I wonder, did Picasso ask what is contemporary photography when he was taking photos of his art and his muses in his house and studio in Cannes? Picasso used photography not only as a source of inspiration but as an integral part of his studio practice. For sixty years Picasso had a unique relationship with the camera.
Let us just examine what we mean by “contemporary photography”. Contemporary photography could be described as a photograph from our own time, compared to an image from a much earlier period, and some commentators say it is a general category for photography from the early 20th century onwards. While they may be divided in a definite time frame, both advocates and critics agree it is a development in presenting new perspectives on traditional subjects and compositions with the blurring of fact and fiction, documentary, and elaborate staging.
Can photography be classified as contemporary?
Personally, I don’t think you can time-frame contemporary photography; it is a continual moving and evolving reflection of a moment in time updated continually through the eye of the photographer.
Is it important to classify a photograph as contemporary or not? What some pioneering photographers recognize straight away is that photographs, like paintings, are artificially constructed portrayals of what is happening right now. But they are nevertheless portrayals with inspiration taken from an old photo or painting and reproduced in a modern way with modern technology. So, with that view in mind, what may be contemporary photography one day will almost certainly become just photography almost immediately after, as techniques and fashion evolve leaving any form of classification outdated and irrelevant.
Photography is more of a concept
Contemporary photography, then, is a difficult term to define. It does not permanently stick fast as a label on any one particular image. It is a concept that changes as time periods change and move forward. It is a general expression for what the viewer can relate to and appreciate at that moment in time.
It may be applied to a group of images created by a group of photographers working during a similar period of time with similar, or dissimilar, motivations, style or influences. Take, for example, the photographer Andres Serrano, an American photographer and artist who has become famous through his photos of corpses and his use of feces and bodily fluids in his work. He is also noted for creating the artwork for the heavy metal band Metallica’s Load and Reload albums, but also for his obvious references to Andy Warhol, who was himself regarded as a contemporary photographer.
Photography of the 21st century
Back in 2018 a journalist for The Guardian newspaper commented about an exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery in London. The exhibition was titled, “All I Know Is What’s on the Internet”. A comment on the rise of social media, particularly Instagram and Snapchat, will feature the “contemporary artists seeking to map, visualize and question the cultural dynamics of the 21st-century photograph” in a social media age. To this end, it interrogated not just the role and agency of the photographer in this new context, but “photography’s cultural value at a time when the boundaries between truth and fiction, machine and human are being increasingly called into question”. Wasn’t it ever thus?
The resurgence of old technology such as the Instax Polaroid camera, a new take on the original instant camera made in 1947, along with an interest in analog photography is rapidly becoming the ‘new’ field in contemporary photography proving the point all by itself that photography is always photography and always contemporary until it’s not, ask Picasso.