Photograhy – Theoretical Introduction – Lecture notes

  • theory can be broad, but it helps with contextual understanding and the constant build up and growth/depth of artist knowledge
  • historically, photography hast always been seen as ‘art form’
  • it attaches itself as a ‘medium to make art’, and the mix of ‘art’ and ‘photography’ can sometimes come to a blurred line
    • OSCAR REJLANDER – ‘Two ways of life’ – thirty negatives of individual models combined into one large print.
      • blurs the lines of ‘is it photography or art?’ (the Met classify it as photography)oscar-gustave-rejlander_two_ways_of_life
    • MAN RAY – around in the 20s’/30s’, the ‘golden age’ of photography, Man Ray approached photography in a more ‘fine art’ sense, experimenting with techniques within the field of cameras, creating ‘abstract’ or ‘poetic’ work
    • GERHARD RICHTER – ‘blurred the boundaries’ – ‘freely uses photography’
      • ‘photography is a medium for art practise’.
      • Created a mix of painting and photography, is it art, is it photography? 6e2df07ca497272efd465749eef16221
    • There are also photographers like Wolfgang Tillmans who use photography to communicate fine art ideas.
  • So YES, photography is art.
    • some argue = paintings take time, days, or weeks, whereas photography is too quick and easy, how can you compare them?

Other perspectives when looking at photography is recognising that the different approaches all uncover something else within the theory of how photography comes together as an art form.


– Photography is often ‘a moment frozen in time’, whether that image includes movement, or has a temporal nature, we can see how origins of these genres influence our photography today.

  • NIEPCE – view from window at Gras, 1926. First ”photograph’
    • metal plate covered in bitumen, where light hits, wears away the tar, wash the rest of it away, left with the shadows of the image.
    • Showed the journey of the shadows over course of the day, temporal element as long exposure.


  • EADWARD MUYBRDIGE – introduced the idea of movement, the first glimpses of film/animation, bringing together movement and time


  • HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON – Gare St Lazare, 1932. 
    • dabbled in the ideas of the surrealists, claims the shot was taken by chance, critics reckon its set up
    • Introduces the idea of the ‘DECISIVE MOMENT” which is governed by when the photographers clicks the button.
    • Nowadays, we can use a ‘burst’ and pick the best one, origins in this kind of ‘frozen movement’ photography.


  • NICHOLAS NIXON – The Brown Sisters – Photographed sisters once a year for 27 years, shows the ability to have the individual images as ‘still’ image, but as a set introduces the element of time and indeed, movement over that time.



– A hint or nudge towards an idea sometimes gives your photography more power than shooting the subject/object/etc directly

  • ROGER FENTON – sent to take photos in Crimea for Queen Victoria – Valley of the Shadow of Death – shows the absence of people, and in this way created more shock than if there had been people within the frame.
  • Valley of the Shadow of Death, c 1855.
  • ANTHONY HERNANDEZ – Landscapes for the Homeless – Images made stronger by the absence of the people living in these areas – ABSENCE RATHER THAN PRESENCE.



– ‘ALL photos are constructed, very few are based in pure reality’ (CCTV, family snaps, ‘everyday’ images could be more ‘real’).

  • ROGER FENTON – Cooking House, 8th Hussars – Set up, posed, long exposure wouldn’t allow for ‘chance’.
  • ROBERT CAPA – The Falling Soldier – Controversy surrounds this image as within Capa’s contact sheets, multiple shots of the surrounding area are not seen, and around the time, the discovery of ‘staged’ photos were becoming more popular.


  • DOROTHEA LANGE –Migrant Mother, 1936. Events around the time were pretty dire in America, with he great Depression and the Wall Street Crash, photographers were hired by government to take photos of the harsh reality, but many were turned down because they showed too much harsh reality; newspapers would not pay for upsetting images. they would pay for however, an image of a strong woman and so this was carefully contrived.


  • NAN GOLDIN – The ballad of sexual Dependency, 1981. Goldin’s work, now very important to the genre of fashion photography, takes on the conventions of a ‘family snap’ .


  • SALLY MANN – took photos other immediate family, often naked, smoking, or employing ‘sexual vibes’ through poses often associated with prostitutes. This caused a lot of controversy within the art world.


– is this my view or is it actually how it is presented?

  • THOMAS RUFF – takes passport like portraits, these are classed as objective, they tell the truth.

  • FRANCESCA WOODMAN – subjective – tries to communicate a message through her photography

– Appropriation?

  • Martin Parr – went to commercial photographers and had his portrait taken, how original to Parr’s actual work is this? Collected them together and presented as a commentary on the idea of the ‘system’ of photography

  • PENELOPE UMBRICO – Sunsets from Flickr, 2006. 
    • Questions the validity of taking your own photographs, can you call it your art if the photos aren’t originally by you?

  • RICHARD PRINCE – New Portraits, 2015. 
    • Took screenshots of ‘selfies’ from instagram, displayed them as his own installation in a gallery.
    • called into account the authenticity of his work, making a point about ownership, but also raises theoretical debate.

Image result for richard prince new por


Modernist: concerned solely with what goes on INSIDE the frame
Post-Modernist: concerned with what happens OUTSIDE the frame – a more ‘fragmented’ world view, focuses on social issues rather than aesthetic


  • EDWARD WESTON – Nude, 1938. 
    • Objectification, no face – modernist

Image result for edward weston  nude 1938

  • JO SPENCE – Industrialisation, 1982.
    • post-modernist

Image result for jo spence industrialisation

ROLAND BARTHES – ‘Every photo can be ‘read’ by the viewer’ 

DENOTATION – the fact, the thing you can see, the literal, commonsense meaning
CONNOTATION – the thoughts and feelings/history/view to the things, personal associations, ideological, emotional (concerned with class, age, gender, ethnicity etc.)

I enjoyed this lecture, it was interesting to see such a wide range of imagery shown in a lecture that had one broad title. It showed me how different genres, artists and theories can come under one broader title, all coming together to inform the larger umbrella term of ‘photography’.
I find it tricky to define photography ‘theory’ though, how does this lecture talk about theory? Is it the main titles that thoughts and expressions of ones self can be explored within these set themes, or more so the actual ‘compositional theory’ etc? The whole subject of connotations and denotations fall so heavily upon a subjective view of photography – what you like, what you don’t like, its difficult sometimes to discuss photography or even art with someone who has a close minded view, or has their mind made up about what they dislike so readily, that it soon starts to sway your own mind. It’s interesting when sat in a lecture like this, that the author of the Powerpoint has chosen these images and to talk about the reasons behind them although there are 1,000s of other images out there, also interesting to note how you would present something similar, would it be a subjective or objective presentation?


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