What is Postmodern Photography?


The concept of postmodernism, which rose for the first time in about 1970, has been used in describing a movement that replaced modernism. The movement was characterized by major changes in society and culture, replacing the prevailing belief systems and structures.[1] Specifically, in art, the changes were a response against modernism, which was in place at the start of the 20th century. Within the field of art, postmodernism included abstract expressionism, surrealism, and the Theatre of the Absurd.[2] Among the changes experienced in art was in photography, which gave birth to postmodern photography. Therefore, it is imperative to discuss postmodern photography from the perspective of its characteristics, subjects’ atypical compositions, and their unconventional or absent nature, rendering it impossible or challenging to make sympathy with the subject.

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At the beginning of the 1980s, there was a fundamental transformation in the role played by the photograph and photography. Even if the Conceptual Art and Pop Art during the 60s and 70s was already using photography in an artistic expression manner, it was not until the 80s that it became molded into a tool befitting postmodern view of art. As a result, photography broke the new grounds for visual arts. The weight, as well as the objectivity of the photograph as evidence, could not anymore be considered as a fact. Increasingly, the artwork’s meaning, as well as the work’s interpretation, was related to the context within which it was made and the way it was exhibited.[3] There was an increase in the level of fascination in the art by young visual artists, especially in relation to the way the photography denounced the conventional status of artists and their work. As such, the rules created by artists during modernism could no longer apply to the postmodern photography.[4] It became acceptable for a photograph to be endlessly copied and even alter the size and presentation of the work.

Breaking the Rules of Modernism

Among the main characteristics of postmodern photography is the reality that they went against the rules relating to style, which had been established during modernism. The rules relating to style are among those that were broken, introducing an entirely novel period of freedom and a feeling of ‘anything goes.’ It is sometimes humorous, tongue-in-cheek, or ridiculous, but it challenges the limitations of taste, could be controversial and confrontational. However, above all, it was a reflection of a self-awareness of style, in some case borrowed from the previous styles.[5] A process, open-ended in nature, of borrowing art forms, ideas, and representation of the present and past achieved the postmodern photography.

The proponents of postmodern photography, including postmodern artists acknowledged that it was possible to create art while ignoring the rules. There are various examples on how postmodern artists broke the rule in their work. Besides the focus on the image to achieve abstraction in the photography, postmodern art involved the use of color, a break from the previous black and white photographs. Photographer William Eggleston has been cited as one of the consummators of postmodern art.[6] The artist was among the pioneers in working with color in their artwork. At the time, museum curators and critics considered only black and white photographs. Some individuals challenged his selection of this format, which was considered pedestrian or common. However, with time, the use of color in photography was accepted. Among the breaks, in this case, was the acceptance of colored photographs as real art.

Sophie Calle is an example of the artists who started to break the rules of the modern photography to come up with her postmodern work of art. The Shadow is one of the works of art that she created. While modern photography was mostly in black and white, her work started incorporating some aspects of color, as evident in the photograph above. The art reveals a sort of conceptualization, incorporating humor and spontaneity. The image represents human experience in a situation where the person being photographed is unaware that it is happening, representing the actual human experience. In her work, the artists appear to challenge the conventional artistic practices. In The Shadow, the mood is spontaneous and cool, given the reality that the photographer used a detective who followed the subject and photographed her.[7] The woman in the photo was captured in her ordinary environment while going on with her normal activities. Given the reality that the photograph was consciously selected, it explains its beauty and attractiveness.

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Postmodern Photography as Abstract in Nature

Photography, as well as painting during the postmodernism, was characteristic of a non-representational or abstract approach. The work was, in most cases, deemed to represent the random use of colors, although the artists were careful not to override meaning or design. However, this was a challenge for the photographer due to the fact that the camera could capture whatever was in front of its lens. The style characteristic of postmodernism was achieved by careful selection of the images to be taken with the goal of remaining abstract. Nonetheless, using many artifices would go against the concept of postmodernism. In postmodern photography, the artists were much more careful to produce the kind of image they desired, unlike in the modern era, where most of the images were taken and produced as the camera lens could see them.[8] Manipulation of the images is an element that developed during the postmodern era; for instance, technology gives black and white images their color and abstract form.

The concept of “banal” in sometimes applied when speaking about postmodern photography. The term is interpreted to mean “ordinary” or “boring” in some cases. While previous works focused on subjects and objects that appeared unusual, interesting, or striking, the focus on objects and subjects, which were banal, became a common characteristic in postmodern photography. Additionally, the idea was aimed at challenging the viewer, whether an academic, a critic of art, or simply a passerby.[9] The artist also aimed to challenge the viewer to think about whether the work as an art or just an ordinary or boring object. Clearly, the idea has been to make the viewer not just to look at the art and enjoy it but also to provide some critique.

The Rhine II is an example of the ordinary (banal) photograph taken by Andreas Gursky in 1999. The large photograph depicts an ordinary experience of life and challenges the viewer to decode its meaning. It is a color image presenting a mood of calmness. The stretch of the Rhine River taken in Düsseldorf incorporates the aspects of postmodern art, most important its abstract nature, by focusing the camera on the subject and the reality that is not black and white. By looking at the image, it becomes immediately legible, but one has to think hard to interpret what it represents. The reality is that while the photo represents the stretch of the river, it is also an abstract representation of horizontal bands of color with varying widths.[10] The overcast sky can be seen above the blue-grey in the picture. Unlike the modern images that would be presented the way they are taken by producing from the negative, there was some aspect of manipulation in the postmodern photography, such as in the above picture.

