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Postmodernism is the name given to the defining artistic movement of the second half of the 20th century. Aspects of postmodernism in art and literature include surrealism, abstract expressionism, and the Theatre of the Absurd. Postmodern photography is characterized by atypical compositions of subjects that are unconventional or sometimes completely absent, making sympathy with the subject difficult or impossible. Like other postmodern artists, the champions of postmodern photography contend that it is possible to ignore the “rules” and still create art.
Art critics and theorists gave the name “modernism” to the art, literature, and music created during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Modernism was characterized by a rejection of previous artistic trends, such as Romanticism and a tendency toward realism. Postmodernism took this further by questioning standard definitions of “art” itself. Modernism and postmodernism were both controversial within the art world, and even the meanings of the terms themselves are the subject of debate. The general public, meanwhile, was often mystified by these works; many viewers questioned whether they were even “art” at all, which some postmodernists saw as a validation of their approach.
Postmodern painting was often characterized by an abstract, or non-representational, approach; works often appeared to be random colors or scribbles without an overriding design or meaning. Postmodern photography takes the same approach, but the medium offers special challenges for the postmodernist. The camera captures a perfect representation of whatever is in front of the lens. This means the images must be carefully chosen in order to remain abstract. Too much artifice, however, is contrary to the postmodern concept.
The word “banal” is often used in relation to postmodern photography. Banal means “ordinary” or even “boring.” As traditional photography focuses on subjects that are interesting, unusual, or beautiful, the choice of banal subject matter is an obvious one for postmodern photography. Again, the idea is to challenge the viewer, whether that viewer is an art critic, academic, or casual passerby. The artist asks a question or, rather, forces the viewer to ask, if the subject is ordinary or boring, whether the image is still a work of art.
The photographer William Eggleston has been called a consummate postmodernist. Eggleston worked with color images at a time when only black and white photography was considered “art” by critics and museum curators. While some questioned his choice of a format that was seen as common or pedestrian, its eventual acceptance made color photography a valid form for other artists to use. This illustrates how postmodern art, while sometimes controversial or confusing, has benefited the practice of art as a whole.
Frequently Asked Questions
What defines postmodern photography?
Postmodern photography is characterized by its departure from modernist principles, embracing a diverse range of styles and subjects. It often involves a playful or ironic approach, challenging traditional notions of art and authorship. Postmodern photographers might mix high and low culture, incorporate text, or use appropriation and pastiche to comment on society and question the nature of reality and representation in photography.
How does postmodern photography differ from modernist photography?
While modernist photography emphasizes purity, simplicity, and the pursuit of an objective truth or reality through the photographic medium, postmodern photography rejects these notions. It often views truth as subjective and embraces complexity and contradiction. Postmodernism in photography is less about capturing an ideal form and more about deconstructing norms, embracing multiple meanings, and exploring the relationship between the image and the viewer.
Can you give examples of postmodern photography techniques?
Postmodern photography techniques include collage, where multiple images are combined to create a new work; appropriation, where existing images are used in new contexts; and the use of text to add layers of meaning. Digital manipulation has also become a tool for postmodern photographers, allowing them to alter reality in ways that challenge the viewer's perceptions and expectations.
Who are some notable postmodern photographers?
Notable postmodern photographers include Cindy Sherman, known for her conceptual self-portraits that explore identity and female representation; Richard Prince, famous for his rephotography technique, appropriating images from advertising and entertainment; and Barbara Kruger, who combines black-and-white photographs with declarative captions, questioning consumerism and power structures.
What impact has postmodern photography had on contemporary culture?
Postmodern photography has had a significant impact on contemporary culture by influencing the way we understand images and their meanings. It has contributed to the critical discourse around representation, media, and the construction of reality. Postmodern photography's tendency to question authenticity and originality has also paralleled developments in digital media, where the manipulation and distribution of images have become commonplace, further blurring the lines between reality and representation.