Category Archives: The Photograph as Contemporary Art

The Photograph as Contemporary Art by Charlotte Cotton

The Photograph as Contemporary Art, Charlotte Cotton (2009) 

I recently read The Photograph as Contemporary Art, by Charlotte Cotton. This book considers the full range of ways in which artist engage with photography to make art. It aims to explore the spectrum of motivations and expressions, which exist currently in the field.

 In doing so, Cotton has divided contemporary art photography into eight categories, dedicating a chapter to each of these. She stresses that the categories are more concerned with common grounds and motivations in artists’ practices than with stylistic aspects or subjects.

The groupings are as follows:

 1. If This Is Art?

2. Once Upon a Time

3. Deadpan

4. Something and Nothing

5. Intimate Life

6. Moments in History

7. Revived and Remade

8. Physical and Material

 As a form of review I will provide a brief description of each chapter’s underpinning themes, followed by my personal thoughts on the topics, ideas, photographers and photographs discussed.

 1. If This Is Art

Cotton describes the focus of this chapter to be photographs that have evolved from a strategy or happening orchestrated by a photographer for the sole purpose of creating an image. To illustrate this method of working, Cotton refers to the work of photographers who she describes as collectively making a confident declaration of how central photography has become within contemporary art practice.

 Of the photographers discussed, I found the following images and motivations particularly interesting.

 Gillian Wearing ‘Signs that say what you want them to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say’ (1992-93). Wearing approached strangers on the streets of London and asked them to write something about themselves on a piece of card: she then photographed them holding their text. In orchestrating these events, Wearing has made the thoughts of her subjects the focus of her portraits.

This relatively simple idea has resulted in what I thought to be an extremely powerful image. The tattooed man, who holds a sign that read, HAVE BEEN CERTIFIED AS MILDLY INSANE! has been photographed with a background of what appears to be a commonplace shopping arcade. The ordinariness of the scene contrasts with the boldness of the statement. The expression of the man could be interpreted in several ways, is he intimidating and possibly challenging or has his personal truth made him vulnerable?

Cotton writes that Wearing’s proposal has been an important one within contemporary art photography, especially evident when sitters are given instructions that disarm them and prompt less-self conscious gestures for the cameras.

 Shizuka Yokomizo , Stranger (10), (1999). Yokomizo selected windows from which she could see through at night. She sent letters to the inhabitants of the houses asking if they would stand at the windows with the curtains open at a certain time. The result was a series of 19 portraits.

Stranger (10) shows a young man standing in the centre of a lit window. When reading about Yokomizo’s plan I was struck by the confidence behind her proposal and the exciting outcome it could muster. For both the photographer and subject there must have been a sense of trepidation in anticipation the shot being taken. One can only imagine that the subject would be nervous, particularly as they cannot se the photographer, but only their own reflections in the window glass. In Stranger (10) the young man’s facial expression appears defiant, his chin raised high. His body language, however, appears somewhat awkward, as he stands tense and still.

I find it interesting to note that of all the works discussed in this chapter I was drawn to two examples where the artist has choreographed events where the end result has been a portrait of a stranger.

Once Upon a Time

This chapter considers the use of storytelling in contemporary art photography. Cotton (2009, p49) explains that many of the photographs in this section make reference to fables, fairy tales, apocryphal events and modern myths while others are more open-ended, relying on the viewer investing their own train of narrative and psychological thought.

This area of photographic practice is often described as tableau or tableau-vivant photography as the story is concentrated into a single, stand-alone image.

This chapter had a particular appeal for me as I have become to realise that I enjoy looking at photographs that invite the viewer to imagine a story about what may have occurred or be about to occur. Such as the work of Brooke Shaden, in  ‘Vivid Dreams and Fragile Machines and Tor Seidel and Julia Fullerton-Batten contributions to the Identity exhibition.

Cotton (2009, p49) discusses the contribution of Canadian artist, Jeff Wall to this arena, noting that he is one of the leading practitioners of staged tableau photography. The photographs she comments on, Passerby (1996) and Insomnia (1994), are both photographs I have viewed before but I find that it is still interesting to look at them again as they both hold drama and intrigue and, again, prompt the viewer to construct a narrative to surround them.

