Postmodernism in Photography


Photography became the postmodern art form par excellence, taking the place of painting when the Modernist precepts of European art became exhausted by the 1960s. Unlike painting, photography did not have to grapple with and overcome a high art past, nor was it touched by high art theories. Because photography was, as Pierre Bourdieu would say, The Middle Brow Art, it was ideally suited for Postmodernism to occupy the practice. Even in its virginal state, photography was also impacted by the fact of the “Image World.” As Guy Debord explained it in The Society of the Spectacle,the world had become a “spectacle.”

In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation… The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images. The spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual excess produced by mass-media technologies. It is a worldview that has actually been materialized, a view of a world that has become objective.

Therefore, contemporary visual culture was, by definition, a spectacle disseminated though photographic forms, reproductions of reproductions, simulacra of a reality that never existed. Through photography, visual culture had become part of the spectacle of popular culture that fascinated its audience and hypnotized them from critiquing society and created a certain kind of social relation. As Debord said, “In a world that is really upside down, the true is a moment of the false.” When Debord’s influential book was published in France in 1967, the vernacular photography of Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, and Lee Friedlander had exhausted itself. The innocence that had allowed photographer or the audience to assume that direct photography was a reliable form of “truth” was crumbling on the disillusionment of the Viet Nam War.

In an Image World overflowing with images and stuffed with history, it is impossible to “take” pictures with a fresh and innocent eye: all pictures are seen only through other pictures–pictorial intertextuality. Photography is no longer about capturing realism, as it was in the days of Robert Frank and his followers, but was concerned with re-creating images of images. Without the possibility of reality, postmodern photographers are not photographers in the historical sense and they cannot photograph objects in the traditional sense. They can only fabricate simulacra or record the hyperreal of the Postmodern world. It would be correct to question the term “photography” in the context of Postmodernism. “Photography,” as a direct and immediate capturing of reality takes a certain amount of naïvité, no longer available in the Postmodern era. All photography has already been done. The term “re-photography” would be more precise to describe Postmodern photography.

By the 1970s, photographers were beginning to explore three issues in the discipline. First, “straight photography” and its corollary documentary photography were played out. Second, the “truth” value of photography had been undermined and the role the medium was playing in constructing a particular kind of society—of spectacle and of complacent citizens—was becoming clear. Third, it “straight photography” could be manipulative of society then it would seem that it was once again permissible to manipulate photography. Postmodern photographers would confront these particular conditions during the eighties in a knowing and often highly theoretical fashion.

Photography as a discipline began to participate in the favorite Postmodern pastime–that of devising strategies and creating tactics that would allow the artist to make art in a world where everything had already been done. Photography became photography about photography–a form of conceptual photography. The Rephotographic Survey beginning in the 1970s is an example of the postmodern attitude towards the act of photographing by rephotographing the already photographed. The artists participating in this project, Mark Klett, Rick Dingus and Linda Conner, meticulously followed in the footsteps of 19th century photographers of the West, re-photographing the famous photographs: photography about photography. Part of the research of this group was to revisit famous sites in the West, first photographed on Survey excursions by Timothy O’Sullivan and William Henry Jackson, was to take note of the changes over the century. But in the process they discovered that the supposed documentation was actually manipulated by O’Sullivan who produced near abstract images through cropping his prints and/or tilting his camera.

Postmodernism is characterized by self-conscious and deliberate intertextuality. One of the best-known photographers who played with simulacra is Cindy Sherman. Sherman should be termed a performance artist who restages images from mass media. Concentrating on how women were represented by movies, she had herself photographed in a series of small black and white photographs called “Film Stills” during the late 1970s. None of these theatrical re-presentations can be traced back to any actual movie but all remind the viewer of movies they have seen or have heard of and evoke the construction of women in the 1940s and 1950s. Sherman is what can be called a “post-feminist,” or an artist who takes up feminist concerns, not from a political and activist perspective but from a theoretical stance. Because society manipulates the social being who is proved to be infinitely malleable, Postmodernism no longer believes in the Modernist possibility of evolution towards a goal. There is only arbitrary change, determined by the dominant class for its own purposes.

All Postmodern theory can do is to point out that gender is constructed by the culture and by mass media. Unlike early feminism of the 1970s, post-feminism is not essentialist but is constructivist, maintaining that there is no such thing as a “women” only an image that is created by ideology and is named “woman” by the culture. Sherman’s Film Stills are pure simulacra: there is no “woman,” there is only the image of woman. A film is an image of an image of a woman. A film still is an image of a woman of an image of a woman of an image of a woman. Simulacra is a “third order” of “reality,” meaning that a simulacra is three moves away from a reality that never existed in the first place. Because Sherman performs a variety of female roles, playing the woman for a male audience, she should be considered a performance artist who photographs her work, rather than as a traditional photographer.

