Photography has become a part of our everyday lives. Now, with everyone having a camera in their pocket, access to documenting our world and creating spectacular imagery is easier than ever. So, what does it mean exactly to be a contemporary photography artist today? Here, we will explore what takes an image from a photograph to a piece of contemporary art.
Where Photography Becomes Fine Art
In the 1820s the camera obscura captured the first photograph. Since this time, we have seen an evolution of processes from the daguerreotypes to the age of digital photography. With each new process of creation, new photographers emerged building upon the skills of their predecessors. As the popularity and accessibility of photography continued to grow, individuals began manipulating the processes, compositions, and intentions of this revolutionary new technology. The skill became an art, and the world began to recognize this shift.
The photography of the early 1900s carved a path for its recognition as an art form. Ansel Adams provided iconic images of the American landscape that challenged the use of exposure and contrast. Renowned Dadaist artist Man Ray toyed with the medium creating his surrealist rayographs placing objects directly on light-sensitive paper. However, Alfred Steiglitz paved the way for fine art photography as the first photography artist to have a gallery show and later opening his own fine art photography gallery. By 1940, what we recognize as the beginning of fine art photography, gallery shows were on the rise, photographers gained international artistic acclaim, and museums began creating photography collections.
Understanding Contemporary Photography
Unlike distinctions such as modern art and contemporary art, where one movement ends and another begins, contemporary photography is more fluid. The term is defined as the photographic art of ‘now’. For some, this means the photography of the 21st century and for others stretching as far back as the 1970s. This flexibility means that contemporary photography continually shifts and changes to respond to the artists of our time, allowing the term to remain in play infinitely into the future.
So, what are some notable changes we have seen in the world of photography in the ‘contemporary’?
We witness artists who are actively deconstructing the medium. They break down its uses and processes to create new conceptual and abstract images. For instance, Garry Fabian Miller’s luminograms toyed with processes such as Cibachrome printing paper and manipulations of light to create abstract geometric works. Conversely, contemporary photography reflects the rising reliance and accessibility to technology. Gaining steam in the late 1990s, the ability to manipulate photographic images in post-production allowed for new creative licenses to be taken.
Looking closer at the art of today, we see a distinct shift reaching back to the end of the 20th century in subjects and themes. The devastations of war, changing relationships to the natural environment, and documentation of industry provide a commentary on the ever-changing nature of our society. Photography becomes a direct response to these rapid changes in our globalizing world. Commerce, politics, and cultures continue to undertake monumental shifts. From Joel Meyerowitz recording the aftermath of the World Trade Towers collapse to Brais Lorenzo Couto demonstrating resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic, contemporary photographers are using their lens to respond to the events that impact our world.
Artists to Know
Below is a list of some of the well-known artists who have cemented their place in the history of art.
- Cindy Sherman (post-modern and social critique photography)
- Carrie Mae Weems (social critique and portrait photography)
- Dawoud Bey (social critique and portrait photography)
- Shirin Neshat (social critique and portrait photography)
- Lola Flash (social critique and portrait photography)
- Deana Lawson (social critique and portrait photography)
- Annie Leibovitz (portrait photography)
- Tawny Chatmon (portraiture and mixed-media)
- Michael Schmidt (documentary and portrait photography)
- Sibylle Bergemann (documentary and portrait photography)
- Joel Meyerowitz (documentary photography)
- Didier Massard (landscape and magical realism photography)
- Chris McCaw (landscape and astrophotography)
- Vivian Maier (street photography)
- William Eggleston (street photography)
- Andreas Gursky (architectural and abstract photography)
- Viviane Sassen (portraiture and abstract photography)
- Sandy Skoglund (surrealist staged photography)
- Philip-Lorca diCorcia (documentary and staged photography)
- Jeff Wall (conceptual and staged photography)
The Pieces of the Whole
While contemporary photography does not conform to a set of strict dates, as viewers of contemporary photography today we can discern various movements and genres that have taken hold in the world of art.
Stemming back to its earliest days as a medium, Portrait photography remains a prominent genre of contemporary photography. Today, artists take to new methods of portrayal to capture new depths in their subjects than ever before. Amongst the most innovative and iconic is Annie Leibovitz. She brings a new dimension to her, often famous, subjects through sharp imagery with dramatic use of light. Lee Jeffries constructs entrancing black and white portraits of homeless individuals inviting a new intimacy with the often overlooked population.
Street Photography captures the authenticity of everyday life; these photographers create more than a portrait of an individual, but of place, time, and culture. Posthumously discovered, Vivian Maier’s work has gained esteem in the world of contemporary photography. Often candid images of the marginalized groups, her photography exposed the realities of urban life through abstract compositions. The practice of street photography is stronger than ever with newer generations and emerging artists. Nick Rufo, for instance, captures Los Angeles and communities of the greater South West through a nostalgic lens. Filipina photographer Xyza Cruz Bacani uses her street photography to raise awareness for under-publicized issues across Asian communities.
The realm of photojournalism has taken a new form as a Documentary style of contemporary photography. Chris Burkard has become internationally recognized for his ability to capture the natural world from intriguing perspectives that emphasize the beauty of the environment. Artist Richard Mosse uses a documentary style to subvert the atrocities of war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo through his use of infrared aerochrome recognizance film to simultaneously expose the beauty and tragedy.
Documentary photography bleeds into another category, Activism and Social Critique Photography. Artists like Sibylle Bergemann gained international acclaim by documenting the monumental changes in their societies. Bergemann’s social realist works critiques life in East Germany under the rule of the German Democratic Republic, as witnessed in her black and white series “The Monument”.
Dawoud Bey utilizes the realm of social critique to capture the human condition in its rawest form to create a larger commentary about Black identity through his documentary depictions of life. Cindy Sherman, whose photography work has become a staple of contemporary art since the early 1980s, through her postmodern appropriative imagery and film stills that critiqued the role of the modern woman in society.
While these are notable disciplines within the realm of contemporary photography today, there are countless others – including glamour, abstract, timelapse, photomontage, etc.
New Horizons in the World of Photography
As contemporary photography pushes forward new evolutions in technique, technology, and subjects will inevitably take hold. Looking to the future we have seen controversies over the use of drone photography. The NFT craze spurring dramatic transformations in earning profits and reproducing photography digitally. Turbulent political and social climates spur protest, activism, and violence left to be documented. We see a rise in artists using the medium in new and distinct ways like creating three-dimensional forms and immersive installations out of their photographic imagery.
Contemporary photography represents an endless frontier at the intersections of art and technology. We are left with the question, what barriers will they break down next?