I had to revisit certain sections of this chapter, Once Upon a Time, to try to differentiate between tableau photography and the photographic practices discussed in If this is Art. I could appreciate that tableau photography has a strong storytelling focus. However, in If This is Art, the practice is described as,photographs that have evolved from a strategy or happening orchestrated by a photographer for the sole purpose of creating an image’. Surely this could also apply to tableau photography? Further reading helped me to appreciate that with tableau photography the photographer is akin to a film director, creating narrative fantasies while working with a cast, crew, actors and a staged setting.

3. Deadpan

This category of approaches couldn’t be more different from the tableau style of photography discussed previously.

Cotton (p81) states that deadpan aesthetic is one of the most prominent and frequently used styles of photography. Deadpan is describes as a cool, detached and keenly sharp type of photography. The photographer, while engaging with emotional subjects, is seen to have emotional detachment and command. The emphasis is on viewing beyond the limitations of individual perspective.

Several of the examples discussed in this chapter such as Power Supply No.1, (1989-92) by Lewis Baltz and Grünkohlfeld, Dusseldorf_ Kaarst, (1999) by Simone Nieweg didn’t appeal to me at all. Perhaps, due their subject matter, an industrial interior and agricultural landscape which seemed, to me, somewhat unexciting and dull. I did get the feeling that I was missing something and was unable to see the artist’s vision. Maybe I am not ready for a deadpan approach and require more emotional clues in order to interpret an image?

I found the work of Andreas Gursky to be of interest. Especially in learning that when employing the deadpan aesthetic to his photographs he often find a signature vantage point, usually at a distance. The emotional distance and physical distance from his subject is seen in Chicago, Board of Trade II, (1999). The distance removes the viewer from the scene encouraging the viewer to be detached and critical. The people in the photograph are miniscule, packed tightly together in a busy work environment. While I did find the photograph interesting the details are difficult to make out viewing it in the book, making me think that viewing the original image at it’s size of over 3m x 2m must be a far more satisfying experience.

The section ends on a look at how deadpan has been used in portraiture. I felt more comfortable reading this section and viewing the images here, particularly the street portraiture. While the subjects expression are unsurprisingly neutral, I did find myself trying to read their expressions and draw clues from their body language, clothing and surroundings to help me read the photograph.

4. Something and Nothing

This section looks at the ways that non-human; often quite ordinary, everyday objects can be made extraordinary by being photographed. The objects are altered ‘conceptionally’ because of the way they have been represented.

The initial image in this chapter is Quiet Afternoon (1984-85) by Peter Fischli and David Weiss. The photograph shows a tabletop assemblage of a grater, carrot and courgette arranged, through fixing and balancing into a simple sculptural form. Cotton (p116) describes the sculpture as a consciously unsophisticated temporary structure. For me, I didn’t see intrigue or beauty, nor did it prompt any strong emotion.

Further on in the chapter, however, I did find photographs of ‘ordinary, everyday’ objects that appealed to my individual aesthetics.

Nigel Shafran’s Sewing kit (on plastic table) Alma Place (2002) was one such image. Shafran’s photographs make observations about they way we conduct our lives through our unconscious acts of ordering stacking and displaying objects. The domestic scene centres around a sewing box stacked on top of a small, round table. Above it there is a window with light pouring through. At the edge of the frame there is a TV, on a stand, with a VCR on top of it. Opposite we can see the edge of a sofa, and a box containing neatly stacked CD’s/DVD’s. The room has an organised, though minimalist feel to it. It did make me consider what observations could be drawn from the way the objects in my home are displayed, stacked and ordered.

Sabine Hornig’s Window with Door (2002) also sparked my visual curiosity. Hornig’s photography concentrates on the spaces between the image and the object. I had to look at the image for quite some time to understand I was looking at a door, at the far side of a room, being photographed through a window, from outside. The reflection on the glass of the building and trees behind the photographer add to the unfamiliar perspective. This offers us an unusual and imaginative view of view of the everyday world around us.

