The Photograph as Contemporary Art

Charlotte Cotton is the curator and head of the department of photography at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Her book, “The Photograph as Contemporary Art”, was first published in 2004 and functions as a survey of contemporary photography.

The book is organized into seven chapters that are meant to give the reader a general knowledge of the themes that run through today’s photography. This is not to suggest that these are the only themes that are found in photography today nor that all photography over the last five or so decades fall into one of these seven categories.

Each chapter of the book contains many photographs that demonstrate the theme being discussed. Cotton is an articulate writer and each artist is discussed within the context of the chapter and his or her life. This discussion is accompanied by at least one representative photograph.

From the first paragraph of the introduction:

“We are at an exceptional time for photography as the art world embraces the photograph as never before and photographers consider the art gallery or book the natural home for their work. Throughout the history of photography there have always been promoters of  the medium as  an art form and vehicle for ideas  alongside painting and sculpture, but never as many or as vocal as there are today.”

Here is a very brief summary of the chapters taken from the pages of the book

“The first chapter, ‘If this is Art’, considers how photographers have devised strategies, performances and happenings especially for the camera. … Attention is paid here to the degree to which the focus has been preconceived by the photographer: a strategy designed not only to alter the way we think about our physical and social world but also to take that world into extraordinary dimensions.”

“The second chapter, ‘Once Upon a Time’, concentrates on storytelling in art photography. Its focus is in fact more specific, for it looks at the prevalence of ‘tableau’ photography in contemporary practice: work in which narrative has been distilled into a single image.”

“The third chapter gives the greatest consideration to the idea of a photographic aesthetic. ‘Deadpan’ relates to a type of art photography that has a distinct lack of visual drama or  hyperbole. Flattened out, formally and dramatically, these images seem the product of an objective gaze where the subject, rather than the photographer’s perspective onto it, is paramount.”

“While chapter three engages with a neutral aesthetic of photography, chapter four concentrates on subject matter, but at its  most oblique. ‘Something and Nothing’ looks at how contemporary photographers have pushed the boundaries of what we may ordinarily ignore or pass by.”

“In Chapter five, ‘Intimate Life’, we concentrate on emotional and personal relationships, a kind of diary of human intimacy. Some of the photographs have a distinctly casual and amateur style, many resembling family snaps taken with Instamatic cameras with the familiar colouration of machine-made prints. But this chapter considers what contemporary photographers add to this vernacular style, such as their construction of dynamic sequences and their focus on unexpected moments in everyday life, events that are distinctly different from those the average person would ordinarily capture.”

“Chapter six, ‘Moments in History’, attempts to cover the greatest amount of ground in its highlighting of the use of the documentary capacity of photography in art. It starts with arguably the most counter-photojournalistic approach, one that is loosely termed ‘aftermath photography. This is work by photographers who arrive at sites of social and ecological disaster after they have been decimated.”

“The final chapter of the book explores a range of recent photographic practice that centres on and exploits our existing knowledge of imagery. This includes remaking of well-known photographs and the mimicking of generic types of imagery such as magazine advertising, film stills or surveillance and scientific photographs.”

Cotton’s book is a terrific addition to any library and a must read for anyone who is interested in understanding and exploring current the trends in photography.

Follow this link for some additional information:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: