Is photography art? Today the answer is simple, indeed photography is more popular than ever and arguably the visual art of choice for the masses, but half a century ago the debate still raged.
In a new book, Photography Today, writer, artist and lecturer Mark Durden analyses more than 500 works by 150 artists from the past 50 years, exploring the impact of various genres, from pop art to documentary.
Here Durden offers his insight on ten important photographic works from the book.
In Thomas Struth's pictures made in museums he deliberately puts photography in relationship to that of the enduring tradition of great art, often setting up formal correspondences between people who have come to view art and the figures within the paintings they are looking at.
Audience is one of a series of large-scale photographs showing the crowds of tourists at Florence's Galleria dell'Accademia gathered to view Michelangelo's David. Only here we do not see the Renaissance masterpiece. Instead, Struth focuses on the people gathered before the artwork, an everyday and ordinary realm that typifies a predominant interest for photographers.
This photograph formed an important part of my first chapter The Copy: Authorship and Reproduction, a chapter that in part was concerned with the relationship between photography and other art forms and the identity of photography as art. Struth's pictorial celebration and preservation of a contemporary audience's response to Michelangelo's great artwork, shows them caught in moments of attention and fascination— some, mouth open, appear clearly visibly moved. His photograph invites us to reflect on an aesthetic experience that goes beyond the spectacle and distraction that dominates and characterises global culture.
The British photographer Sarah Jones is interested in psychological states that cannot be photographed, only hinted at and suggested. This is splendidly brought out in her series of Consulting Room photographs of empty psychoanalysts' couches and also, as shown here, in her portraits of teenage girls, posed in upper middle-class homes.
The antique objects, furniture and decoration serve as overbearing signs of an imperial and patriarchal order which, coupled with the rigorous formality of Jones' composition, serves to oppress and constrain the young girls. In this picture one girl hides her face by lowering her head into her hands. Her long unkempt hair, reflected in the polished dining room table, becomes suggestive of the turbulence of inner feelings, an emotional state that disrupts the oppressive order of the interior.
Peter Fraser is one of the great colourists in photography. His pictures involve subjective, deeply felt, instinctual responses to the look of things in the world. There is the sense of a searching use of the camera and an openness to the potentially infinite pictorial possibilities of what is around him. Colour is integral to the ways in which his photography opens up new and unexpected ways of depicting aspects of the everyday and ordinary.
This is beautifully brought out in this picture of two plastic buckets, and the way it concentrates us on the subtle shifts in tones of blue between them. What might have been seen as obvious and common is transformed in this picture, made special and strange. The photograph is from a series he aptly titled Everyday Icons.
This is from a series of colour photographs made in Africa by the artist Saidou Dicko, who is also a painter. Born in Deou, Burkina Faso, Dicko now lives and works in Dakar, Senegal. His photographs show the shadows of people and animals.
One can see his work as countering the colonial fascination with the African body, which was the basis of a history of anthropological looking that fixed and measured its subjects as specimens for scrutiny. Dicko's subjects remain mostly non-visible, and are given a different and new visibility and freedom in absentia by the way the camera fixes their shadows. Light and vibrant colour are central to the sensuousness of these images. While they reflect a painter's vision and celebratory joy in colour, at the same time the shadow motif is inextricably connected to photography.
One of the earliest names for photography was skiagraphy, or shadow-writing. But Dicko's skiagraphies are not about darkness or negativity. Instead they convey a sense of the exuberance of life, elevating day-to-day moments from the lives of his subjects.
Alfredo Jaar's 2002 installation Lament of the Images was made for Documenta 11, Kassel, Germany, one of the world's biggest and most important exhibitions of contemporary art.
I discuss this work in my final chapter Photography Tomorrow, which looked at a number of photography projects that took us to extremes or limit points. Jaar chose not to show us any pictures but instead blinded us with a blaze of projected light. Rather than a despairing nihilist gesture, Lament of the Images was integral to a strongly held argument that images mattered.
Jaar's installation was a response to the increasing political control, erasure and suppression of images. Our encounter with Jaar's field of light was preceded by three glowing panels of back-lit texts presented in a darkened room, all musing on different forms of blindness and erasure: beginning with Nelson Mandela being dazzled by the light on his release from prison and how prisoners were blinded by the glare of the sun on the limestone as they broke rocks in a quarry on the centre of Robben Island.