5. Intimate Life

This chapter looks at how narratives of domestic and intimate life have been presented in contemporary art photography.

Cotton (p138) notes that American photographer; Nan Goldin has had the most direct and obvious influence on the photography of intimate lives. Goldin began taking pictures of the events and situation among her bohemian   ‘family’ of friends and lovers in the early 70’s, although her work did not receive international acclaim till the 1990’s.

Cotton (p143) also discusses the work of American photographer and film director, Larry Clark whose explicit portrayals of teenagers and young adults have also been influential on contemporary photography. His photograph Untitled (1972) shows a man lying on his back while injecting a needle into the extended arm of a young, virtually naked woman who is straddling his body. It is a graphic photograph and while I couldn’t say I ‘liked’ the content I would say that I found it interesting, particularly as Clark’s photographs are autobiographical. Like Goldin’s work, they are records of the events of his/her world and experiences of their friends.

Interestingly, the candid and explicit style of Goldin and Clark’s work inspired the 1990’s trend in fashion photography for ‘grunge’. I recall seeing the magazine covers, which saw thinner, younger models cast in unglamorous sets with minimal make-up and styling. This prompted an outcry of media criticism which accused the fashion world of using ‘heroin chic’ to promote drug taking, eating disorders and the exploitation of children.

However, it seems that contemporary art photography escapes the same criticism that was directed towards the fashion world. The autobiographical and diaristical nature of intimate life photography links the photographer’s life with the photograph and this adds an authenticity that fashion photography simply does not hold.

6. Moments in History

Contemporary art photographers have, on the whole, taken an anti-reportage stance. This section looks at how, rather than being caught up in the chaos of an event or first hand witness to pain and suffering, they photograph what is left behind in the wake of such tragedies. In the introduction at the beginning of the book cotton refers to it as ‘aftermath photography’. The section also looks at how contemporary photographers create visual records of isolated or marginalized communities.

The work of two artists discussed in this section caught my attention. The first of whom is Simon Norfolk. Norfolk’s image Destroyed Radio Installations, Kabul, 2001 (2001) is taken from a high perspective and looks across a bombed-out, deserted desert landscape, towards hills in the distance. Despite the rubble and ruins, the low-lying mist (or smoke) offers softness to the image and to the sense of quiet and stillness. Perhaps, a sense of the calm after the storm? Cotton notes that the image makes a pointed reference towards the fact that; as a result of the devastation of war the ancient and culturally rich land has been returned to a premodern state.

Fazal Sheikh has concentrated on human subjects who are individuals and families living in refugee camps. In Halima Abdullai (2000) a woman sit holding her 8-year-old grandson on her lap in a Somali refugee camp. They both stare into the camera with no readable expression on their faces. Cotton (p172) notes that this deadpan style of photograph, previously discussed in the third chapter, is used widely when projects concentrate on human subjects and consequences of social crisis or injustice. Sheikh provides the viewer with text, which tells the history of his subjects, and I found that this really helped me to mentally and emotionally connect with the photograph.

The use of captions or text to accompany the photographs in ‘aftermath photography’ was evident in the project of British/Egyptian photographer, Laura El-Tantawy, titled Casualty, which I viewed recently. The project focuses on Egyptian woman whose sons, daughters and husbands were killed by police during the revolution. The photographs are accompanied by extracts from interviews, each relaying the story of each family’s loss. Cotton (p172) notes that when quotes from subjects are displayed it gives them a voice and also confirms the role of the photographer as mediator.

7. Revived and Remade

In this section of the book Cotton (p191) considers the ideas of postmodernist thought, that views photographs from the standpoint that their significance or value centres on our pre-existing knowledge of images and acknowledges social and cultural coding.

