Notes: ‘Photography, A Critical Introduction’

Photography as Art (P.253-) 

Case Study 1: Art, design, politics – Soviet Constructivism and the Bauhaus 


‘For the constructivists, photography was a popular form which, through its usage in posters, magazines and publishing, could be at the forefront of taking new ideas to the people.’

‘Emphasising art’s post-Revolutionary responsibilities, Rodchenko stated that he was fed up with ‘belly button’ shots, by which he meant photographs composed conventionally shot from waist level through cameras with their viewfinder on top.’ (see below Figure 1)

‘He argued for full exploration of the geometry of the image which would, literally and metaphorically, engineer a new angle of vision.’


                                               Figure 1: Rodchenko sequence


The integration of art and design 

‘The bauhaus was a clear response to the destruction and dereliction witnessed during the First World War… Like Soviet Constructivism, the Bauhaus was multi-disciplinary, although architecture came to be the central concern.’

‘Bauhaus theorists emphasised the relation between form and function, and stressed what they saw as a potential unity of art, design and the everyday.’


‘Frankfurt School theorist, Walter Benjamin, expressed impatience with such experimentation, accusing the ‘new objectivity’ photographers of the Bauhaus of making the world artistic rather than making Art mundane.’ 

‘For Benjamin, emphasis on form detracted from the democratic characteristics of photography which, in his view, should be a comprehensible means of communication for everyone. He opposed formalism and abstraction because, he argued, experimentation in visual languages tends to be exclusive, and therefore elitist.’

A new instrument of vision 

‘Laszlo and Lucia Moholy-Nagy were perhaps the best-known photographers associated with the Bauhaus. They stressed ways in which use of light, mechanical reproduction and the possibility of sensitive printing expressed the machine aesthetic of the Modern Age.’

‘In parallel with the Soviet emphasis upon photo-eye as the modern method of communication, Moholy-Nagy emphasised the relation between the mechanical nature of the camera, form, the use of light and visual perception, arguing that photography enhances sight in relation to time and space.’

‘Like Benjamin, their writings opposed the reification of the individual artist. Unlike Benjamin, they stressed the compositional qualities of the image, viewing this as central to the means of expression.’


Modern photography, the gallery and the archive

‘From about 1905 (towards the end of Pictorialism) photography had little visibility in the art gallery. The work of British photographers – such as Bill Brandt and George Rodgers, whom we now celebrate – was not made initially for gallery exhibition, nor was it necessarily widely known.’

Late Twentieth-century perspectives

“The American and European Avant-grade art movements of the 1960s emphasised idea and process over the conventions of painting and sculpture. The war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement in America, the development of feminist politics and theory, and the student protests of 1968, were reflected in works that were challenging to the status quo, to ideas about the artist as apolitical and working alone, and to art institutions.’ (Comment and Commitment: Art and Society 1975-1990, Tate Gallery, London 1995)

Conceptual art and the photographic 

‘Photography in the 1960s was centrally implicated in the expansion of the mass media, including fashion shots, album covers for long playing records, photojournalism..’

‘First, pop artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney and Richard Hamilton started to use the photographic in order to reference and comment on lifestyles and consumerism.’

‘To echo Roland Barthes, many elements within their pictures were deja-lu (‘already read’).’

‘Raymond Williams has suggested that in the 1960s the two dimensions of the modern, radical aesthetics and technological change, came together in the pictures of artists whose work engaged with the revolution in mass culture..’

‘Modernist theory had focussed on the medium. By contrast, Conceptual Art stressed ideas. Artists were concerned to draw attention to the manner or vocabulary of expression…’

‘Indeed, in a number of instances artists placed a statement about an art object in the gallery, thereby focusing attention on the idea, rather than the object (which might never have been actually made).’

‘Conceptual Art, especially in its more critical or political forms, constituted a challenge to the Art establishment…’

‘In conceptual photography the characteristics of the medium could be used as a part of the means of expression of an idea.’

‘Thus, for instance, Keith Arnatt’s sequence of digging himself into a hole in the ground (see Figure 2) is obviously, at one level, a metaphoric reference to the well-known phrase. But the documentary idiom secures a sense that this event literally did take place through demonstrating the sequence of moments in time.’


Self-Burial (Television Interference Project) 1969 by Keith Arnatt 1930-2008
Figure 2: Self-Burial (Television Interference Project) 1969 Keith Arnatt 1930-2008 Presented by Westdeutsches Fernsehen 1973

‘The humour of the piece of work emanates from the realism attributed to photography. One way of testing the implication of choice of specific medium, and therefore the implied comment on the nature of the medium, is to imagine what interpretational shift might occur if the sequence had been, say, painted.’

‘Conceptualism challenged the dominance of abstract Formalism.’

‘It was not that it denied the significance of form. Rather, form was brought into play differently with a view to social, political, metaphysical, or simply humorous, comment.’

‘However, as photography became accepted within Conceptual Art, so attention came to be paid to photographs (pictorialist, formalist and documentary) and to photography history. In effect, Conceptual Art offered a bridge into the gallery.’

‘This era featured other challenges which, although incorporating some of the aesthetic characteristics of formalism, took for their starting point ideas which were anchored socially (rather than aesthetically).’

‘For instance, the “new topographics” photographers, including Lewis Baltz and Bernd and Hilla Becher, explored the act of looking through the detailed mapping of industrial edifices or locations.’

‘Similar images are blocked next to one another, thereby bringing into question the degree of detailed discrimination involved in day-to-day perceptions.’

‘… the new topographics, in charting the industrial landscape, implied a social and environmental questioning which did not figure in American Formalism.’


Notes: ‘Photography, A Critical Introduction’

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