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CREDIT: Adrian Hough ARPS

Understanding Contemporary Photography

The nature of Contemporary Photography is surrounded by a great deal of misunderstanding, confusion and disagreement. It is frequently stated that Contemporary Photography is photography ‘about’ something rather than ‘of’ something. As far as it goes this is probably the best short definition that there is, indicating that it is an approach to photography rather than a style or genre. However, as it stands, this statement is somewhat simplistic and raises further questions as to what is meant by the word ‘about’. It also fails to address the point that Contemporary Photography can also be about asking the question ‘why?’

Anyone who doubts the assertion that Contemporary Photography is surrounded by a great deal of confusion need look no further than the meeting held to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the Royal Photographic Society’s Contemporary Group. The many issues raised at the meeting, entitled ‘Challenging the Status Quo’, included the suggestion that as the RPS set out its understanding of Contemporary Photography some thirty years ago, this must now be obsolete. Another is that Contemporary Photography is like Modern Art and that its nature is therefore constantly changing. There is also a body of opinion that ‘Conceptual Photography’ might be a more accurate description and name. A further question, albeit not voiced at the meeting, is whether the Contemporary Group and the RPS Distinctions panel work to the same definitions and understanding.

These various issues indicate that there is a desire for clarification and some form of considered and consistent response regarding the nature of Contemporary Photography. This is a subject which I have been exploring myself, ever since I joined the RPS Contemporary Group and began to share images and thoughts with the Contemporary South-West sub-group. It was also something which occupied my mind when deciding how to formulate a portfolio to submit for an Associateship.

In terms of RPS Distinctions, Contemporary Photography is listed as one of eight ‘genre’ and is defined as follows: Photography that communicates a visual realisation of a stated argument, idea or concept. However, what does this mean, and does the inclusion of the words ‘argument’ and ‘idea’ as well as ‘concept’ imply that there is more to Contemporary Photography than what might be termed ‘Conceptual Photography’? Given the above questions about Contemporary Photography, we should note that the RPS changed the title of the ‘genre’ from ‘Conceptual and Contemporary’ to ‘Contemporary Photography’ at the beginning of the current decade.

However, once we start referring to genre, the immediate question concerns the difference between Contemporary Photography and Documentary Photography. In explaining this difference, it might be said that Documentary Photography tells a story about that which is illustrated whilst in Contemporary Photography, the images illustrate something which lies beyond the actual images themselves, something which is intangible and not open to direct illustration. Another way of putting this might be that Contemporary Photography is a visual metaphor; a visual realisation of something that is non-visual. This is in contrast to the various forms of Pictorial Photography, which employ aesthetic skills and conventional compositions.

The definition of any given subject will, of course, vary between different organisations. As an example, a geographer is likely to define Landscape as the interaction of people, places and things whereas for RPS Distinctions, Landscape Photography is defined as Photography that illustrates and interprets earth’s habitats, from the remotest wilderness to urban environs. Some of my own photography, which I personally define as Landscape, might not be recognised as such by the RPS Distinctions panel.

In the case of Contemporary Photography, it is probably easier to state what it is not rather than what it is. Following such a via negativa, it may therefore be helpful to make a few assertions about what Contemporary Photography is not.

  • Contemporary Photography is not specifically about photographs taken in the present day.
  • Contemporary Photography is not the same as Modern Photography, the latter being photography of the recent past, whereas, if anything, Contemporary Photography points to the future.
  • Contemporary Photography is not only about concepts and is therefore far broader in its scope than Conceptual Photography.
  • Contemporary Photography does not require the taking of weird and inexplicable photographs.
  • In the sense of the current meaning, there is no such thing as a Contemporary Photograph, only Contemporary Photography.
  • Contemporary Photography is not a genre.

My personal view is that any valid response to a request for a definition of Contemporary Photography will necessarily be ambiguous. This is born, in part, of the fact that practitioners of Contemporary Photography often state (despite the inference to the contrary in the RPS Distinctions information) that Contemporary Photography is not a genre. Unlike, for example, Travel, Documentary, Visual Art, Landscape, Natural History and Portraiture, Contemporary Photography is not constrained in its approach or content.

We can illustrate my claim by considering the photograph of a busker and a girl on a bridge in Prague. By definition this is probably a travel photograph (as well as Street Photography) and it could certainly form part of a portfolio of Travel Photography. However, depending on how it was presented it could also be part of a portfolio of Documentary Photography about buskers or Prague. Using my definition, it could also form part of a portfolio of Landscape Photography, as it shows the interaction of people, place and things in a built environment. Similarly, my photograph of Nuuk in Greenland was taken as a documentary photograph about housing issues but it could also form part of a portfolio of Travel Photography. This raises the question as to how could either of these images also become Contemporary Photography?

