Recently in photography criticism Category

Fabiono Busdraghi  on his  Camera Obscura blog recently made a call to deepen the discourse on photography. Unfortunately,  the post was in Italian and, as  I cannot read Italian, I do not know what the phrase "deepening the discourse on photography " means. On Camera Obscura it appears to mean photographers submitting photos and text  that then become a post on the weblog.

I interpret the phrase "the discourse on photography"  to refer to writing about photography whilst the  "deepening" would refer to more theoretically informed and better writing on photography on a variety of issues --eg.,  the objective appearance of things in the photograph and  photography's capacity to  express something beyond the surface appearance of things. Or the way that the discipline of Art History frames photography in the context of the commodification of visual culture and the rise of modernism and its utopian longing  in the art institution with an evaluation system based on masterpieces and masters, originality and innovation, and so on.  Or the ways that artists challenge photographic conventions.

At another level it could be a grater linking to other weblogs written by photographers  so as to create more of a sense of an  ongoing  conversation between, and by,  photographers and those writing about photography as in the year long project entitled Words Without Pictures by  the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

At one point in a haphazart discussion about modernism vs. post-modernism I summarised a set of questions that were posed but still remain unanswered:

  1. Where in the scheme of post-modern practice do abstraction works fit?
  2. Does our abstraction work do what Stafford argues: disparate or fragmentary images in coherent compositions to produce larger coherent meanings.'?
  3. Does anybody still agree with Greenberg that 'the judgment of beauty is (tacitly) universal and incompatible with interest and practicality'.?
  4. Do any haphazartists [abstract photographers] question the formalist tenets of modernist abstraction?

I would like to try and begin to address the last question. Before doing so, I'll outline what I understand to be key elements / criteria of modernist photography - bearing in mind that there will be divergent views on the matter. Mine derives essentially from one that is linked to its European origins via the Bauhaus movement, etc.


Essentially a dynamic mode of photography celebrating the man-made rather than

the natural world.

This involves:-

  • the use of unconventional viewpoints such as worm's and bird's-eye views,

  • sudden changes in scale,
  • tendency towards dramatic tonal contrasts
  • radical cropping
  • a predilection for geometrical abstraction and flattening of form/ shapes
  • preference for urban/modern materials: steel, concrete, reflective surfaces such as:-
    • glass and chromium
    • tendency toward dramatic expression
    • adherence to compositional rules

Haphazartists are a diverse group of photographers and there is considerable diversity within the body of their work. So far, modernist tenets have not overtly been challenged in any of the discussions. However, I would say that a post-modern aesthetic can be found in many images not only posted to the group but also selected in the special themed shows. Modernist photography was/is basically done in black and white. One could argue that any colour image is already post-modern. But there are other factors.

Just a few examples:

pete pick - a fine use of abstraction within a rural setting rather than a man-made environment.

corrugation black 21 caburn

Likewise htakat's image has a landscape setting, but the blur in the image renders it one that has more to do with subtle changes in tone and colour than with form or subject matter.

landscape in fog

Christian's (tossthecam) image also has no obvious compositional lines / structure, instead it features some very delicate textural details....the importance given to 'almost nothing' here hints at an influence of Eastern philosophy and aesthetics. It seems concerned more with the creation of 'visual poetry' than about ideas or dramatic form.I do not think that this aligns the image with the more rational and concept driven post-modern concerns though.

Christian (delay tactics) - stretches the abstraction to its limits in a more 'dead pan' post-modernist least on this occasion

chair chair

Paul Glazier's image is about an interior scene, soft fabric on a soft couch - it seems quite removed from modernism in terms of subject matter and form.



I picked this image by Paul Glazier since in my view, it illustrates perfectly how many disparate elements can be pulled together into a cohesive abstracted whole....providing the viewer with a cohesive meaning perhaps, although to me it is more likely to be a poetic and an elusive one.

In an earlier post I raised the issue of what contemporary art/photography is as distinct from modernist photography. I did so by exploring Terry Smith's Contemporary Art and Contemporaneity article in which he said that this was an art that turns on long-term, exemplary projects that discern the antinomies of the world as it is, that display the workings of globality and locality, and that imagine ways of living ethically within them.

An example of contemporary art photography is this picture by cookie poppets of a derelict, burned out cafe in an industrial area of Liverpool in Great Britain:

altfotnetcookiepoppets.jpg Smith goes to say that this consists of:

Slight gestures, feral strategies, mild subversions, small steps. To which purposes and in the names of which values? These questions can still be posed and be answered In brief, it seems to me that at least four themes course through the heterogeneity that is natural to contemporaneity. All of the artists mentioned, and the thousands more of whom they are representatives, focus their wide-ranging concerns on questions of time, place, mediation, and mood.

They make visible our sense that these fundamental, familiar constituents of being are becoming, each day, steadily more strange. The familar world that we live in is becoming

beyond modernism

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 Dom Ciancibelli raises an interesting issue about contemporary photography at haphazart! Contemporary Abstracts. The issue raised is transgressing modernism and shifting to a postmodern photography practice. It raises the question: can photography be a postmodern art form as well as a modernist one. If so what would the former look like?

This excellent picture----- new year in gaza-----by Mark Valentine would be generally interpreted as a modernist picture: it is abstract, expressionistic and associated with music.Yet it also refers beyond itself as photographic art:

Ciancibelli starts his discussion by quoting from linkwise, who says that:

At the risk if bursting some inflated egos, many images that we see in this forum are at best reiterations and regurgitations of visual issues that modernist painters and photographers resolved decades and indeed centuries ago. Thus there is not a lot to discuss.
My concern here is not to pass judgment on the quality of modernist abstractionist photography but merely to note that abstraction in art has been around a long time---most of the 20th century---and that it is no longer part of the avant-garde movement.
First impressions of the concrete canvas issue (or online exhibition?) indicates  that none of the images selected  by the curator include fragments of a figure or a text.  So these pictures  remain within  modernist  boundaries in terms of their photographic ethos or comportment. The majority of the pictures are abstractions that work within what could be loosely called abstract expressionism,  whilst a few are minimalist. 

As such, the pictures cannot be considered as the avant garde overturning tradition,  since abstraction in the visual arts belongs to an era that is passing from living memory  into history. It  is becoming tradition, albeit a powerful one with a lot of life in it, especially  in art photography. Or may this  online exhibition represents a revival of abstraction that resists the assault of the avant garde, since abstraction in the visual arts continues to have a lot of institutional and cultural power. 

One description that comes to mind in looking at the pictures  is that they are photo poetry. Many of the pictures are very poetic in terms of their expression and force.  Therein lies their fascination and their seductive power.

Of course, this raises the question: 'what is poetized photography'?  I  don't really have much of an idea other to point to the liquid, flowing quality of the pictures---their nonverbal, improvisational musical quality  or force if you like--that refers to the more hidden aspects of everyday life.  It is not the art photographer's job to make normal comforting images given that we live in the world of images of  an aestheticized consumer culture.'

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