The term ‘photography’ applies to the medium of practitioners who capture light, generally with the aid of a camera and photo-sensitive paper. This process can apply to homemade pinhole cameras or emulsion-based photographs that use light while avoiding cameras altogether, such as cyanotypes or rayographs. It also applies to the much larger community of digital technology, with or without cameras (that is, with the computer instead), and with or without post-‘exposure’ production and software programmes.Read More
The first (analogue) trajectory of photography began more or less in the late 1830s with the pioneering research of Louis Daguerre, who made stable portable images out of a ‘camera obscura’ methodology. (He built on investigations from ten years earlier by Nicéphore Niépce.) Digital photography emerged 160 years later in the early 1990s with the availability of formats such as JPEG or TIFF. These formats can store images on a computer to then print at home. At this time, sophisticated use of digital collaging was explored on a large scale by artists like Andreas Gursky.
Photography’s subject matter initially paralleled the history of painting, mostly conforming to formats such as landscape or portraiture. However, after some resistance it became accepted as ‘art’ with a vengeance. This is especially the case with its use as a mode of documentation within the 1970s Conceptual art movement (Bernd and Hilla Becher are particularly influential). It also found a niche in Performance art, as well as with the rise of Feminist practices (like Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine and Barbara Kruger), spurred by women artists seeing painting as phallocentric and exclusionary of women. Photography acquired a gravitas and academic edge over ‘exhausted’ painting, and—despite its downplaying of manual skill—acquired a popularity with audiences who are often suspicious of contemporary art.
Photography as a discipline is diverse. For example, dysfunctional family narratives are recorded (not acted out) in Richard Billingham’s autobiographical images, while more distanced (and posed) plot developments are alluded to in the constructed tableaux of Gregory Crewdson and Jeff Wall, and notorious historic events are recorded in the people-less, simplified, coloured paper sets of Thomas Demand or the documentation of crime sites by Ann Shelton.
Innovative, experimental portraiture is exemplified by the images of Thomas Ruff, Seydou Keïta, Nan Goldin, Rineke Dijkstra, Greg Semu and Hiroshi Sugimoto, the latter documenting the waxwork physiognomies of cultural and historical giants. Absurdist humour that stops its audience in its tracks is sometimes a salient feature of the photographic work of Martin Kersels, Erwin Wurm, Peter Fischli and David Weiss. Throwable or rollable pinhole cameras with multiple apertures have been developed by Darren Glass, while Steven Pippin has converted whiteware such as washing machines into working cameras. Found photographs purchased in bulk can also be exhibited. Some artists like Patrick Pound sort them into categories and display them as groups; others like John Stezaker make them into witty but disturbing collages through minimal cutting and clever juxtaposition.
Even reflexive self-examination may occur in the photographic medium. Within the large photographs of Thomas Struth, we see the crowds in institutional architecture who—like us—are looking at art in galleries—photography is often deeply self-aware and aware of social politics, class and history.