chantal stone photography: the blog

July 9, 2007

On ‘Contemporary Photography’

Filed under: Inspiration,Photography — chantal @ 12:29 pm

photo by yours truly, see larger here

Lately I’ve been pondering the notion of meaning in photography, and in ‘contemporary photography’ in particular. You can search on the web and through various blogs to find many articles about it, trying to define it, etc.

A couple weeks ago I wrote about photographer Brent Clark, who was listed among many other photographers reviewed by Alec Soth during the Magnum Portfolio Review in New York. In it I wrote:

“Contemporary photography is interesting to me. I find myself both strongly attracted to it, yet annoyed by it at the same time. I enjoy the random feel of it, even the often times sterility of it. But what annoys me most is its commonness now. It seems every other up and coming fine art photographer shoots the same sort of static photograph. There’s a certain lack of emotion, which I suppose is purposeful, but it’s opposite of what I like to shoot.”

I feel the need to expand on this a little more. ‘Contemporary Photography’ is not easily defined. (And technically speaking, if we’re shooting now, aren’t we all contemporary photographers?) But there is a clear difference, imo, between what ‘contempary photographers’ are shooting and what, say, ‘contemporary pictorialists’ are shooting. The difference is that of one photographer who shoots scenes to say something vs. another photographer who may shoot to show something.

I’m generalizing here, and of course there is plenty of gray area.

On The Landscapist, Mark Hobson often writes about meaningful pictures vs. decorative pictures. This fascinates me because I often complain about how the internet in particular has changed the way people view photographs, therefore changing the way people are making photographs—often going for strictly the ‘wow’ factor to catch the 10 second glimpses that web-surfing creates.

This is what Mark has to say in reference to the notion that “photography is about creating meaning from one fleeting instance, where all events preceding and following it are irrelevant …”:

“While photography certainly has a unique relationship with ‘time’ which differs radically from all the other visual arts, one which rips and isolates a single moment from the stream of time as we know it, to say that that one moment is all that matters is rather ridiculous. Why? Because, with a kind of cause-and-effect manner of thinking, much of the meaning and depth of a picture comes from its time-fragmented relationship to what has come before and what might follow its “frozen” moment and how all of that relates to what it means to be human.”

In response to my Brent Clark article, my friend Paul Lester wrote this: “It seems as though most of the photographers just decided to go against the grain with regards to composition and getting a ‘pleasing’ (to whom?) photographic composition, just to be contemporary, contrarian, or perhaps antiestablishment. Whatever it is, it ain’t workin’ for me!” I enjoy his often opposing viewpoint to mine.

More of specific interest were the comments that he received. “Mike” wrote:

“Well — sometimes you gotta call a “spade” a “spade”. The stuff some of these wannabees are producing is so hollow and without merit that it deserves to be viewed and ignored.

I think it’s also an age thing — lots of new photographers are quite young and I have a problem with that at times because I think they still have no experience — they haven’t been around long enough (or paid any dues) to have us give their stuff the time of day…. They can wait awhile until they’ve got something to say that’s worth our while listening to. Or until they can produce something that is pleasing enough to our eyes to make them linger.

Some of the new stuff is so imitative that you can’t tell one author from the other — it could all have been taken by robot. So why should we waste time looking for meaning?”

Thankfully not all of Paul’s commenters shared Mike’s viewpoint.

But let me offer a thought or two that has opened my eyes to the brave new world of ‘contemporary photography’ and has forever changed how I view photography in general, and most importantly, how I make my photographs:

  • Sometimes a picture is about more than just the obvious subject. Sometimes it’s about the light, or color, or line, or form.
  • Sometimes it’s about more then just the singular image. Great photography can often be within the context of a whole, and to judge based on the singular image is doing a disservice to the artist and yourself as viewer.
  • Sometimes we can learn more about ourselves while viewing a photograph than we learn about the actual photographer.
  • Sometimes we need to go beyond the obvious.



  1. I didn’t like this picture of the fish sandwich. I’m sorry I had to pick on the fish sandwich but it was the freshest contemporary photograph in my mind. I like fish sandwiches a lot and I’m sure the photographer is a great person. As for his other images, I like some of them even though the style isn’t in my taste.