CREDIT: Adrian Hough ARPS

Images of any photographic genre become Contemporary Photography when they convey some form of message or ask a question. In my photograph of Prague, who is the girl, why is she there, what is she doing and why have I included her in my photograph? The message, or the answer to my question, may be explicit in the wider set of images or it might be stated by the photographer. In the image of Nuuk there is a whole history behind the origin of the building which makes it a metaphor for the relationship between occupants and a housing provider living thousands of miles away.

If we consider successful RPS Distinction panels in Contemporary Photography, then most if not all of these could also have been submitted for a Distinction in Travel, Documentary, Landscape or Visual Art Photography. In each case the genre would have been determined by the content of the Statement of Intent. As was stated back in 1992, a Distinctions Panel in Contemporary Photography can be about any subject and employ any photographic approach. This is why Contemporary Photography is not a genre in itself and why the Statement of Intent is important in allowing the assessors to understand what the photographer is trying to say and in deciding whether the portfolio supports their premise.

Sproughton Tip

Tom Owens’ image of fly tipping could be Landscape or Documentary Photography. However, add in the context of the photographer’s role in developing the legislation and computer system for Landfill Tax, together with the impact that the tax has on the prevalence of fly-tipping and it becomes Contemporary Photography.  Similarly, Alan Cameron’s image in a restaurant appears to be Documentary Photography. However, take the context of a young chef during the Covid-19 epidemic faced with difficulties in communication and the eyes convey something far deeper.

Whilst ‘seeing’ is important in all good photography, the elucidation of that seeing is of particular importance in Contemporary Photography. The photographer always has an opinion or question. In a profound way, whatever it is that I have photographed becomes a part of myself rather than something out there at which I point my camera. I am involved on a personal level in that which I photograph.

Emily At The Pass
CREDIT: Alan Cameron LRPS

The photograph by Ken Holland, showing ducks on a wall, might look slightly amusing. However, with text to indicate that it is an exploration of the closure of an educational establishment for young people with difficulties, the symbol of which was a duck, it becomes poignant and Contemporary Photography. Add in the personal involvement of the photographer and the message goes far deeper than the image. Alexandra Prescott’s image of a skull could clearly be Visual Art. However, the context of the lockdown during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic takes it into the realm of Contemporary Photography.

As photographers we often speak about the subject of our photographs, whereas the stuff that we photograph is, grammatically, not actually a subject at all. If I perform an action on something then I am the subject and the thing is an object. So, when I photograph something, it is really the object of my photography and not the subject. That’s why the lens furthest away from the eye in an optical instrument is termed the objective lens.

Hannah's Ducks Leave Home
CREDIT: Ken Holland FRPS

The fact that we talk about the objects of our photography as if they are the subjects is interesting. It may be accidental, or it may be more profound in its origin. However, wherever it comes from, it may well be stating something profound about photographers and photography. It implies that the photographer and what they photograph become part of each other so that they are one. Rather than taking a photograph of something, when I take a photograph, that which was formerly a thing becomes an extension of my own self.

And this claim takes us back to where we began, with Contemporary Photography not comprising photographs of things but photographs about things so that in the process we explore them and discover something about them. A photograph of something can be taken at a distance without any prior understanding or immediate interaction. However, a photograph about something requires a relationship and mutuality. It requires engagement and relationship. 

CREDIT: Alexandra Prescott FRPS

Great photography for photography’s sake, as distinct from cutting edge technical photography which serves a different purpose, is always photography which is about rather than of. It is photography which evokes and informs and we learn more about its… subject as we enter into the image, explore its hidden depths and discover what it might be telling us. We enter into a relationship in which what could have been an object turns the tables on us and reveals to us something of the true nature of ourselves. More of us are Contemporary Photographers than we usually realise.

The real answer as to the definition of Contemporary Photography is that there is no definition of Contemporary Photography. In an age that likes neat soundbites, it bucks the trend and does its own thing. It is quirky and mysterious. It is possible to say what it is not (the via negativa) but impossible to say precisely what it is – and, perhaps, that is exactly as it should be. It challenges the status quo. Hopefully, in future, questions about the definition of Contemporary Photography can be put to one side and we can return to the joy of engaging in a photographic journey which produces images that tell us something about the nature of what they represent as well as about ourselves.