It’s 2am on a Thursday morning and as I sit here I am wondering– as I am sure you are too– why I decided to write a series of blog posts on photography during the time of modernism?
Truth is, there is a plethora of art & art history. Photography; although its history is not as expansive as painting– has just over a hundred and fifty years of great artists whose ideas and aesthetics continue to influence our current understanding of art and photography in today’s fluid society.
Global shifts in society’s structures of politics for instance, as well as the engagement between science and the arts, often spark new (and often contentious) conversations which play a vital role in spurring artists further and help them define and refine their understanding of their role in society. These highly charged debates often demand a total shift in aesthetic, and this can be seen in the cubist and abstractionist movements which called for a total overhaul of the old to usher in a new vision altogether.
These conversations open fertile ground for us to question our perspectives. With each advancement in technology, science & psychology, we see better if not further than we previously did. Photography’s collusion and collision with the modern art movements that sprouted in the late 1800s to mid 1900s has left us with an extensive archive of ideas and aesthetics to visit and draw inspiration from.
The Pioneer and The Recluse
For me, Alfred Stieglitz is positively the most pioneering of modern photographers. Stieglitz was a staunch advocate for photography’s acceptance as art in the early 1900s and also an exceptional photographer in his own right. By the 1950s American Abstraction shifted the capital of art to New York. And Stieglitz, along with his contemporaries, where at the beginning and heart of it all.
His unique understanding of photography, and the art of the time, saw him curate shows of many “would be” great artists such as Cubists Paul Cezzane and Picasso, long before Americans knew or understood such abstract ideas of painting. His group of photographers broke age-old traditions of Pictorialism and chattered new grounds for the Straight photography approach and the beauty that could be attained in the final print.
To this day, the work that Stieglitz did through his galleries (such as 291 and ROOM) and publications such as Camera Work stand the test of time and they remain a constant reminder of the light that he has been. His work gives record to his unique visions and that of his contemporaries. Alfred would later showcase his influence through discovering and exhibiting work by great photographers and painters such as, Edward Steichen, Imogen Cunningham, Ansel Adams and Georgia O’keeffe.
With regard to aesthetic, I find Josef Sudek the most appeasing. His series of works from his Windows From My Studio collection is for me, the height of light drawing, which is what is meant when one reserves the right to call themselves a photographer, or fine artist at that. Void of all human subjects, his work uses the elements found in nature to articulate his feelings. His reclusive nature and delicate approach is evident in each photograph, whether it’s a warm summer afternoon with somber lighting or the fog of a winter’s morning. Josef Sudek the person is always there; along with his reclusive nature and his discomfort with global conditions. He is there and in each image his words are articulated. I find myself referencing his work when I am looking for ideas on how to shape light or how to express a certain emotion using light.
Because History Holds More Than It Seems…
I am a huge fan of research, in all forms. I believe it is important to understand the lineage and the history behind your craft and your place as a photographer on the art continuum. I believe with the right understanding of history and its role players, it becomes easier to articulate your voice through your images. Once you understand or know what has been said about photography and its relationship to art, you can begin to pick and choose a style or era that best suites your current idea or brief.
History has a way of guiding us, letting us know what has been said and done. It also serves as great inspiration when we come across briefs or ideas that might have us looking through the ages to understand what it means when one says ‘this image looks surreal, it could’ve been a Dali inspiration.’ You don’t want to be caught with a blank stare going; ‘Huh? A what inspiration?’
Read and research. Discover these titans in art, the ideas and their influence. Look at how politics, tradition and cultures have– throughout history– affected the arts and spurring their conversations. Where you see their styles as limiting or inspirational, push them further or create new ones. You’ll be surprised how far your skill can be improved by simply visiting an art history book at the art section at your local library or gallery.
Feel free to drop a comment on your favourite photographer and their body of work throughout a time of modernism. Lets continue the conversation. To see more on this topic please visit some of our previous posts.