Attributes of Postmodern Photography

Before leaving the subject of postmodernism I want to look more closely at the work of Cindy Sherman and specifically at Untitled Film Stills (1). I do this partly to continue the process of understanding postmodernism and partly because I find this work, which is often cited as a pure example of postmodernism and feminism, ambiguous and perhaps a better example of Geoffrey Batchen’s idea of post postmodernism than postmodernism. However, before doing that I want to note down some of the main attributes of postmodern photography.

Attributes of Postmodern Photography

I discussed its definitions and origins of postmodernism in a previous essay here but now I want to look more closely at the attributes of postmodern photography.


The first, and perhaps most important attribute is the coded message based on the appropriation of other images that is inherent within the postmodern photograph. This code is “broken” by the context brought to the image by the viewer, The heart of the idea of Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author (2),  and this context is dependant upon what Charlotte Cotton (3) calls the viewer’s “memory stock of images”. Logically, for the decoding to be effective, this stock needs continuous growth and constant refreshing  so, as pointed out by Liz Wells (4), the development of postmodernism is underpinned by the rapid growth of global information networks. Because each of us has a different image stock not just from each other but from the artist and because that stock will post-date and pre-date the artist’s work the artist is not in control of how we read the image. Their intent and our reading may coincide or conflict.

Taking appropriation to the next step Gerry Badger (5) argues that postmodern photography represents things. The artist appropriates an image from common culture, an advertisement or a recognisable piece of photojournalism and represents it, or the idea behind it in some way; because we recognise the reference to the original image we can read the new image. An uncomfortable example of this can be found in the work of the French photographer Denis Darzacq which features dancers who appear to be falling towards the ground at high speed, photographs that express the artist’s reaction to 9/11 as well as more complex political comment on modern day France. Post 9/11 the image of a person falling from a great height took on a new meaning and Darzacq is using this general understanding of a cultural code to express his ideas.

As mentioned above, in my next essay I will look at the work of Cindy Sherman who, in Untitled Film Stills, appropriated the whole genre of 60s and 70s black and white movies as a source for her 70 images of female types as presented in films.

Staging or Forging

Staging is another form of appropriation and quite obviously related to truth or the perception of truth. The idea of the falsified document has become a dominant feature of contemporary photography and is a genre dominated by the work of the Canadian artist Jeff Wall (7). In his early career in the 1970s Wall staged relatively simple scenes that asked the viewer to interpret signs inside the production to read the image but over the next thirty years his work became increasingly complex and large scaled. He appropriates cinematic techniques by using actors, stage lighting and “directed” compositions and then displays his work on large light boxes which mimic the backlighting of television sets or the bright lights of a cinema screen. His work often appears to be documentary or journalistic in style but is always fictional.

Gregory Crewdson is another artist who creates still photographs within a cinematic setting. Susan Bright (8) explains that he works with a production team of up to sixty people including a cinematographer and a director of photography. His work has the production values of a Hollywood movie.

Image – Text

Many postmodernists use a combination of images and text, Sophie Calle being an obvious example, but an artist who has always intrigued me and who influenced me during TAoP is Victor Burgin (9) who took the idea of appropriation in a different direction. He is a man of strong political beliefs and has used photography to comment on a wide range of subjects including consumerism, the imbalance of wealth distribution, racism, the role of the male in modern society and unobtainable aspirations. The later being one of the drivers behind my own The Reality and Illusion of Mannequins. His work in this area falls into two categories, opposites, or perhaps more accurately two sides of the same coin.

Victor-Burgin-Life-Demands-a-little-Give-and-Take-2014-06-15_15-24-30WRIn “Life Demands a Little Give and Take” (1974) Burgin uses a photograph of a bus queue as his base photograph and then adds a text taken from the fashion world.

The text is typical of the way fashion houses describe themselves and their products.

“…… the tones are pale, delicate. These are the classic Mayfair colours. White naturally takes pride of place ……. very much for the pampered lady dressed for a romantic evening with every element pale and perfect.”

By doing this Burgin positions text from a fashion magazine alongside a picture of ordinary people at a bus queue with a black women leading out of the text. The point would seem to be that this fashion house does not have this person in mind when they wrote the text, their target market might be a “pale” white women of a certain status and class who is unlikely to be queuing for a bus in a multi-cultural area.

The interesting facet of “Life Demands a Little Give and Take” is that, in isolation, neither the picture nor the text would communicate Burgin’s message; it is only by combining them that the overall image works. Later Burgin was to reverse the formula to create the image below.

