Photography in Contemporary Art
Its History and Who to Watch Today
2020’s Art Russia has come and gone — an extravaganza spanning four days at the Gostiny Dvor trade and exhibition center. The event featured 80 stands, 40 speakers, and was attended by around 20,000 visitors. Art Russia was not only home to exhibitions and an art market but also educational programs and a focus on Russia’s place in the art landscape of today.
Among the many works were photographers representing the new generation of fine art photography. The discussions on the art world combined with the great new work prompted questions about photography’s place in contemporary art. Where did it come from, how did it get here, where is it going? (To paraphrase a question asked by Gauguin.)
To start, let’s contextualize the rise of photography and its lasting impact on art. Then, let’s turn to some of the great fine art photographers present at Art Russia among others, and by looking at what they’re doing, chart the future of the medium.
The Rise of Photography
The year was 1826. In the town of Burgundy, France, inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce was aiming a new contraption out of the window. It was from that vantage on the second floor of his house that Niépce took the first lasting photograph in human history.
The photo took hours of exposure due to the rudimentary quality of film at the time. And yet, Niépce succeeded. It was the beginning of the age of photography and the end of a long process for the inventor. Two years before, he managed to temporarily capture landscape images on stones coated in bitumen. He’d tinkered with the technology, able to create a silver salt-covered paper that could momentarily capture images. But now? Now those images on paper could last.
Over time, this first-ever photograph would be joined by billions like it. All of them focused on the idea of capturing a moment in a frame.
It was John Edwin Mayall who ushered in the use of the camera for artistic purposes. The first fine art photographs are considered to be his 1851 series of photographs depicting the Lord’s Prayer. It’s the use of framing and subjectivity lent the images a rapturous quality. He was perhaps the first photographer who considered what he was doing to be high art rather than pure documentation. The doors to a new world were beginning to open.
As more and more artists got a hold of photographic equipment, the fledgling work of Mayall burst open to include landscape, portraiture, expressionism, and all other kinds of styles and approaches. Even the documentarians became artists, such as the devastating landscapes of Ansel Adams or the heartbreaking social realities witnessed in the work of Dorothea Lange. These photographers were charged with making promotional or journalistic material, but they returned with some of the great fine art photography of the 20th century. By the eighties, photography was featured in auspicious galleries like the Met.
But in a changing time of video and virtual reality, integrated multimedia installations, and so on, where is fine art photography’s place? Can the still image maintain its hard-fought position in an ever-evolving art world?
The history of photography is one of the technological progress. As advances in the production, printing, and distribution of images come along, the form continues to change. That continuous change forever buoys the relevance and impact of fine art photography.
One of the main advances in the last two decades has been a dramatic increase in the quality and power of cameras available to the average consumer. The proliferation of the Digital Single-Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera brought the power of photography into more and more people’s hands. This has given rise to a broader range of voices entering the field.
While taking high quality, fine art photography is getting cheaper, so too are the methods of distribution. Platforms like Instagram allow for a deluge of images to freely disseminate to a large audience. Accessibility not only to equipment but distribution further exploded the ranks of photographers, connecting them directly to interested buyers and appreciative art lovers.
Altogether, these changes in the field are increasing the diversity of backgrounds in fine art photography. The effect is hard to ignore. Never before has so much vitality existed in the medium, and new perspectives always drive new approaches and insights. Many groups of people formerly excluded from the affluent circles of «fine art» are finding new channels to audiences, and in turn, institutions are taking notice and welcoming in artists from more diverse backgrounds.
Some of the most interesting contemporary photography includes the push toward surrealism. Utilizing the full capabilities of the camera and set, along with digital workstations like Photoshop, photographers are now capable of creating surrealist images at a high level of believability. The new surrealists are bending the rules of what’s possible using their impeccably trained eye and understanding of what can be done with their equipment.
Another major trend in contemporary photography driven by technological change is nostalgia. These photographers turn in the opposite direction of the recent advances, using the technology of yesteryear to capture moments that appear as if from another time — new and yet already imbued with a sense of loss.
Let’s consider some of the new forms and talents who represent them, focusing on photographers appearing at the recent Art Russia fair as well as other names worth keeping an eye on.
Yes, ever since the iPhone launched the smartphone revolution on June 29th, 2007, the ability to take photos has never strayed far from our pockets. Once competitors began entering the market, improving the camera became the calling card for new phones. And this battle for photo-taking supremacy leads to dizzying specs.
This trend inevitably led to iPhoneography. Photographers who’ve simplified their rig down to the most democratic of tools: their smartphone. What they lack in lenses they make up for in spontaneity. (There are even some award-winning films that were shot on smartphones.)
