Contemporary Art and Photograhy

Fırat Arapoğlu

The 1960s marked the beginning of the approach of photography in a different context under the umbrella of contemporary art and such names as Douglas Huebler and Ed Ruscha are its pioneers. In the art represented during this period, the camera does not mean more than a documentation instrument, a simple copying tool, and instant snapshots that are taken in museums, travels, fairs today. On the other hand, more or less the expectations of the audience were that they acted with such a perception reflex.

The colored or black and white photographs that we see in biennials, art fairs, art galleries and museums with their visual attractiveness and success in terms of sales nowadays are neck and neck with paintings. In this context, the photographs are represented to the viewers as artworks, and they are approved by the buyers. What were the radical ideas of some artists of the 1960s when they included photography in contemporary art and who were their target groups? It is possible to evaluate the works of Vito Acconci, Victor Burgin, Dan Graham, Bruce Nauman, Hans Haacke, and many others on this axis. These artists used a semi-mechanic tool producing images in questioning the dominant position and status of the art object defined by its unique and original characters. But how?  


At the most basic level—if you forget the artistic and aesthetic criteria of the current market for a moment—the photography appears to be not weighed by "art" and this was the same situation in the past as well. From the point of the audience, typically, the photography included the discourse of bringing images from life into other people's lives. The basic motto of art was to make the invisible visible and to raise awareness of the unconscious. Let's add to the necessity of the rhetorical skill of the contemporary art to this and try to place the photography in such an environment.

When the 1960s period is considered, the conflict between two basic photography orientations is evident: art photography and photojournalism. The artists who used photography in a different context were developing a new photography movement. Photography was used to document the processes of performance, field study art-specific installations and, in fact, the clues that it would be used gradually by Conceptual Art can be seen.


Vito Acconci, Grasp, 1969, 78x102 cm, Guggenheim Museum


The using of photography by conceptual art was positioned by adopting the clear and simple, amateur and snapshot qualities of photography versus the art photography. The museums promoted an author-oriented representation and developed their exhibition strategies by using the mastery of the photographs and their authenticity. At the same time, some artists created and presented documents that they produced with photographs in the form of an objective tool by pointing out a format that anyone could produce. It can be clearly stated that the conceptual art has adopted the functional and anti-aesthetic character of photography.

The use of the camera was seen as an important tool for recording the social and political events of the relevant period, such as the functionality of the video camera launched in the 1960s. It was provided by the photographic image that enabled it to be functional for the social image culture and media criticism. In such a historicity, in the late 1960s, the photography and texts began to appear on the walls of the art galleries; in other words, the audience-mass looking at these photographs was clear.

Conceptual Art emphasized the connection between photography and language. Thus, in the 1960s and 1970s, many projects in which literature and photography were used together were witnessed. Naturally, the history of the use of image and language together dated for a long time, but in the fields outside of visual arts, such as silent movies or posters. Productions using language and photographic image together was rejected by modernist theories. However, no image is simply an image by itself.

The photography was thus get involved in intermedia and not only existed as a mere photograph but was also becoming a part of the video, performance, and installation. Well, it is problematic to see contemporary art and photography as an alternative to each other. Isn't the photography actually contemporary art? (What can be more contemporary than pressing the shutter today?) But sometimes it is not an art but just contemporary, it is just something outside of this field (just like passport pictures). As Susan Sontag points out, photography is a universal language that can basically have any meaning and the advantage of photography is really great. But sometimes it is impossible to tell the audience/art-lovers: however, they have a healthy non-artistic attitude and a direct search for truth.


Robert Smithson, "The Monuments of Passaic", Artforum, December, 1967.


Picture Generation/Photography Generation: Appropriation from Mass Visual Culture: Advertising Photography

The photography was appropriate for general media forms. We can exemplify John Baldessari's paintings used together with image and text. Other examples of this may be Dan Graham's "Homes for America" as a publishing project in 1966 and Robert Smithson's "The Monuments of Passaic" in form of a travel diary.

In the case of Dan Graham and other names, the direct language of the photographs was directly used as a phenomenon. On the other hand—if we consider the pop elements in this photographic image and text cooperation—Ed Ruscha's work titled "26 Gasoline Stations" in 1962 is included in this group and they are presented in black and white form just as an objective presentation of information.


Dan Graham Homes For America, 1966-78


The relationship between photographic image and text in the conceptual art production, it is seen that the method of registration of bureaucracy and scientific research documentation methods are used. For example, the works of Douglas Huebler including maps, diagrams, and guidelines; Adrian Piper presents his documents and notes in ring binders. Also the work of Hans Haacke, "Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System". Of course these works, in other words, Conceptual Art become an "aesthetic style" and it has become a memorization form that we often encounter today. Because the thesis of some names about these kinds of works and the exhibitions presenting these works should not be seen "just an art", the exhibition of a production in an art gallery, encourages the audience/reader/thinker to ask instant questions.

Even today, the use of images and texts are assumed to continue with an illusion that it does not contain a commentary on the presented event, but merely presents the truth. Of course, this documentary status of the photography shows its difference from "language". But is this really like that? Does a photographic image—and the art, of course—have any symbolic, ideological meaning that is pure, rare, without connotation? While language is seen as a system of signs, can photography claim an independent autonomy?

If photography is not a standard marking, then we need an additional information to understand or explain these productions. The language opens up the point where photography does not have a non-coded, syntactic sequence. The relationship between this language and photography and its presence in mass media having a relationship with art have emerges in this period.


In Conclusion

Today, photography is seen as a very old discipline. Generally, this is the place where art remains are hidden. Art loves photography environment as it is "simple" and "artless". Artists are in a curatorial position while they are creating numerous "research installations" and "image collages".

For the photography to be understood as a document or information, it may be necessary to have an attachment such as subtitles in silent movies. In this way, we can understand why so much text support is used in both art and use of unconventional material/object so that it can be read and interpreted. Remember the art colophons with plenty of paragraphs.

We can summarize the structure of the idea of art in this period, which includes both opposition and egocentrism as follows: The aim of art is not to give instructions, but rather to give information only. How will the audience perceive this? This is only left things to the arms of the coincidence. Here we can come to the following conclusion: The artist should not try to produce a beautiful object, the only purpose is to carefully catalog the results of the hypothesis/proposition.

Some of Hans Haacke's work encounters great toughness when it involves social problems. As we mentioned above, the black and white photographs of abandoned apartment buildings are still popular among contemporary art and it has been like this for a long time. However, everything changes when you present a documentation list that has not any aesthetic value including the list and conditions of the building owners.

So we can reach the following conclusion: I do not emphasize the importance of indexical and referable capacity as a tool, but I also try to explain that the way of using the language added to those images directly affects that meaning and is customizing that information.

Generally, young photographers are well prepared to become contemporary artists and therefore need site-specific works, artist books, slideshows, audio, and written additions. But that is at stake here is to take control of the image and the narrative. How will photography be held in art and painting exhibitions? It should be observed a little bit more.