On reading the chapter, I was interested in the work by American artist, Cindy Sherman, whose work Cotton (p192) describes as a ‘prime exemplar of postmodern art photography’. The image Untitled #48 (1979) is from the series Untitled Film Stills (1979), which show the artist portraying a number of feminine types from movies. The black and white image show Sherman standing alone at the edge of a deserted country road, looking away from the camera, along the road’s length. She wears a below-the-knee skirt, modest blouse and flat, sensible shoes with ankle socks. A suitcase sits nearby. Sherman intends for the series to show how femininity is a popularly constructed notion and, for me, this image shows quite clearly a damsel-in-distress figure, awaiting rescue. The scene also could convey the narrative of a small town girl escaping in search of adventure, both themes common in many novels and films.

The chapter notes that many contemporary art photographers revisit and restage the work of artists, exhibitions, events etc. such as Vik Muniz, whose Action Photo 1, (1997) is a photograph of his sticky, drippy chocolate sauce recreation of a photograph of Jackson Pollock taken by Hans Namuth.

I found the approach that Hans-Peter Feldmann’s used in constructing his book Voyeur (1997) also helpful in understanding post-modernism in photography. Voyeur is a small flip book containing juxtapositions and repetitions of found, stock and gathered anonymous images. The page from Voyeur which Cotton (p210) shows 6 photograph of no particular theme or genre which I found appealing as I then began to search the photographs and my conscious for ways to connect them. The absence of captions or date means that the images can only be viewed through the viewers’ own bank of prior knowledge and experience and in relation to each other.

8. Physical and Material

This chapter focuses on photography where the very nature of the medium is part of the work. Contemporary art photographers are making conscious decisions to highlight the physical and material (hence the chapter title) natures of photography and are responding to the changing modes of photographic dissemination.

In considering the artists and work in this section I found it helpful to compile Cotton’s (p10) overview into a short list which highlights the decisions, photographers discussed within the section make, as concerning

  • The use of analogue technology rather than digital
  • To act as curator, investing new meaning in images
  • To use photography as just one element of their practice, with photographs becoming components of installation and sculpture work
  • To use the Internet as a tool in reaching a larger and more varied audience.

To review this chapter I will consider an artists work from each of the above points.

Zoe Leonard began a 10-year project in 1998 entitled Analogue. The project documented shop displays of modest goods and advertising signs, initially in New York, then expanding around the world. Leonard used a vintage camera, a Rolleiflex, to capture the images. She merged the deteriorating place of local business and analogue photography, making the nature of the medium part of the work. Her photograph TVWheelbarrow, (2001/2006) shows a well-used metal wheelbarrow sitting at the side of a road. Inside the wheelbarrow, sits a large cushion, on which an old TV set sits. While the TV is representative of technology from a time past, I wondered if the wheelbarrow is a metaphor for change or movement which make it now history, redundant. I found that the setting for the image gave it an overall charm: cobbled street, decorative grille, showing that although something may be ‘old’ it can also hold beauty.

Sherrie Levine noted the materiality in photographs when she appropriated classic photographs by Walker Evans (1930-75), Edward Weston (1886-1958) and Eliot Porter (1901-90). Levine boldly re-photographed images from pages of exhibition catalogues, mounted, framed and presented them in contemporary art galleries. On reading this my initial thought was one of puzzlement. Why would this be permitted? Surely Levine could not profess to be the ‘owner’ of these images? I also wondered what creativity this could possibly show? Cotton (p221) refers to the image After Walker Evans (1981) by Levine to explain that she was not proposing ownership of the image nor had she ‘revived or remade’ the image. But that in order to explore the images further Levine had taken on the roles of editor, curator, interpreter and art historian, again making the nature of the medium part of the work.

Michael Queenland, an American artist, used photography along with other art materials to transform everyday objects and experiences. Cotton shows a photograph of Queenland’s exhibition Bread and Balloons, (2007) which shows photographs displayed alongside sculptures of bread and balloons alongside more abstract sculptures. Reading about Queenland was usefully in understanding what photograph as a component of installation and sculpture work could look like, However, I didn’t quite grasp what significance the objects had or how they related to the photography. Perhaps, the objects are supposed to ambiguous? Also, I would imagine that to experience the installation would have more emotional and cognitive impact that looking at 2D small image in a book.