    If he finds that there is something in that image that is important, be it light, line, or form then thats great! I can appreciate that aspect of it. I can even appreciate the fact that so many people have taken to contemporary photography. The more people love photography the better, any kind of photography at all is good and important.

    Does the fish sandwich represent the hungry children of the world who if we all pitched in then we could buy them a fish sandwich? Is it about the light glinting off the styrofoam box which will destroy our planet. Does it represent that the photographer is hungry inside for attention?

    I love to go beyond the obvious. I don’t go so deep that I drown though. I’ll never understand the artists intent unless I ask him and he has an honest answer. The light and the form and the function of this newfangled contemporary art does little to rouse my spirit.

    “Sometimes we can learn more about ourselves while viewing a photograph than we learn about the actual photographer.”

    I 10000% agree with you. I learned that I don’t really like contemporary photography. My opinions and tastes change over time though. So maybe one day I’ll understand the fish sandwich.

    Comment by Sebastian — July 9, 2007 @ 2:42 pm | Reply

  2. Well, like it or not, contemporary photography is too large for us to ignore, and… like it or not, we all are ‘contemporary’ in one way or another. We all have an image that we think is brilliant and the rest of the world is like “huh?”

    My only point in focusing on CP as a genre is that I believe we need to learn to look INTO photographs, going beyond the decorative.

    Comment by Chantal — July 9, 2007 @ 3:11 pm | Reply

  3. It seems like you are using “decorative” in a derogatory way. Whats wrong with beauty? Unless you take the same picture over and over again, then it becomes redundant art, not decorative art?

    Comment by Sebastian — July 9, 2007 @ 3:24 pm | Reply

  4. ‘Decorative’ in terms of intent. Are you trying to show what something looks like (all photographs do that) or are you attempting to dig deeper, to go beneath the surface of appearances and actually trying to say something. Are you being contemplative with your approach, or not?

    Therein lies the difference.

    There’s absolutely nothing wrong with beauty. I’m talking about going beyond the ‘pretty picture’.

    Comment by Chantal — July 9, 2007 @ 3:44 pm | Reply

  5. So does the fish sandwich SHOW a fish sandwich or does it TELL about something which we do not know?

    Comment by Sebastian — July 9, 2007 @ 3:58 pm | Reply

  6. I’m not saying that the fish sandwich is saying anything profound…you can’t tell that from the single image. But perhaps in the context of the photographer’s body of work, there’s something there to be told. The message (if there is one) need not be deeply meaningful—I don’t think anyone expects to find the meaning of life from a picture of a fish sandwich, the message could be simply something of observance or of humor.

    My point is that unless we consider the image within its context, or hear from the photographer himself what he was trying to say (or not), to assume that the fish sandwich is meaningless just because we don’t ‘get it’ would be foolish.

    Comment by Chantal — July 9, 2007 @ 9:47 pm | Reply

  7. Ouch, point taken about the context. I don’t expect to find the meaning of life in any photograph. That meaning should be found inside yourself. If a photograph helps, then hooray! How long should one ponder about contemporary photograph, or a collection of photographs before moving on if you don’t “get it”?

    And getting it, brings up another point: People like to invent their own meanings. I can invent anything I want about the fish picture, nothing that I imagine about it makes it any better for me. Maybe I just don’t believe that contemporary photography has produced anything that means anything to ME yet.

    Am I not fully sensitized, as so many photographers of the day are? The ones who “get it” about the pink stapler on the desk which, actually symbolically throughout humanity and being coded in our genetics from the dawn of man, actually means the drudgery of work? I find it boring. And I’d rather not be so sensitized that I end up a sniveling pile of goo on the floor crying about how much meaning there is in the two pieces of carpet fiber I just picked up and placed oh so carefully on the wooden entryway.

    Comment by Sebastian — July 10, 2007 @ 9:06 am | Reply

  8. I’m not invalidating your argument either btw. I think you make a fine point! We DO need more meaning and less pretty for pretty’s sake. I just find that theres not ENOUGH meaning TO ME in contemporary photography.

    Comment by Sebastian — July 10, 2007 @ 9:10 am | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

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

%d bloggers like this: