Postmodernist Art and Photography

Postmodernism is the name given to the defining artistic movement of the second half of the 20th century. Aspects of postmodernism in art and literature include surrealism, abstract expressionism, and the Theatre of the Absurd. Postmodern photography is characterized by atypical compositions of subjects that are unconventional or sometimes completely absent, making sympathy with the subject difficult or impossible. Like other postmodern artists, the champions of postmodern photography contend that it is possible to ignore the “rules” and still create art.

Modernism was characterized by a rejection of previous artistic trends, such as Romanticism and a tendency toward realism. Postmodernism took this further by questioning standard definitions of “art” itself. Modernism and postmodernism were both controversial within the art world. The general public, meanwhile, was often mystified by these works; many viewers questioned whether they were even “art” at all, which some postmodernists saw as a validation of their approach.

Postmodern painting was often characterized by an abstract, or non-representational, approach; works often appeared to be random colors or scribbles without an overriding design or meaning. Postmodern photography takes the same approach, but the medium offers special challenges for the postmodernist. The camera captures a perfect representation of whatever is in front of the lens.

The word “banal” is often used in relation to postmodern photography. Banal means “ordinary” or even “boring.” As traditional photography focuses on subjects that are interesting, unusual, or beautiful, the choice of banal subject matter is an obvious one for postmodern photography. Again, the idea is to challenge the viewer. The artist asks a question or, rather, forces the viewer to ask, if the subject is ordinary or boring, whether the image is still a work of art.

For instance, the photographer William Eggleston has been called a consummate postmodernist. Eggleston worked with colour images at a time when only black and white photography was considered “art” by critics and museum curators. While some questioned his choice of a format that was seen as common or pedestrian, its eventual acceptance made colour photography a valid form for other artists to use. This illustrates how postmodern art, while sometimes controversial or confusing, has benefited the practice of art as a whole.



William Eggleston is an American photographer who is widely credited with increasing recognition for colour photography as a legitimate artistic medium to display in art galleries.

Eggleston’s early photographic efforts were inspired by the work of Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank, and by French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s book, The Decisive Moment.  First photographing in black-and-white, Eggleston began experimenting with colour in 1965 and 1966 after being introduced to the medium by a friend. Colour transparency film became his dominant medium in the later 1960s.

It was in 1973 that Eggleston discovered dye-transfer printing; he was examining the price list of a photographic lab in Chicago when he read about the process. The dye-transfer process resulted in some of his most striking and famous work, such as his 1973 photograph entitled The Red Ceiling, of which Eggleston said, “The Red Ceiling is so powerful, that in fact I’ve never seen it reproduced on the page to my satisfaction. When you look at the dye it is like red blood that’s wet on the wall…. A little red is usually enough, but to work with an entire red surface was a challenge.”

Around 1976, Eggleston was introduced to Viva, the Andy Warhol “superstar”, with whom he began a long relationship. During this period Eggleston became familiar with Andy Warhol’s circle, a connection that may have helped foster his idea of the “democratic camera”.

Eggleston’s mature work is characterized by its ordinary subject-matter. As Eudora Welty noted in her introduction to The Democratic Forest, an Eggleston photograph might include “old tyres, Dr Pepper machines, discarded air-conditioners, vending machines, empty and dirty Coca-Cola bottles, torn posters, power poles and power wires, street barricades, one-way signs, detour signs, No Parking signs, parking meters and palm trees crowding the same curb.” She suggests that Eggleston sees the complexity and beauty of the mundane world.

Mark Holborn, in his introduction to Ancient and Modern writes about the dark undercurrent of these mundane scenes as viewed through Eggleston’s lens: “[Eggleston’s] subjects are, on the surface, the ordinary inhabitants and environs of suburban Memphis and Mississippi–friends, family, barbecues, back yards, a tricycle and the clutter of the mundane. The normality of these subjects is deceptive, for behind the images there is a sense of lurking danger.”

In 2012, three dozen of Eggleston’s larger-format prints – 40 by 66 inches instead of the original format of 16 by 20 inches – sold for $5.9 million in an auction at Christie’s to benefit the Eggleston Artistic Trust, an organization dedicated to the preservation of the artist’s work; the top lot, Untitled 1970, set a world auction record for a single print by the photographer at $578,000.

Source: Wikipedia


JEFF WALL (b.1946)

The most famous practitioner of “staged photography”, camera artist Jeff Wall is one of Canada’s greatest art photographers of the 20th century. Challenging the notion of photography as a medium that records the “real”, Wall has been producing carefully staged photos since the end of the 1970s. Largely involving everyday scenes conveying an iconographic link to classical painting, they are often presented as large-format back-lit cibachrome photographs. His lens-based tableaux often feature a mixture of natural beauty, urban decay and industrial wasteland as their backdrop. Since the 1990s he has ranked among the most internationally controversial photographers, although he has also been described as one of the most advanced thinkers in contemporary art. He achieved initial recognition through his large-format diapositives presented in light boxes, presenting posed scenes in recognizable urban environments. Despite their use of contemporary technology, his images recall paintings from the era of the Old Masters. For that reason, they are typically discussed with respect to their iconography, their compositional principles, and their ideological content. A famous example of such an image is Wall’s photographic transparency A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) (1993).


At the end of the 1970s Wall creates large-format colour works conveying an iconographic nearness to classical painting. As a rule, he stages images with a narrative content, conspicuously presented in the form of oversized (inspired by contemporary advertising practices) light boxes.

Since the mid-1990s has also produced black-and-white works on paper, as well as montages of individual negatives, fusing them into what appears to be a single photograph using digital technology. Undoubtedly among the most controversial postmodern art photographers.

