Practicing in conceptual photography today and in our collection is Tomas Cambas. Born in Buenos Aires, Tomas studied and now works in the same city. Although Tomas started out filming landscapes for the purpose of sharing what he was seeing, his work today is informed by geometry, and struggles between shape, media and content.
Stretching conceptual photography to its limits is digital artist Reed Hearne. In his own words, “Photography is not his principal aim but it’s his primary tool.” Moving between photography, graphic design and fiction writing, he explains that he thinks much too long and hard about things, and when this happens, he returns to creating visuals that intentionally defy categorisation.
Put simply, conceptual photography is a genre of photography that is informed and shaped by ideas. A branch of the conceptual art movement, conceptual photography gives precedence to the idea conveyed by the work rather than its aesthetic, technical or material aspects. “It’s the idea that becomes the machine that makes the art” was famously said by the artist Sol Lewitt, and with conceptual photography, it’s no different. Although conceptual photography is as old as the camera, the term ‘conceptual photography’ however, wasn’t used until the 1960’s.
Conceptual photography is also considered a medium and methodology in fine art and borrows from other art movements such as constructivism and abstraction. This genre of photography is as old as the camera, which has since its invention allowed artists to document, explore and convey their ideas in new ways. With the help of powerful photo editing software, many conceptual photographers have moved away from the creation of sculptures and performances in real life to the digital construction of images.
Often, the best conceptual photographers don’t think of themselves as photographers at all. They happen to photograph performances or sculptures as a way of documenting them and unknowingly create conceptual photographs. Here are some of the best photographers in art history of the genre.
An icon in conceptual photography today is American born Edward Ruscha who created a series of mass produced, cheaply printed photographic books containing images of roadsides. The idea behind the photographs were to pay tribute to and parody writers and artists who romanticised the road. Fashionable at the time were the rise of photographers producing limited edition prints, which was what Ruscha tried to subvert by printing his books cheaply and in bulk.
Also operating in the realm of conceptual art was German photographic duo Hilla and Bernhard Becher. They documented the disappearance of the industrial landscape in Europe and North America, addressing the effects of industry on the economy and the environment. Their most famous photography book was also their first, which was titled Anonymous Sculptures and published in 1970.
Anonymous Sculptures was a collection of similar but not identical structures like water towers, gas holders and silos. Much of what they photographed in the 1960’s was scheduled for demolition so often their images became instantly emotive, having captured something of a lost past. Like many conceptual artists, they were also documentarians and social scientists. But what raised them to their acclaimed position in art history is the fact that they saw the concept as the most important part of the creative process and not the way it’s executed.
Bruce Nauman is a conceptual photographer credited for pushing photography, by drawing on performance, sculpture and concept art to produce his photographs. Considered one of his best works of photography is Self-Portrait as a Fountain. Throughout his career he wanted to charge everything with personal meaning which in a way made the inclusion of his own body in his work inevitable.
He was also intrigued by the everyday objects and was fascinated by the idea that these objects could be accepted as art. Like many concept photographers, Nauman didn’t consider himself one, he was more concerned by his performance which he happened to capture in photographic form. This was a similar case for conceptual artists Marcel Duchamp and his iconic Fountain sculpture. The original sculpture was lost but photographs of it survived and are today regarded as works of conceptual photography and works of art in their own right.
Cindy Sherman’s work is described by critics as a “vibrant mush of ideas,” and rightly so. Difficult to pin down, this is perhaps what makes her work so widely discussed. Her photographs do exactly what concept art does best - makes you think.
Despite the debates about the ideas she explores in her work, most critics agree that she explores gender, identity and the deceptive nature of the camera. Considered her most important series of photographs is Untitled Film Stills. A collection of 70 black and white self portraits where she portrays herself as different female stereotypes. The images are made to look seductive and inviting but upon close inspection turns out to be the exact opposite. “It seems boring to me to pursue the typical idea of beauty, because that is the easiest and most obvious way to see the world. It’s more challenging to look at the other side,” she once said in an interview.