One of these new photographers is Olga Otchenasheva. She uses the simple, one-button process of taking photos on her iPhone combined with the wide array of powerful photo editing tools available today. Her work leans into, rather than away from, the square aspect ratio of Instagram — her main gallery space. This acceptance of the new tools and platforms creates an instantly relatable and recognizable style. There is a kind of familiarity with her work for anyone who’s spent time scrolling the feed.
Otchenasheva’s approach upends the traditional perspective. She often turns the frame to capture moments from topsy-turvy angles. Due to her lightweight, fast-reaction camera, she can snap intimate, fleeting moments. This gives many of the images a quality of witnessing, using a well developed quick-shot reflex.
While she spent many years working with the traditional DSLR set-up, she moved to the iPhone after the birth of her son and hasn’t looked back. A smart move, as she is now on the forefront of a growing a field in contemporary photography, helping others see the value of this approach.
Tatiana Mikhina is a young photographer whose work focuses on the human body, in particular bodies in movement. Her photos light on the moments of humans teetering, holding, turning, rising. That kinetic quality removes much of the feeling of «stillness» from her still images.
Much of her work captures the bodies of elite dancers — including dancers from the Kremlin Theater, Bolshoi Theater, and the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Theater. In series like Ballet, Mikhina captures their bodies in chiaroscuro lighting as their sinews flex, their limbs contort. The overall effect is dreamlike. While in Dance, she opens up to the bright beachside, the rushing water meeting, and dancing with the subjects.
Her latest series using ballet dancers, Animal Inside Project, pairs the dancers with a stunningly handsome horse. The rich brown tones of the horse create an almost earthen landscape for the dancers to form around. The physical power of both bodies is moving, and the visual discussion going on between the bodies begins to blur the boundaries between human and animal.
Mikhina’s ongoing investigations into photographing the human body are bringing the field forward using the most classic of subjects.
You might have heard of Kevin Abosch in more than one art setting. His work spans many forms, photography one of them. He’s collaborated with the likes of architect Ai Weiwei and used computer algorithms to generate images. But his supple photography is what we are interested in.
Much of his work centers around still life photos with black backgrounds. The subjects are worked over by a fascinated eye. Every detail is drawn in stark relief out of the blackness. Whether a decimated cooked goose photographed after Christmas dinner or still dirt-covered potato, Abosch draws out every detail while maintaining a certain blush of life. His portraits follow much the same technique.
When he is not in the studio working with solid backgrounds, he explodes the subject right up to (and beyond) the edges of the frame. The effect is one of uncomfortable intimacy, riding the line of inscrutability.
All of Abosch’s prolific career in many mediums deserve attention, but his photography gives us perhaps our most direct look into his artist’s eye.
Barry Cawston is a classic traveling photographer. Not limited to the sun-dappled stylings of his fellows, Cawston works much closer to realism, to travel as a state of understanding. Many of his series are journeys through lands, from the United States to India and elsewhere.
His cityscapes are devoid of people, allowing the physical presence of the city itself to emerge from the neon lights and paved streets. The character of these artificial environments begins to show itself as a kind of tone poem written in texture, visual rhythm, and color.
But while his cityscapes are often desolate, his intimate portraits of people hum with a full life. In Other People’s Lives, Cawston captures portraits of people inside their context. The subjects are not always happy, but they are always brimming with life.
Cawston’s focus on the essence unites both of these strands. His ability to let the subject speak for itself allows the viewer to have conversations, with people they’ve never met and factories they’ve never been to.
We’ve known photography for two hundred years. At that time, the medium made an indelible mark on our visual culture. Our collective understanding of history is now told in a slideshow of famous photographs, and our personal histories are a patchwork quilt of the snapshots taken of our families and friends. And so, there is no doubt that this relationship will continue. With the billions of photographs taken every year with our phones and digital cameras, it appears our love affair with the still image isn’t leaving anytime soon.
But while our love of images remains, photography as a fine art will always change. The use of a frame to capture the world around us and make a comment on or induce an insight about that world is a powerful practice. Looking through some of today’s practitioners, it is clear that while their tool is more or less the same, their approaches are as varied now as ever before.
The vibrant, wide-open field that is contemporary fine art photography matches so much of the art world today. The major movement of our time is that there is no one major movement. It is a time of the microsect, the individual, the particular and peculiar. There is no field that shows us this better than photography because of no other field with such a pure activity at the heart of its creation. There is incredible skill and artistry that goes into these works, but the ethos itself is simple. Point and click.
Special thanks to @artrussiafair
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