Texts two and three considered the loss and control of images in relationship to two significant events: the burial of 17 million photographic images from Bettmann and United Press International, purchased by Microsoft chairman, Bill Gates, in a limestone mine, and how before launching airstrikes against Afghanistan, the United States Defense Department had bought all rights to satellite imagery of Afghanistan and neighbouring countries, creating an "effective white-out of the operation".
Anna Fox is an important artist working within the British documentary tradition. I discuss some of her work in my chapter entitled The Self where she uses photography and writing to respond to difficult experiences in her own family life.
This picture is taken from her small beautiful bookwork, My Mother's Cupboards and My Father's Words (2000). The meticulous photographs of objects on shelves speak about a bourgeois order and polite front, a facade that is rudely shattered by transcriptions of the abusive language directed at the women in the household by Fox's father as he succumbs to illness. His cruel words are presented in an elegant calligraphy, which gives them an appearance of respectability that corresponds with the neatly arranged objects in the cupboards. This picture is paired with the words: "She's washed so many dishes her hands have blown up like bears' claws."
David Goldblatt's portrayal of South Africa resists the polemical tendencies within the documentary photographic tradition. As a Jewish white male born to immigrant parents, he grew up in a middle-class family in a town near Johannesburg on the Witwatersrand, the gold-bearing hills of South Africa.
This picture comes from his 1982 book of photographs In Boksburg, made in a white middle-class suburb in South Africa during Apartheid. It was a way of exploring something of his own background. His pictures showing public and private events are not without a certain ambivalence and contradiction. There is an underlying empathy and fascination with the figure of the child and younger people in his pictures. In this striking picture of a young teenage girl in her new tutu, proudly pirouetting en pointe, Goldblatt pictures her caught in the web of shadows from the trellis on her veranda, just as she is trapped, we are led to assume, by the ideology in which she is being brought up.
Joel Sternfeld has produced some of the most fascinating and bizarre pictures of the contemporary American landscape. This photograph forms part of a series entitled American Prospects, first published as a book in 1987. The title itself puns on the idea of the prospect as a view, as well as invoking the future. Judging from many of Sternfeld's pictures in this book, the prospects are not good.
There is a sense that all is not well in the world. And this is brilliantly brought out in the joke made by this photograph taken in Virginia in 1978. It shows a house with its roof ablaze being attended to by a fire crew but also includes a field in the foreground in which a fireman can be seen buying a pumpkin from a small market store— a lack of care and distraction suggesting something much more serious has gone awry.
Gillian Wearing makes a ground-breaking conceptual intervention into the documentary and street photography tradition in her series of photographs Signs that Say What You Want to Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say (1992-93).
To make these pictures, Wearing stopped people in the street and got them to write down what they were thinking before photographing them. Each of her subjects looks to camera as they each hold their statements, which are presented in the form of handwritten notes on white sheets of paper. With the display of self to camera supplemented by the personal disclosures made within the signs, there is an element of unmasking here.
Picturing a range of people in terms of age, gender, class and ethnicity, this vox populi street portraiture both draws upon and unsettles stereotypes as we try and read the look of the person in relation to the slogans they make public. This visually forceful work rests upon our fascination and curiosity about what strangers are like on the street, with the varying revelations and disclosures made in their handwritten signs, either interrupting or confirming the expectations and assumptions made about her subjects in terms of their expressions, gestures and dress.
Erwin Wurm uses ordinary bodies, his own and that of others, to both expand the principles of sculpture and provide hilarious photographs that document the events and performances he sets up for camera. The artist's relationship to directors of museums is, one imagines, not always harmonious.
The comedy of this particular photograph by Wurm is the way in which he deliberately exploits this relationship, getting the museum director to stand headfirst inside a bin. As well as forming part of a clever joke, by showing us the body in such unusual situations, Wurm reconfigures relationships between people and things— such a placement makes us aware of the body as a physical thing, an object, a sculptural medium.
Mark Durden will be in conversation with photographer Sarah Jones, and artist, curator and writer David Campany about the face, the body and the self in contemporary photography at the National Portrait Gallery on Thursday 5 June 2014.
Photography Today by Mark Durden is published by Phaidon Press, ©2014 Phaidon Press Limited.