purpose. That there is a failure to communicate in the intended medium. Firstly, images are highly constructed realities that often require added context, such as caption or title. Secondly, one of the observations about the process of learning to read & reading is that the reader brings meaning (context) to the page. For example, if you lack sufficient background trying to read a paper on quantum mechanics, car engine maintenance, Ikea furniture construction or Photoshop would be meaningless. It is not necessarily a failure in delivering the message, but a question of delivering the message to correct target audience. This may be the failure of much of abstract art, contemporary art and post-modernist attitude – a narrow target audience that needs highly specialized knowledge to appreciate the message. There is a lack of entry level introduction to the medium aesthetic.

        1. I agree with you. Some expressions and works of art are a acquired taste. It’s just like Scotch whisky. It takes some understanding and learning process to be able to appreciate the more peaty Islay whiskies. But even if you know the context and develop your taste, you might still not like Rinko Kawauchi or Laphroaig. Thank you for your in-depth and very interesting comment.

  8. I think this article has highlighted what I’ve been trying to give voice to, I am at heart a postmodern photographer. I still like and shoot as a more traditional photographer since I do work in portraiture from time to time, but I truly love abstract images and taking parts of the scene I’m taking in to create. Thank you for this article!

  9. Bellissimo post che da spunto per tante riflessioni e forse anche per delle scelte nel cammino che è quello della fotografia!!
    Grazie Otto. Saluti, Patrizia

  10. Interesting read. There is lots of room for experimenting and doing a variety of things to any photograph. Sometimes the beauty can be lost in the experiment or new beauty found. Thanks for the thought provoking article.

  11. Agreed! I am no art history expert, but when I wander the halls of museums (one of my favorite pastimes), and read the stories attached to the art and watch the relationship from one piece to the next, I am so fascinated by how the social relationships and historical events have shaped the output of art so dramatically. It isn’t something I can wrap my head around but it is fascinating from an outsider’s perspective that this process is so engrained in what it has meant to be a “known” artist.

  12. I actually have zero comprehension of what you are saying, perhaps it’s because i have had 3 hours sleep in the last 30 hours, but i think not. i used to go see movies as a teenager with friends, and my bf always wanted to discuss the artistic merit of the movie, i would cringe as we walked out, waiting for him to start blabbering about it like an idiot, trying to sound so intelligent, yet i was intimidated because that’s not the way i do things, i swallow something whole, i don’t chew on it, spit it out, muck about in the partially masticated things i spewed on the table to see what it’s made out of… i don’t see the point of that, it is a creation, take eat, this is My Body, a sacrifice, drink this wine it is My Blood, shed for the sins of all…. do this…. this eating, in remembrance of Me.

  13. Very thoughtful post as always Otto. If I can learn only one thing from anothers’ point of view it has been worthwhile and I don’t necessarily have to like what they do.

  14. Thank you so much for introducing Postmodern Photography. This is new to me and I did not realize how photography has been progressing so much nowadays! I agree with your last point – to consider them and learn from all of them..if they are inspiring then why not? 😉

  15. So much has been said and commented that I had to think about at least all the week!
    We are all very used to see, comment and evaluate the documentary photography. It’s what we have seen since years in magazine, books and exhibitions. Than art and photography met together.
    And this started to make things more difficult because we are not so much involved in art history, at least many of us myself included. And if modern art is sometimes difficult to understand the postmodern movement is even more difficult.
    Sometimes I feel that the”Artist Statement” is sometimes the key to reach an appreciation, if you find the correct writer or curator they will make for you a statement able to give a sense to your photography whatever it is. At least this was my feeling after I visited Arles two years ago.

    On the other side the world, media, the communication is not a static system: it’s dynamic, always evolving. I’m as well trying to evolve my photography. Trying, rejecting, trying again…until something comes out.

    What I do not like are the strong divisions, this is good and this is bad. Maybe yes, maybe not!

    PS: I have to think longer about your post, the comments and my answer…

    1. Thanks for taking your time to ponder and give a comment, Robert. I have experienced the same as you that a well written artist statement or review of an artist’s work have brought me insight to an otherwise unapproachable or inaccessible work of art. And, yes, the strong divisions is completely unnecessary,

  16. Otto, as always, your post invites interesting discourse and exchange of ideas 🙂
    The philosophy of post-modernism is meaningless because it rejects analytical and empirical knowledge, and suggests there is no knowable, objective world. A materialist conception on the other hand, helps us understand our surroundings in the most objective way — through the methods of science.
    Now coming to the world of photography. Is a photograph real? Indeed it is. That’s because it is produced by a machine which is in itself ideologically neutral. However, is a photograph a true representation of truth? You can never be sure about that because any conception of truth without a scientific/materialist analysis can be highly subjective.
    A photograph of a modern, independent woman walking by, unmindful of the presence of a begging child would show the truth of disparity. The same image composed slightly differently, leaving the child out of the frame would show the truth of progress and women empowerment. Both photographs are real in their own right. However, which one of them the photographer chooses to show as the truth is a reflection of his/her ideological values, desires and preferences since they have a huge bearing on our conception(and hence representation) of truth.

    1. I agree with your analysis, at least most of it. Truth is a very difficult word and concept, and of course one that has been discussed philosophically through all times. Even in a scientific context truth is relative and subjective – as history has shown again and again. In the end the subjective truth really depends on the context and each individual.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s