Conceptual Photography

Watching the three films Source photographic journal published in 2012 ( I cannot pretend that I fully understand what “Conceptual photography” is all about, but will note down what I have taken out of the discussion and statements by different photographers, critics and curators :

  • The beginnings of Conceptual Photography dates to the 1960ies.
  • “Conceptualism is an attitude about the function of art, not a clearly identifiable visual style. Its Manifestions can be remarkably diverse.”(Cuban photography curator Cristina Vives Gutiérrez, quoted in M. Warner Marien, 2002, p.393)
  • Conceptual photography is preconceived rather than spontaneous and is based on (very often hidden) ideas the viewer is invited to retrieve and understand. Critic Lucy Soutter speaks of layers of meaning that need to be uncovered, artist John Hilliard, speaking about  his work ‘Camera recording its own Condition (7 apertures, 10 speeds, 2 mirrors’ )calls it  “a set of ideas you can speak about”.
  • Conceptual photography became the thing the market, and with that the galleries, wanted.
  • As critic Lucy Soutter puts it: ” Conceptual photography is anti-personal, anti-emotional and anti-subjective”. – The ‘Idea’ overrides everything else (Sean O’Hagan) ….some of the newer conceptual photographers, however, seem to feel it important to “bring emotion back into conceptual practice.” (James Casebere). As Soutter points out, the question to be asked is how the driving principles of art photography before the conceptual era might be described. Her answer: expressive, personal, subjective – work made as a result of a gut feeling, an impulse, a response of the eye, maybe something poetic or tactile or emotional.
  • Critics of conceptual photography cite Paul Graham’s presentation at the first MoMA Forum in February 2010, in which he strongly spoke up against a critic’s claim that conceptual photographer Jeff Wall carefully structured his pictures, implying  that all the other (and earlier) photographers just snapped their surroundings .(
  • It does not seems surprising that Guardian critic Sean O’Hagen appears the strongest opponent to conceptual photography, as newspaper photography defines itself differently to the  photography of art galleries and museums . (Of course this again is not a clearcut division – as the World Press Photo Exhibition on the one hand and the 2008 work of Adam Bloomberg and Oliver Chanarin  - The Day Nobody Died – makes only too clear.) O’Hagan: Conceptual – that’s where the money is. Showing absolutely no understanding for the Bloomberg/Chanarin project in Afghanistan, he insinuates the two photographers to have been driven by self-importance and narcississtic motives.

Conceptual photography, in my understanding, is a trend in fine art photography that is based on ideas rather than the immediate perception of the world. Often immediate understanding is denied,  photographs appears elusive, baffling, difficult to understand, obscure. I cannot pretend to be enthusiastic about most of the conceptual photography I have so far encountered, but there are exceptions: imgres-3


‘The Day Nobody Died’ appears to be a refusal by the photographers to give evidence of the war – the way the army imposes on embedded photographers to work – I respect the photographers intention after hearing their explanation in the film.

By seeing the long strip of partly exposed photographic paper without any explanation, the work of art would have remained absolutely incomprehensible. This is my basic reservation and contention withConceptual Photography. On the other hand, the same artists have made projects that fall into the category of Conceptual Photography that I find both fascinating and convincing, as eg. the ‘Holy Bible’ , where meaning is immediate and no external explanation required.        imgres-4                                                                                                                                                      My reaction to Conceptual Photography remains ambivalent after the three films by Source magazine.Which might have to do with the un-emotional representation, the hidden meanings, the obscure intention many of these photographs seem to contain. But I  am better able to reflect on the impact these photographs have and see them in relation to other trends in photography.


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