Sherman was not the only photographer to stress the importance of performance and artifice in Modernism, present in Western art since Édouard Manet. Like Sherman, Jeff Wall uses intertextuality by reenacting significant “major monuments” of Modernist art through the Postmodern art of manipulated photography. One of the early users of computer manipulation, Wall, like Sherman, is less a “photographer” in the classical sense, and actually works in the “directorial mode.” His actors perform for Wall in staged photographs representations Manet and Degas and Cézanne. His recreations are subtle. For example The Destroyed Room refers to Delacroix’s The Death of Sardanapalus and After Ralph Ellison, showing an African-American man, his back turned to the viewer, is lit by hundreds of lightbulbs, but he remains invisible. Because he is referring to invented works of art, in addition to staging and directing, Wall must manipulate photography. In A Sudden Gust of Wind, Wall uses the computer to throw white sheets of paper into the stiff breeze, combining postmodern technology with the past. Like most Postmodern artists, Postmodern photographers re-explore the past and revisit history. As Wall said in 2010:

In the nineteenth century, with Manet and the others, there was such a high level of pictorial invention, such an interesting take on the now. They created something that is still very important to anyone concerned with pictures, and so, I’m keeping in touch with that, but not in an exclusive way, not as a model for my own work. My work derives from photography also, that is, photography as photography, and from other art forms. But it also comes from things that I’m experiencing directly. So, I’m trying to use the nineteenth century, in a way, as one of the frames of reference for a pictorial practice. We could say that, in many ways, we are still experiencing the nineteenth century in art.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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The Influence of Feminism in Art


To examine the impact of feminist art upon mainstream art is to examine the long list of what was excluded or forbidden in the art world. For those outside this world, artists appear to be daring avant-garde experimenters, but nothing could be further from the truth. In the 1970s, the art world in New York was ruled by rules and old hierarchies were still powerful. Among the “thou shalt nots” were symbolism, narrative, figuration, representation, all of which Clement Greenberg considered to be “literary effects.” The art world followed the assumption that the male was the universal and the female was the particular. When the male artist spoke, he spoke for the world; when the female artist spoke, her language was personal. Therefore, abstract art (painting) was a universal language that reflected the aspirations of humanity and figurative painting could only be specific. Logically, it followed that women in their inherent limitations were incapable of being the fulcrum for human beings.

Although Postmodernism did not stress race or gender, post-colonialism critiqued both Western intellectualism and Postmodernism itself for assuming that the white male was the central actor in the metanarrative. In refuting the universal, Feminist art moved away from Modernism and located itself in Postmodernism. There could be no meta-narrative for women. Feminist art used all of the “forbidders” in art to present the personal and the particular and the local. Feminist art was symbolic: Judy Chicago’s flower and her butterfly are symbolic of the “feminine” whether anatomical or rhetorical. Feminist art was narrative: performances told stories of female servitude or suffering, such as Faith Wilding’s Waiting. Womanhouse was less an installation and more a metaphor of how the home became a trap for women and there they lived out their lives in tiny domestic dramas and endlessly repetitive acts.

Because there was embedded opposition to feminism and the feminist movement, the vanguard position of those women got little attention beyond reactionary refutation. From a distance of forty years, it is difficult to understand why feminism was not seen as part of Postmodernism. The most obvious answer is that the art world was not aware of Postmodern theory until the 1980s and feminism was better understood within an artistic context rather than in an intellectual context. Feminism was seen as nothing more than an irritating anti-formalist gesture outside of the mainstream of art. However while the art critics rejected feminist art, artists were watching and looking and seeing something new.

Feminism changed the definition of art, what it could do, what it could be; feminism widened the boundaries of art, where it could go, what it could include. Ironically, the leaders of feminism and the best works of feminist art were relegated almost at once to history as “examples of” a genre. The pioneers found themselves to be historical figures in their own lifetimes, often in mid -career. Historicization of feminism had the effect of sidelining its importance while appropriating its impact. The artists who benefitted from feminism were often male artists, such as Eric Fischl who was at the California Institute of the Art when Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro were teaching in the Feminist Art Program. His figurative and representational paintings were intensely personal narratives, full of symbolism.

