I’m a completist :-) so before I write up my thoughts on the points raised by the ‘Chance’ section in the course notes, I thought I should belatedly tie up the loose ends of the ‘Genre’ chapter.
I quite like the Tate’s simple definition of conceptual photography:
“Conceptual photography is photography that illustrates an idea” (Tate 2018)
So rather than just being a photo of something, it is also a photo about something. This ‘about’ is, I think, key to understanding conceptual photography.
I’ve seen a definition of conceptual art (unfortunately I cannot recall the source) as “art about art”, so does it follow that conceptual photography is just “photography about photography”? I don’t think so; the idea being explored does not have to be inherently about photography – though in a great many cases it is (actually most of the examples in the video series are about photography – John Hilliard, Suzanne Mooney, Broomberg & Chanarin). In this sense there is perhaps a crossover with post-modernism, which examined and challenged the accepted norms of the medium.
“All photography is conceptual” – or is it?
Various people interviewed for the Source series make a point of saying that they don’t use the term “conceptual photography”, and some comment along the lines of “all photography is conceptual photography” in as much as there’s an idea underpinning all photos.
I find this to be a simultaneously justifiable and entirely pointless argument. To be fair I have an equally allergic reaction to all statements of universality, such as “all photography is about memory”, “all portraits are self-portraits” etc – even if the argument can be made legitimately, once you have claimed that “everything is x” then you are no further forward; find me a point of distinction and we can have a meaningful discussion. And it kind of reminds me of the joke “all wine is mulled wine when you think about it”…
Given that “all photography is conceptual photography” doesn’t really help much in terms of understanding different bodies of work, I do find it useful to identify that which I believe (returning to the Tate definition) illustrates an idea, even if a lot of people in the art world dislike the c-word.
“illustrates” is the crucial word here: it’s easy to make a case that every photograph is based on or driven by an idea, or even contains an idea, but the distinction in my mind is that conceptual photography makes an attempt to illustrate (or communicate) that idea. In this sense I concur with John Hilliard, who breaks down the use of ideas in a way that I found useful when he talks about:
“[A] set of ideas which you can speak about, and if the purpose is to embed those ideas in the finished photograph then they also are intended to be retrievable” (Hilliard 2012)
I was drawn to the word “retrievable” – it doesn’t mean “obvious”, so it includes (encourages?) ambiguity. But I don’t believe it means “obscure” either. I also like this from Sean O’Hagan:
“I always start from the premise that there’s something interesting here and maybe I’m not getting it.” (O’Hagan 2012)
Ambiguity and complexity do seem to be part of a lot of conceptual photography, although Lucy Soutter makes the point that early (1970s) conceptual work was often a lot more straightforward in terms of interpretation by the viewer (some of Hilliard’s work such as the clock series falls into this category for me; his later cat work less so).
Regarding examples, the people who always spring to my mind first are Broomberg & Chanarin (which is somewhat ironic as they lead the “there’s no such thing as conceptual photography!” charge in the Source series of interviews). One of the things I admire about Broomberg & Chanarin is that they rarely work in the same visual style twice – experimentation with the photographic form is perhaps the connecting thread, but their output is very eclectic from a visual standpoint.
A subset of their work that interests me most is that which interrogates photojournalism in various ways, and I’ll briefly describe three which I have seen in person:
- The Day Nobody Died (2008) comments on the restrictions of embedded war photography by… not taking any photographs
- People in Trouble Laughing Pushed to the Ground (Dots) and (Contacts) (2011) is their response to an archive from the Northern Ireland Troubles and the interventions of the archivists
- Afterlife (2009) is a deconstruction of a single press photograph of an Iranian firing squad, sliced into multiple single images mounted on glass, making the viewer isolate their gaze onto particular aspects of the photograph sequentially
In each of these projects I believe they have succeeded in transmitting an idea about photojournalism – respectively how it is produced, handled and consumed.
The other name that sprung to mind was Thomas Ruff, who I wrote about a few months ago after visiting his retrospective exhibition.
Relevance to my work
Whilst I still don’t think it’s a ‘genre’ as such, I found this look at conceptual photography to be useful, thought-provoking and inspirational. Despite the prevarications by the interviewees I actually found that it clarified the subject hugely.
I am emboldened to increasingly think about my own work in the context of conceptual photography; I do believe the work is driven by an idea (or ideas) and I am starting to think about it in terms of how to embed and transmit the idea.
In short, I want viewers to think about what my work is about, not just look at what it is of.
Conceptual Photography definition http://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/c/conceptual-photography (accessed 25/05/2018)
What is Conceptual Photography? http://www.source.ie/feature/what_is_conceptual.html (accessed 25/05/2018)