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What Is Conceptual Photography?

By Rachael Cullins
Updated May 23, 2024
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Conceptual photography is a type of photographic art that is initially envisioned by the photographer and then staged to realize that vision. Images are often designed to depict certain aspects of society or life. Photographs might also be digitally manipulated to achieve the final effect desired by the photographer. Conceptual photography might also be referred to as avant-garde photography.

This type of photography is the opposite of journalism style photography, in which the photographer captures real-life images as they happen. Conceptual photography is much more deliberate and has a specific outcome in mind, much like a painted portrait. Modern technology has enabled this type of photography to become more surreal, allowing the photographer to join together images or objects that would otherwise be impossible to juxtapose. Digital photography programs also allow the artist to add effects and filters to an image to achieve a certain look or feel.

Often, conceptual photography is used to convey an emotion or to imply something about a person or society. The images may be jarring, as objects not normally photographed together may be combined to create a memorable scene. For example, one notable conceptual photograph by the American photographer, Man Ray, shows the openings on a violin on a nude woman's back. The photograph’s meaning is open to interpretation, but it shows the synergies between the human form and the beauty of music.

Images in conceptual photography are often used in advertising or public service announcements. A gun with its chamber loaded with cigarettes instead of bullets conveys the idea that smoking is deadly. A picture of a half-eaten apple reflected in a mirror as a full, fat apple might symbolize the thought process of those with eating disorders. A woman’s body comprised of sushi might be an advertisement for a Japanese restaurant. Advertisers often turn to photography to help them showcase their products in ways that are eye-catching.

Some photographers specialize in conceptual photography and use the style both for artistic and commercial purposes. Fashion photography is especially well-suited to the use of the conceptual style, creating cutting-edge, attention-grabbing photo spreads for magazines and advertisements. Some photographers may do more traditional work, such as photographing weddings or newborns, to earn money while showcasing their conceptual work at galleries or exhibitions. This type of photography is a relatively new form of expression, compared to music or painting, as film cameras did not become popularly available until the 1900s.

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Discussion Comments
By hamje32 — On Nov 06, 2011

@Charred - I think the digital medium – both digital cameras and digital editing software – spurred the rise in conceptual photography.

Now everyone could make a statement using surreal images, whether they were a professional photographer or just some average guy with his own website or blog.

As with all things however, access to the technology does not necessarily mean the end product will be all that good. I’ve seen great examples of conceptual photography, and then online examples where it seemed that the images were the result of a hallucination.

I think for it to rise to the level of art, it must stand on its own as good photography, which means adhering to basic concepts of good lighting, composition and so forth.

By Charred — On Nov 05, 2011

From what I can tell, conceptual photography in advertising is less subtle than fine art photography.

Advertisers are on a mission to sell a product – or they may want to make a public service announcement or something like that. Therefore even when they use conceptual photography, the message behind the visual is easier to interpret.

Otherwise, there’s no point in making the advertisement.

I’ve noticed that some products that are famously used in conceptual photography advertising include alcoholic beverages, especially scotch or other strong drinks. The liquor is often seen in a tumbler, superimposed with some other image that conveys a certain message.

I think the opaqueness of the liquor makes it easy to superimpose other images on them, especially with image editing software.

By strawCake — On Nov 04, 2011

Conceptual photography is a really neat concept. However, I think it's really uncool when people stage photos and then present them as the real thing. In fact, if I remember correctly, I read somewhere that one really famous World War II photograph was actually staged by the photographer. (You know, the one of the soldier passionately kissing the nurse?)

I think with all the modern technology we have, doing something like this would be really, really easy.

By Monika — On Nov 03, 2011

I think these days some wedding photos definitely count as conceptual photography. In fact, I actually know a few people who went to art school and then got photography jobs doing weddings!

Anyway, I've seen a lot of very "artsy" looking wedding photographs recently. Yes, most photographers still do the traditional staged group picture. But they do a lot more than that now!

When my mom got married, her photography set up a few pretty shots of her shoes, flowers, and rings. I can tell you there's no way her ring would have been sitting next to her shoe if the photography hadn't thought up the concept and then set up the shot!

By Mykol — On Nov 03, 2011

With all the advances in digital photography and having easy access to photography websites, there is a lot of interest in photography these days.

Even with all these tools and photography tips that are available, I still think for someone to be successful at conceptual photography they need to be a creative person.

I have a friend who is an excellent photographer and when I look at her photos, I am constantly amazed at her creative thinking. She can envision what the picture will look like in a way that goes far beyond what I see when I look at something.

This is a talent that she really puts to good use and you can see it in all of her photos.

By SZapper — On Nov 03, 2011

I got my degree in art with a photography concentration, so I'm very familiar with the idea of conceptual photography. And, as the article pointed out, digital photography programs have made a big difference in the way art is made.

When Man Ray made the photograph the article talks about, he may have used a double exposure when he took the photograph. Or, he may have combined the woman and the violin in the dark room. It probably would have taken him quite awhile to get it right.

Using a digital photography program, you could do something like that fairly quickly. You can also combine elements from an infinite number of photographs. The possibilities are pretty much limitless using digital programs for professional photography!

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