Cotton briefly discusses 2 websites, which utilise the technology afforded by the Internet as a tool for photography to reach a larger, and more varied audience. is a hub for contemporary photographers set up by Tim Barber in 2005. Barber portfolio is displayed along with the work of established and emerging artists and submission by website users.

I hadn’t heard of this site before and was surprised to see it holds the portfolios of literally dozens of photographers. The site is no longer open for submissions (possibly due to the number of contributions?) but is still aiming to reach a wide and varied audience through its free iPhone app. shows the work of Jason Evans. The site in very simply designed and displays a single image for a day’s duration of ‘something that made me happy’.

I frequently use websites to view the work of photographers from all over the world. I find it interesting, informative and often inspirational. The international aspect also shows subject matter that is often not accessible in my part of the world. I will bookmark the above 2 sites and add them to my list which includes


Reading and digesting this book has taken me quite some time, however I have learned a substantial amount in the process that I hope this review shows. Awareness of the different approaches, motivations and overlaps (such as Moments in History/Deadpan) will help me to further understand and ‘read’ photographs. The book will act as a future reference guide of how photography is represented in contemporary art and also of the vast number of artists and their work that is discussed

Cotton, C. (2009) The Photograph as Contemporary Art (2nd Revised ed). London: Thames and Hudson Ltd

Photograph references

Lewis Baltz (1989-92) ‘Power Supply No.1’, In The Photograph as Contemporary Art (2nd Revised ed) by Charlotte Cotton. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, p89

Larry Clark (1972) ‘Untitled’, In The Photograph as Contemporary Art (2nd Revised ed) by Charlotte Cotton. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, p143

Andreas Gursky (1999), ‘Chicago, Board of Trade II’, In The Photograph as Contemporary Art (2nd Revised ed) by Charlotte Cotton. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, p84

Sabine Hornig (2002)Window with Door’, In The Photograph as Contemporary Art (2nd Revised ed) by Charlotte Cotton. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, p135

Zoe Leonard (2001/2006) ‘TVWheelbarrow, from the series Analogue’, In The Photograph as Contemporary Art (2nd Revised ed) by Charlotte Cotton. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, p231

Sherrie Levine (1981) After Walker Evans, In The Photograph as Contemporary Art (2nd Revised ed) by Charlotte Cotton. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, p221

Vik Muniz (1997) ‘Action Photo 1’, In The Photograph as Contemporary Art (2nd Revised ed) by Charlotte Cotton. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, p191

Simon Norfolk (2001) ‘Installations, Kabul, 2001’, In The Photograph as Contemporary Art (2nd Revised ed) by Charlotte Cotton. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, p171

Simone Nieweg (1999), ‘Grünkohlfeld, Dusseldorf_ Kaarst’, In The Photograph as Contemporary Art (2nd Revised ed) by Charlotte Cotton. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, p100

Michael Queenland (2007)Bread and Balloons’, In The Photograph as Contemporary Art (2nd Revised ed) by Charlotte Cotton. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, p228

Cindy Sherman (1979)Untitled #48’ In The Photograph as Contemporary Art (2nd Revised ed) by Charlotte Cotton. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, p (193)

Fazal Shiekh (2000), ‘Halima Abdullai”, In The Photograph as Contemporary Art (2nd Revised ed) by Charlotte Cotton. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, p173

Nigel Shafran (2002) ‘Sewing kit (on plastic table) Alma Place’, In The Photograph as Contemporary Art (2nd Revised ed) by Charlotte Cotton. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, p120

Jeff Wall (1994) ‘Insomnia’, In The Photograph as Contemporary Art (2nd Revised ed) by Charlotte Cotton. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, p50

Jeff Wall (1996) ‘Passerby’, In The Photograph as Contemporary Art (2nd Revised ed) by Charlotte Cotton. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, p48

Gillian Wearing (1992-93) ‘Signs that say what you want them to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say’ In The Photograph as Contemporary Art (2nd Revised ed) by Charlotte Cotton. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, p30

Shizuka Yokomizo (1999), Stranger (10), In The Photograph as Contemporary Art (2nd Revised ed) by Charlotte Cotton. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, p32