2014-06-15_16-46-53What does possession mean to you? uses a fashion advert-like picture of an embracing couple dressed in white in the centre of a black poster.

Instead of an everyday picture juxtaposed with an unrelated piece of text that, when seen together, provides a meaning, Burgin uses a studio style image combined with language that, whilst politically motivated, is suggested by Dillon (13) to be abstract, theoretical, dogmatic and self righteous. This is clearly a complicated issue and as the viewer we can only read the message we think we see or, perhaps, want to see.

Above the picture the artist asks what possession means and below he makes the simple statement that 7% of our population own 84% of our wealth. This is a remarkably clever piece of work on several levels. The models look straight out of a fashion campaign, their style of dress suggests wealth  and their body language might infer possession.

The bottom half of the picture makes a straight political or social comment which is a quote from The Feminist magazine. My reading of the overall images is that an advertising campaign using such a picture would be targeted at the 7%. Possession was created as a poster for the Arts Council to promote an exhibition of contemporary artists in Newcastle and 200 copies were pasted up around the city. There is an intriguing side note in Dillon’s paper about a survey that was carried out at the time to find out how people seeing the poster interpreted the message. It was found that few passersby remembered the poster let alone understood the message. Dillon (13) puts forward the view that this was because the picture and text were so perfectly integrated people saw a fashion poster not a political or artistic statement. Another view might be that this lack of understanding is connected to the context of the image so visitors to an art gallery, expecting there to be an artistic message, would read this poster quite differently from a passerby expecting to see an advertisement.

Anna Fox is another example of an artist who has used these techniques, In Workstations (10) she juxtaposes text taken from corporate-style magazines against photos of people working in offices. the effect is both humorous and thought provoking.

Other Attributes

The many other attributes of postmodern photography are neatly summarised by Liz Wells (3) as “any image wherein the conceptual engineering of the art its is clearly evident”. This rather broad definition encompasses photo montage, deconstruction, minimalism, or performance art (another way of looking at Cindy Sherman or Jeff wall’s work). However there are other attributes that are less easily categorised; post modern photography is often more playful, adventurous and anarchic than its predecessors, Sherman was enjoying making Untitled Stills, and even though there is often a strong undercurrent of politicised meaning it is also often entertaining to view.

There is no doubt that postmodernism and politics are closely linked but I question whether the power relationships of class, race and gender that Susan Bright (8) perceives are inherent in this work are always there. The foundation of postmodernism is that the author is dead and the reader is in control of the message so, of course, we all approach postmodern photography ready to impose our class, race and gender politics upon the work. I always try and research the views of the artists as well as the critics and it is not uncommon to discover that the artist is surprised by the complex and multiple levels of meaning that are read into their work, for example Cindy Sherman: ” I don’t theorise when I work. I would read theoretical stuff about my work and think, “What? Where did they get that ?” (8) or Richard Billingham (11) who says “It’s not my intention to shock, to offend, sensationalise, be political or whatever, only to make work that is as spiritually
meaningful as I can make it.”



(1) Sherman, Cindy (2003) The Complete Untitled Film Stills (note that the photographs for this series were taken between 1977 and 1980 but not published as a complete work until this book in 2003) London: Thames and Hudson.

(2) Barthes, Roland (1968) The Death of the Author. (Included within Image, music, Text, translated by Stephen Heath (1977)) London: Fontana Press

(3) Wells, Liz. (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction. Abingdon: Routledge.

(4) Cotton, Charlotte. (2004) The Photograph as Contemporary Art. New edition 2009. London: Thames and Hudson.

(5) Badger, Gerry (2007) The Genius of Photography: How Photography has Changed our Lives. London: Quadrille.

(8) Bright, Susan (2011) Art Photography Now (revised and expanded edition 2011). London: Thames and Hudson.

(10) Fox, Anna (1988) Workstations. Cameraworks

(11) Billingham, Richard (1996) Ray’s a Laugh: Errata Edition Books on Books (2014) New York: Errata Editions


(6) Darzacq, Denis (2005-2006) La Chute (accessed at the artist’s website 29/3/15) –

(7) Wall, Jeff (accessed at Tate 29/3/15) –

(9) Burgin, Victor The Tate. Victor Burgin.

(12) Billingham, Richard. Rays a Laugh. American Suburb X –

(13) Dillon, George L. (2003) Writing with Images: Toward a Semiotics of the Web

This entry was posted in 1 - Telling a Story, 2 - Image and Text, Research and Reflection and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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