Blending With Previous Conventions and Style

Postmodern photography has revealed a self-conscious application of previous conventions and style and an assorted blending of popular and diverse artistic styles and media. In the wake of postmodernism, photography did not simply move away from modernism but was simply characterized by desensitization, deconstruction, and simplification of the artwork that characterized modernism.[11] It was a movement that a break from modern art could characterize, but it blended some of the elements of the previous art with new forms of art, hence creating the incoming style. The reality is that the postmodern artists did not come out of the blues, given the reality that the artists received training from the modernists, especially those who received training in black and white documentary photography. The introduction of the postmodern photography was simply a reformation of content and imagery. However, some works that came up during the period were borrowed images from the previous period, which were improved, such as by using color. Some previously taken negatives were treated making staged photographs, a situation changing the photographic art.

A great variety of the photographic expressions developed out of experimentation. One of the photographers who recreated images fitting postmodernism from previous styles was Jorma Puranen. He was a frequent traveler to Northern Lapland, taking photographs. In the process, he developed an interest in the connection between the previous and present art style. In the course of his adventure, he did not desire to break away from the previous style of photography completely but would blend what he was learning with the previous forms to create the postmodern work of art.[12] He created a construction of those events, which he desired to produce in his photography. In one of the works he produced in the 1990s, An Imaginary Homecoming, he used historical photographic materials, including past Sami portraits, to come up with a work that represented the postmodern style. The work was created from a combination of portraits obtained from scientific archives, where he could blend reality with how it could be depicted.

The work of art presented in the image above could be mistaken for work produced during the modernism because of the depicted images. However, the artist, Puranen, worked with historical images to produce the copy, one of the black photographic images that fall under the category of postmodern art.[13] In this case, the great work of art presents a somber mood where at the reality, the photo depicts images of dead persons. The artist had worked with faded and worn-out photographs that were taken during the modern era. He managed to create the art that is more vivid and current.[14] Some of the faces he used were of strangers, while others looked more familiar, as though one had seen them in a page from a book or an archive. To make the new images, he blended a previous style, including the use of portraits from which the previous images were obtained. He came up with a recreation of photographs that experienced portraitist of the modernist era took.[15] The image became successful in presenting a piece of art that showed temporal and spatial distance.


 Postmodern art developed in a way that was aimed at challenging the conventions of the modern art. As such, there was a break from the rules of art that were followed during the modern era of art. Postmodern art brought about major changes in art, including photography, despite the fact that some modern art elements were blended into the present elements to develop new art forms. Many artists developed at the time, but since they had received their training during the modern era, their work included a mixture of some of the styles used during the modern era, although in a way that broke many of the rules of the previous era. With the emergence of the postmodern photography, many things changed in art, including the use of color from the previous use of black and white photographs. There was also an increase in the abstraction of the objects of art, which mostly aimed at creating humor, entertaining, and capturing the beauty of the world.



Antonelli, Paola. Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970-1990. Edited by Glenn Adamson, and Jane Pavitt. London: V&A Publishing, 2011.

Campbell, Craig. “Old Fields: Photography, Glamour, and Fantasy Landscape.” Geographical       Review 106, no. 2 (April 2016): e24-e27

Long, Jonathan James, Andrea Noble, and Edward Welch, eds. Photography: Theoretical Snapshots. Routledge, 2009

Maimon, Vered. “On the Singularity of Early Photography: William Henry Fox Talbot’s    Botanical Images.” Art History 34, no. 5 (November 2011): 958-977.

Marien, Mary Warner. Photography: A Cultural History. Laurence King Publishing, (2006).

Puranen, Jorma, and Elizabeth Edwards. Imaginary Homecoming. Pohjoinen, 1999.

[1] Vered Maimon, “On the Singularity of Early Photography: William Henry Fox Talbot’s Botanical Images.” Art History 34, no. 5 (November 2011): 959

[2] Mary Warner Marien, Photography: A Cultural History. Laurence King Publishing, (2006),         54

[3] Paola Antonelli, Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970-1990. Edited by Glenn Adamson, and Jane Pavitt. London: V&A Publishing, (2011), 18

[4] James Jonathan Long, Andrea Noble, and Edward Welch, eds. Photography: theoretical snapshots. Routledge, 2009: 63

[5] Vered Maimon. “On the Singularity of Early Photography: William Henry Fox Talbot’s Botanical Images.” Art History 34, no. 5 (November 2011): 961

[6] Paola Antonelli, Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970-1990. Edited by Glenn Adamson, and Jane Pavitt. London: V&A Publishing, (2011), 27

[7] James Jonathan Long, Andrea Noble, and Edward Welch, eds. Photography: theoretical snapshots. Routledge, (2009) 79

[8] Mary Warner Marien, Photography: A Cultural History. Laurence King Publishing, (2006),         63

[9] Paola Antonelli, Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970-1990. Edited by Glenn Adamson, and Jane Pavitt. London: V&A Publishing, (2011), 63

[10] Mary Warner Marien, Photography: A Cultural History. Laurence King Publishing, (2006),        54

[11] Ibid, 54

[12] Craig Campbell. “Old Fields: Photography, Glamour, and Fantasy Landscape.” Geographical Review 106, no. 2 (April 2016): e25

[13] Jorma Puranen and Elizabeth Edwards. Imaginary Homecoming. Pohjoinen, (1999), 5.

[14] Mary Warner Marien, Photography: A Cultural History. Laurence King Publishing, (2006),        111.

[15] Jorma Puranen and Elizabeth Edwards. Imaginary Homecoming. Pohjoinen, (1999), 5

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