The new “presence” of women on the art scene alerted the art world to new voices and to the possibility that many other artists were also being excluded. However, unlike white women, women artists of color did not have the numbers or the institutional support to make the immediate impact and inroads into the art world. For example, the Cuban artist Ana Mendieta was uneasy about being among white women in the New York co-ops. Betye Saar noted that exhibitions by African-American women at the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles were not well-supported by white women. In fact women of any color were very much on their own. When asked why African-American males did not support the cause of women in the 1970s, art historian Samalla Lewis explained that the women of the Women’s Movement (seen as white) could always return to the society of the white male.

It would not be until the late 1980s and early 1990s when the new buzz word, Multiculturalism, became fashionable that artists of color were recognized under the somewhat condescending rubric of “politically correctness” in the art world. Today, the most infamous example of art world tokenism is the 1993 Whitney Biannual. In retrospect, it is judged to be a cynical gesture of inclusion in order to allow New York to return to the “normal” white male biases. Indeed in 2007, New York Magazine art critic, Jeffrey Saltz, did a survey of women in the Museum of Modern Art in his article Where are all the Women? Saltz wrote that, “…it has become bitterly clear that MoMA’s stubborn unwillingness to integrate more women into these galleries is not only a failure of the imagination and a moral emergency; it amounts to apartheid.”

Museums and galleries continue to discriminate against women. Saltz followed up his article about MOMA with a survey of six other institutions in New York City, Data, Gender Studies, and found the same dismal results. Despite the inclusion of women and people of color in the intellectual world of academia—as students, teachers, and as actors in history—the art world remains frozen in the sixties, denying the majority of the artists entry into a closed system. That said, the feminist movement may not have opened the doors of galleries or museums but it did open the minds of women to other possibilities of art making.

When one examines the history of the decades following the 1970s, it becomes clear that the women who survived and became prominent as artists did so by going into fields that were either new, such as performance or installation art, or less desirable, such as photography. Artists such as Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, Rebecca Horn, Rachael Whiteread, Annette Messager, and Katharina Fritsch are “art stars,” and none of them does conventional or traditional art. As the dominance of painting diminished it was possible for women to renter this arena and Jenny Saville and Marlene Dumas achieved the success that painters of earlier generations longed for.

The increasing importance of women artists of color in the art world owes more to the efforts of individual women, such as Faith Ringgold and Betye Saar, than to the strong support of mainstream (white) artists or dealers. More and more women artists of color asserted themselves through political movements specific to their color, such as La Raza, even though most of these movements were patriarchal, to speak to their “own” people. Judy Bacca produced and directed one of the most remarkable works of art of the late twentieth century, The Great Wall of Los Angeles (1974-79), at the time it was the world’s longest mural. Faith Ringgold’s trenchant criticism of white power—her bleeding flags of the 1969s—gave way to charming children’s tales of life in Harlem and to commentaries on art history from the point of view of an African-American woman.

The strategies of Bacca and Ringgold represent two approaches or solutions to the “problem” of being both a woman and an artist of color in a white art world. Bacca reminded in the Chicano community of Los Angeles, dedicated to showing the history of minorities in the city. Ringgold’s art reached a plural and multicultural audience because her sharp social criticisms were filtered through irony, reflecting the turn towards “theory” in the 1980s. Twenty years later, Kara Walker was able to critique slavery through a complex use of white novels on slavery, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Benefiting from a savvy and aware art audience, these women could rely on the viewer to understand the sub-text of oppression and inequality and the lingering legacy of historical injustices.

Part of the breakdown of Modernism and formalism and of Pluralism, feminist art generated a new demand for more content-orientated subject matter in art. Feminism is no longer univocal, feminism has become a movement of many voices, male and female, Western and non-Western. Today, many young women do not identify themselves as “feminist,” fearing the negative stereotypes attached to the term. And yet, these very women have and will benefit from the goals of the Feminist Movement in politics and in art, stemming from the 1970s. Despite the on-going discrimination against women in the art world, today there are prominent artists who just happen to be women. The fact that these women rarely get a one person show in a major museum remains problematic.

Since the 1980s, women in American have experienced three decades of “backlash” but despite continuing opposition to their gains, some progress has been made. From 2008 to 2010, a woman was third in line from the American presidency. In 2008, a woman ran for the office of President in America. That women, Hillary Clinton, became the Secretary of State from 2008 to 2012. European women and African women have a far better track record. A woman is chancellor of Germany, a woman ran for the office of President in France, a woman runs the International Monetary Fund, woman has been prime minister of England and in 2012 three female peace activists, Liberians Ellen Johnson and Leymah Gbowee won the prize along with Tawwakul Karman of Yemen, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It is hoped that everyone will benefit from hearing the voices of the many instead of the few.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]