Photograph of train tower bolts by Mark Whitney
Artist: Mark D. Whitney
Media: Digital Photograph

Pop, Deadpan, and Conceptual Photography

Just as there are different styles of painting – cubist, impressionist, realist – there are different kinds of photography.

Today let’s talk about three of those styles that have been on my mind lately – Conceptual, Pop, and Deadpan. They’re a bit problematic for a guy like me that identifies more with the likes of Ansel Adams or Minor White, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about art, it’s that you need to keep an open mind.

O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!

And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

– Hamlet Act 1

Say I go up to a blank white dry erase board and I write on it a short anecdote from my childhood. Maybe the words point out how much my parents cared for me.

Now I step back and take a picture of it. Is the result a photograph? Of course it’s technically a photograph. It was made with a ‘camera’ using light falling on a sensitive surface either electronic or physical.

Let’s say my entire body of art work is made up of pictures of words written on dry erase boards. The point of my art is the words, what they convey, and their impermanence. I’m only using the camera as a vehicle to record and distribute what I’ve written. I use automatic settings on my camera and I don’t do any post processing.

This is an example of Conceptual photography. Am I photographer or am I an artist that just happens to use photographs to show my work? Is there a difference? Most people say yes I am a photographer, but even some conceptual photographers themselves would say no as in this quote from the article linked above.

They were there simply to indicate a radical art that had already vanished. The photograph was necessary only as a residue for communication.

– Dennis Oppenheim, cited by The ASX Team January 14, 2009

A couple of years ago I went to the George Eastman Museum to see a selection of photographs from the museum’s archives.

Most exhibitions focus on just one artist or one style of art, but this one was a broad mix of styles and time periods that allowed for some nice comparisons.

Comparing the older work to the newer I immediately saw a shift in subject matter and photographic style.

The older works focused on complex subjects like people (John Thomson), landscapes, or architecture (Frederick H. Evans). The photographers put tremendous effort into the composition, lighting, and printing of their photographs in order to achieve the most intricate details and the most subtle shadings possible. Evans used the platinum process and Thomson used a process called Woodbury-type that is especially complex.

The newer works were much simpler in both subject matter and photographic technique. Instead of sunlight filtering through the windows of ornate cathedrals we see evenly lit simple shots of cell phone towers (Robert Voit). Instead of complex human scenes we see a hat or an egg on a blank background of a few primary colors with almost no shading (Neil Winokur).

The thought that came to my mind was that the earlier works had the photograph itself in mind while the later ones focused on something else entirely.

The older photographs were deeper with multiple layers designed to entice viewers into the world of the photograph, to wander around and poke about in the dim corners.

There’s plenty to see and explore. The photographs and the photographer are central to the experience of the images.

The modern photographs are not designed to draw viewers in.

They’re like road signs that direct viewers away from themselves to something else. They point off to a realm of abstraction and deconstruction. The photographs themselves are of little importance, they merely symbolize concepts. The simpler the image and the less distracting the form and shading the better.

I’d classify the brightly colored mundane objects as Pop a la Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein and the cell towers as Deadpan as in deadpan expressions which is what people (and buildings too) wear in these types of photographs. Since they’re both conceptual in nature, we could probably lump them together under the Conceptual photography heading.

You don’t see much Pop photography anymore, but you see a whole mess of Deadpan. Deadpan is really in right now.

So next time you’re browsing through images on the web or wandering about in a museum, see if you can spot some of these photographic styles.


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