The Changing Face of Contemporary Photography

Aesthetica Art Prize 2014

Aesthetica Art Prize 2014

Photography has had an interesting history, first being connected to science, then struggling to be recognized as fine art, and now, with the digital age, the concept of what a photograph is or can be is changing, as are the photographers themselves – what challenges and opportunities does this present within the established tradition of the art museum?

At the dawn of photography, the technical experiments of pioneers including Joseph Niépce and Louis Daguerre in France, and William Henry Fox Talbot in England, established the medium’s basis in science; and photography soon became an alchemy of wonder to the mid-Victorian age. Its early connection to science introduced the concept of the photograph as truth, a direct recording of the reality found in front of the photographer’s lens.

However we do not need to investigate far into the medium’s first fifty years before we find significant examples of photographers who challenged this blind faith in photography’s veracity, and pushed the practical and ideological limits of the medium. Hippolyte Bayard’s Self-Portrait of the Photographer as a Drowned Man (1840) was arguably the first example of the photographic lie. Camille Silvy’s River Scene, France/La Vallée de l’Husine (1858) and Henry Peach Robinson’s When the Day’s Work is Done (1877) are both complicated compositions made from multiple negatives. Traditions such as ‘spirit’ photography, popular from the 1850s onwards, and the trend for ‘headless’ photography often found within photo collage albums of the Victorian era are further examples. In her essay on photography for the Quarterly Review in April 1857, Lady Eastlake wrote: “Photography has become a household word and a household want; is used alike by art and science, by love, business, and justice…”

I present these historical examples to argue the point that while the challenges brought by the digital age are expansive and complex, photography has always been a highly experimental medium, ambiguous and fluid in nature, often moving between classifications. Any artist-photographer working today either consciously or subconsciously is working within the historical context of such forebears discussed above. Once we have dismissed a singular view of photographic history, and accepted that a straightforward linear narrative from science to art with clear ideological beginnings and ends is not appropriate, we are free to explore the role of photography today.

Considering the traditions of the art museum, what conceptual challenges does the digital age bring to a museum’s practice in terms of its understanding and exhibition of photography? As photography moves further away from film and paper-based techniques, and a born digital image becomes increasingly screen-based, and adaptable in how it can be merged with other mediums, our past understanding of this term needs re-evaluating. The digital age can necessitate that the art museum reconsider its traditional object-based view. It must be adaptable in acknowledging that contemporary photography has further blurred distinctions between genres, the still and moving image especially. Many photographic artists working today are currently exploring the hybrid found when the mediums of photography, painting, computer technologies, and film meet. The work of Susan Sloan, whose motion capture portraits were exhibited at the Photographers Gallery in 2012, is an example of this development.

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Todd Hido: Excerpts from Silver Meadows

Todd Hido: Interview for Of the Afternoon

Todd Hido: Interview for Of the Afternoon

San Francisco based photographer Todd Hido was born in the small town of Kent, Ohio, where growing up his first introductions to photography came through MTV and magazines such as Rolling Stone and Interview. His early influences were extremely broad, and among the genre of cinema, he particularly remembers the impact of seeing Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire at age twenty. This film has been especially influential to Hido in the way he approaches sequencing a book, and planning its flow as if floating in an out of people’s lives.

Hido came to international attention with the publication of his first monograph House Hunting in 2001. This collection of twenty-six nocturnal studies of suburban houses, photographed using long exposures and available light, introduced key themes found within his aesthetic vision. This series presented the viewer with a discomforting ambiguity in the concept of ‘home’, as both a source of comfort and isolation. The underlying sense of detachment in House Hunting can partially be attributed to Hido’s objective visual distance which clearly referenced the influence of ‘New Topographics’ photographers such as Robert Adams, and perhaps the pioneering work of Wright Morris’ The Inhabitants (1946). Hido’s subsequent books Taft Street (2001) and Outskirts (2002) further explored this Midwestern domestic suburban environment to great effect.

In 2006, Hido introduced portraiture to his published work, with Between the Two, which juxtaposed images of dilapidated interiors with studies of women. Later monographs such as A Road Divided (2010) presented Hido’s own interpretation on the contemporary American landscape, and the mythical allure of the ‘open road’. The latter book further expanded Hido’s artistic style, with many photographs taken through the blur and fragmentation of the car windscreen, becoming more abstract and painterly in style. In 2013, all of these previous chapters in Hido’s publication history came together to form his most ambitious book project to date, Excerpts from Silver Meadows.

It was a great pleasure to recently interview Todd Hido for photography magazine Of the Afternoon. Hido and I discussed many topics including the tradition of the family album, the influence of his former teacher and mentor photographer Larry Sultan, Hido’s portrayal of women, and his photographic techniques and approaches to photobook design and publishing. You can read the full interview in issue #5 of Of the Afternoon which is available to order online.


Carlotta Cardana: Mod Couples

'Amanda and Jon' © Carlotta Cardana, Reproduced with kind permission.

‘Amanda and Jon’ © Carlotta Cardana, Reproduced with kind permission.

Back in October 2013, I was a selector for the Association of Photographers Open Awards, an annual competition and accompanying exhibition for professional and amateur photographers. My fellow judges and I were unanimous in choosing Carlotta Cardana’s portrait of ‘Amanda and Jon’ from her documentary portrait series ‘Mod Couples’ for The Best AOP Student Award.

Cardana’s series documents young couples who belong to the Mod scene, the sub-culture which first began in the late 1950s and reached its original peak in the mid-1960s. Cardana’s simple but bold compositions are immediately engaging, in part due to her sensitivity to the formal conventions of portraiture, and also her detailed attention to the personal style, fashions and environments carefully chosen by each couple. However the series as a whole also invites much quieter, more complex questions regarding the construction of identity; both individually, as a partner, and collectively as part of a sub-culture. Viewing these photographs one also questions the increasing role of nostalgia in contemporary society.

I’m delighted to see Cardana go on to receive wider recognition for this series, most recently as a winner in The New York Photo Awards 2013 and as a shortlisted photographer in the 2014 Sony World Photography Awards. Further portraits from the series can be enjoyed on the photographer’s website.