23/11/2010

I have just finished re-reading the 1st edition of ‘The photograph as contemporary art’ by Charlotte Cotton. The first time I read it was for leisure in July 2008 while holidaying in New York. This time around I was using the book as a study tool because my work at the CCP has exposed me to some serious photography that I didn’t feel like I really understood. Cotton put this book together ‘to give a sense of the spectrum of motivations and expressions that currently exist in the field [of contemporary art]’. The British author was the head of programming at the ‘The Photographers’ Gallery (London) and has worked as a curator of photography at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. Cotton’s background as a curator informs the layout of the book which is divided into 7 chapters, each describing a different ‘category’ of contemporary art photography. The idea was to provide a sense of the main themes motivating contemporary photographers exhibiting in major international art centres like Berlin, Tokyo, New York and London. The language used is concise, descriptive and free of jargon. I found some of the titles of the chapters too abstract: ‘If this is art’, ‘Once upon a time’, and ‘Deadpan’. However, the author gave a good description of the content behind each title with supporting photographs. The 7 categories cover various styles of photography practice ranging from staged photography (Cindy Sherman) to the artistic ‘snapshot’ (Vibeke Tandberg). The small size of book is an achievement. A broad and complete overview on photography in the contemporary art world is found within 218 glossy pages. The images and the printing quality are good. Since the photographs in the book are small, I’d recommend looking up artists online as you read through. The photographs accompanying the text aren’t necessarily the artists’ most well known works, but this book was not meant to be a countdown of hits. Some artists (like Jeff Wall, Philip-Lorca di Corcia, and Andreas Gursky) are featured in more than one category, showing the various ways in which the same artist can be interpreted. The author has allocated a paragraph on selected artists in each category. 


Overall, the illustrations supported well the themes of each chapter, which makes this book a valuable resource for the price. Prior knowledge of contemporary artists may help better understand the content but it is not an absolute prerequisite. In addition to the index, the author included a list of further readings and a list of illustrations. There are about 170 photographers covered in this book. Without reading it, I doubt I would have stumbled on the works of even just half of them. I haven’t seen any other book written on ‘photography as contemporary art’ in this format besides this one. The book is definitely a good educational tool for untrained eyes like mine. More experienced eyes may find some omissions. Cotton succeeded in surveying the range of different practices of contemporary photography as an art form. One idea that grabbed me was how the ‘collective consciousness’ influences our ways of seeing photographs. Our exposure to media will determine how we will react toward art. Demographics is also major factor influencing our views. There isn’t a need for a statement or caption if the photograph is referencing what we have seen in the media. The last chapter of Cotton’s book, ‘Revived and remade’, is about photographs that make references to ‘our memory’s stock of images’. Cindy Sherman and Trish Morrissey are featured in this section. Barbara Kruger is missing from this section surprisingly. She is a great example of a contemporary artist who modifies selected photographs from magazine to make art. Nikki S. Lee is an artist I was introduced to in this chapter. Her ‘projects’ involve assimilating herself in various North American social groups. I was particularly interested in her idea of attempting to fit in a group with relevant attire. There is an element of performance in her self-portraiture which is in line with my kind of work. I picked up Cotton’s book with the hopes of becoming more knowledgeable about photography and the contemporary art world and to shape my own creative process. Second time around, I definitely had a better appreciation for the book’s content. Since my initial reading I have had the opportunity to see first hand the works of some of the artists referenced in the book like Andreas Gursky, Martin Parr, Trish Morrissey, Nan Goldin and Tracey Moffat (whose works were exhibited here in Melbourne.) Re-reading this book helped me put everything into perspective. In retrospect, learning from a book is practical and allows you to review content at your own rhythm. Would I recommend it? Definitely.