Conceptual photography

The precedents for conceptual artists of the 1960s and 1970s were created in the early twentieth century by French artist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). In 1917, he submitted a factory-made urinal to the Armory Show in New York on the basis that art could be anything the artist designated it to be. (Charlotte Cotton, The Photograph as Contemporary Art, 2nd edition, 2009, p. 22)

French artsit Sophie Calle’s (b.1953) blending of artistic strategy with daily life is one of the most compelling realizations of conceptually led photography. In her 1981 The Hotel, Calle took a job as a chambermaid in a hotel in Venice. During her daily cleaning of the bedrooms, she photographed the personal items of their temporary inhabitants, discovering and imagining who they might be. Calle’s art work conflate fact and fiction, exhibitionism and voyeurism, and performance and spectatorship (23).

The capacity of photoconceptualism to dislodge the surface of everyday life through simple acts occurs in British artist Gillian Wearing’s (b.1963) Signs that say what you want them to say and not sign that say what someone else wants you to say (1992-93). For this work, Wearing approached strangers on the street of London and asked them to write something about themselves on a piece of white card; she then photographed them holding their texts. The resulting photographs revealed the emotional states and personal issues that were occupying the minds of those portrayed. Giving the control of self-determination to the subject challenges the notion of traditional documentary portraiture (30).

With wit and humour , Wim Delvoye’s (b.1965) sculptures and photographs are driven by visual punchlines. Just like his finely crafted, rococo-style wooden cement mixers, and intricate mosaic of sliced salami and sausages, his photographs offer an irreverent joining of the mundane and functional with the grand and decorative. Delvoye uses this device to create experiences that are aesthetically pleasurable and psychologically aberrant. He mixes civic typographies normally used for inscriptions on monuments and gravestones with the language of the quickly scribbled, casual note left on a doorstep or kitchen table (Out Walking the Dog, 2000). The witty combination of the grandiloquent and the ordinary, public and private, carries the works’ serious comments on our waste of natural resources and the nature of communications in contemporary life (36).

The pictorial conflation of an event just passed and the history of a place embedded in its fabric form the basis of the narratives of Dutch artists Desiree Dolron’s (b.1963) Cerca Paseo de Marti (2002). The work depicts a classroom in Havana, Cuba, in which empty chairs face the impassioned political statements chalked on the blackboard and the portrait of a young Fidel Castro to the right. This photograph encourages us to mentally fill the visual absence of people through the traces of their actions and thoughts. Dolron’s Cuban project takes place in a country whose forty-five-year revolution to build a flourishing and independent country endures to this day. She finds the spirit and contradictions of its culture in poetic erosion, embodied in the peeling paint and cracks of Havana’s architecture, and the signs of its continued politicization of daily life (77).

The architectural ruin is also found in more dramatic images, such as Gabriel Basilico’s (b.1944) view across Beirut in 1991. The city, photographed from a rooftop, is presented as a heavy populated, densely packed expanse.  Through the clarity with which Basilico represents this scene, we are given a view of the pockmarks made by bombing, the evidence of the city’s late twentieth-century history, physical scars amid the bustle of daily life.  Basilico’s selection of this viewpoint is important in guiding our reading of the image. He has found a position that places the road and its signs of human activity right at the center of the picture and shows it extending to the horizon. By using this device, he emphasizes the sense of humanity’s resilience in this war-torn city (99).

What interests John Riddy is photography’s capacity to conflate time and its ability to evoke the history of a space. In Maputo (Train, 2002), the turquoise paintwork and the benches become the fading signs of a moment in the place’s colonial past. Present time is shown in the train carriage at the center of the image, an element we know will soon depart without a trace. Riddy photographs his scenes from a precise angle where the architecture fall into a symmetry (98).

Wolfgang Tillmans has been inaccurately described as someone who started out in fashion photography and then made a switch to fine arts. In fact, Tillmans demonstrated from the outset a confident understanding of the potential shifting of the meaning and currency of his images by experimenting with a range of contexts including magazines, art galleries and books. In the early 1990s, the anti-commercial stance of youth magazines meant that these were existing, and the most accessible, vehicles for a young photographer’s work. Tillmans’ photographs of friends, clubbers and ravers from the early 1990s, often using a snapshot aesthetic, found a relatively natural home in the pages of London-based i-D magazine (148).


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