History of Conceptual Photography
Conceptual art arose during the mid-1960s, when artists began creating works that focused on conveying a formulated idea rather than what was literally depicted. These artists followed in the footsteps of Marcel Duchamp and his infamous readymade art object “Fountain” (1917), seeking to question and redefine elements of the art world. This budding movement emphasized the informative aspect of artworks across mediums over their aesthetic qualities. Many artists who worked with conceptual photography, for example, used basic techniques and often produced images with rudimentary focus and clarity. The meaning of these works was instead conveyed through new ranges of expression, including the recontextualization of existing photographs and pairing text with the images, to comment on current social and political issues. These photographers and artists helped redefine contemporary fine art, bringing conceptual photography to the fore as a legitimate artistic style. Though many artists today do not label themselves as conceptual, they pull heavily from the process of conceptual art, tackling social and political issues in their works in a prescriptive manner.
Conceptual Photography Techniques
Conceptual art photography is used in a variety of ways to help artists convey their ideas. Artists who take their own photographs often do so without focusing on the aesthetic or technical qualities of the images. Ed Ruscha, for example, took casual snapshots along his road trip for his books like “Twentysix Gasoline Stations” (1963). He often captured part of his car or shadow in these, suggesting their mere existence, as opposed to their compositional elements, were his concern. Ruscha, like other conceptual artists, also borrowed from and parodied existing photographic styles, in this case travel imagery. Many artists recontextualize existing images, culling them from mass media formats like magazines, newspapers, postcards, film and television stills, and even other photographs. Conceptual artists also focus on the informative aspect of the photographic medium, pairing images with language and texts to play with different systems of determining meaning in their works.
Artists Known For Conceptual Photography
Artists famous for working with conceptual photography include Ed Ruscha, Sherrie Levine, and Martha Rosler. Ruscha took rudimentary snapshots of his travels to create books like “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” (1966) and “Twentysix Gasoline Stations” (1963). Levine is known for her “After Walker Evans” series (1981), in which she rephotographed famous Walker Evans photographs, questioning the artistic ownership of these pictures. Rosler paired text with images of empty storefronts in “The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems” (1974-1975) to provide an alternative view of the cliched bum-ridden Bowery and question how truthful photographs really are. Today, artists have turned to digital platforms. Richard Prince continues to explore the field of conceptual photography on Instagram by posting screenshots of celebrities’ Instagram photos he paired with his own comments. Other artists known for working with conceptual photography include Sol Lewitt, John Baldessari, Hannah Wilke, Bruce Nauman, Hans Haacke, Cindy Sherman, James Casebere, On Kawara, William Anastasi, Douglas Huebler, Laurie Anderson, Adrian Piper, Dennis Oppenheim, and Bernd and Hilla Becher.