In 2006, his photograph Untangling (1994) was sold privately for Australian $1,000,000. In May 2012, Dead Troops Talk (1992) was auctioned for $3,666,500 at Christie’s New York, making it the most expensive photograph by Jeff Wall ever sold.



One of the greatest art photographers of the postmodern age, the German camera artist Andreas Gursky specializes in large-format panoramic urban landscape and architectural compositions, often digitally manipulated, featuring apartment blocks, skyscrapers, sports grounds, streets, squares, and the like. Working exclusively in colour, the viewpoint used is always at a distance and slightly elevated from the front. The viewer’s gaze is not directed, so that various viewpoints are possible. His fine art photography is typically characterized by careful structuring and composition, together with a carefully balanced use of colour, perspective and light. As a result his images have an explicit painting-like quality: indeed, some have all the aura of monumental 19th-century landscape paintings. Since the mid-1990s, Gursky has enhanced his image-making with the use of computer art, as in his famous picture Rhein II (1999) – an original photograph of the Rhine River, which was blown up to a huge size and then digitally altered to remove all visible buildings and people. In November 2011, it was sold at Christie’s New York for $4,338,500, making it the world’s most expensive photograph, and one of the highest priced works of postmodernist art in the 21st century. Another example of digital alteration is his six-part series Ocean I-VI (2009-2010), in which he used hi-definition satellite imagery augmented by other internet pictures. A more obvious masterpiece is Gursky’s photograph entitled Paris, Montparnasse (1993). A wonderful shot of an apartment block, designed in the spirit of the French modernist Le Corbusier, it presents an abstract, dispassionate view of modern existence – notably the relationship between the individual, his community and his surroundings.

ImageParis Montparnasse (1993)

As stated above, the most expensive photo taken by Gursky, is Rhein II (1999), which sold for $4,338,500 at Christie’s New York, in late 2011, confirming his status as one of the most successful postmodernist artists of the 21st century. Four years earlier, in February 2007, his image 99 Cent II Diptychon (2001) was auctioned for $3,346,456 at Sotheby’s London.

ImageRhein II (1999)


One of the greatest art photographers of the late 20th century, the American camera artist Cindy Sherman is famous for her focus on the nature of reality, and for raising challenging questions concerning the role of women in society, the issue of media and culture from a feminist perspective, as well as the creation and meaning of art. Sherman creates series, usually photographing herself in a variety of costumes, make-up and hair-styles. These narrative compositions – exemplified by her Untitled Film Stills series (1977-80), showing herself playing stereotypical roles of B-film actresses – may not be ‘real’, yet they show us what exists and what makes a claim to control us: sexuality, beauty, power, and violence, which serve both as media strategies for suppressing the real while promoting a fake alternative. Other important photographic series by Sherman include: Centrefolds (1981-4) (she plays glossy magazine-inspired roles); History Portraits (1989-91) (she plays roles from famous oil paintings); Sex Pictures (1992-2000) (dolls and prosthetic limbs in explicit poses). Now seen as one of the best-known exponents of lens-based postmodernist art, in 2011, Cindy Sherman’s work Untitled #96 (1981) was auctioned for a staggering $3,890,500 making it one of the most expensive photographs ever sold.


Untitled Film Still #14 (1978)

JEFF KOONS (b.1955)

The contemporary multimedia artist Jeff Koons is one of the most financially successful but controversial postmodernist artists since Andy Warhol (1928-87). Influenced by several of his Pop-art predecessors, Koons is known for his Neo-Pop kitsch style of avant-garde art, exemplified by works such as Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988), and by giant reproductions of banal objects like Puppy (1992) and Balloon Dog (1994-2000). Art critics are divided in their opinions of Koons’ postmodernist art, even though his works have sold at auction for astronomical prices. In 1991, one version of Michael Jackson and Bubbles sold for $5.6 million. In 2007, his magenta coloured Hanging Heart, sold at Sotheby’s New York for $23 million. In July 2008, his Balloon Flower sold at Christie’s London for a record $25.7 million, just before the global crash. Still employing more than 100 people in his New York studio, Koons retains one very important advantage: he is treated with enormous respect by the museum world – a clear sign of his popularity with the general public.

Before establishing his reputation as an artist, he enjoyed a prosperous stint as a Wall Street commodities broker. In addition, he also worked for a period in the fundraising department of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. During the mid-1980s he aroused both critical interest and support from collectors with works that explored issues of kitsch and commodity culture.

Banality Series – The Banality series was Koons’ first major series of works. It included several different types of sculpture, including several devoted to religious symbolism. The lovingly crafted Ushering in Banality (1988), for instance, features two little angels leading a pig followed by a tracksuited boy. The series climaxed in 1988 with three versions of Michael Jackson and Bubbles, a life-size porcelain and gold-leaf statue of the pop star cuddling Bubbles, his pet chimpanzee. The Bubbles statue – seen as an icon of 1980s pop art – raised Koons to the level of artist-celebrity, something he reinforced by opening a Warhol-like factory studio in SoHo, New York.

Made in Heaven Series – Having become an art star, Koons turned next to film, and decided that the quickest way to become a film star was to make an ‘adult’ film. This led him to meet and marry the Italian actress La Cicciolina (Hungarian-born naturalized-Italian Ilona Staller), who subsequently appeared in much of his Made in Heaven work, including paintings, glass sculptures and colour photographs of herself and Koons in explicit poses. Hugely controversial, its admirers see the series as his greatest work, confronting issues of guilt/shame. In 1991 Koons and Staller married, and the following year had a son, Ludwig, but the marriage ended soon afterward. After agreeing to joint custody, Staller absconded to Italy with the child. Koons later destroyed much of his Made in Heaven work during the custody battle.

Celebration Series – This set of work, associated with Neo-Expressionism, began when Koons’ son Ludwig was born in 1992, and focused on the shapes and colours of the baby’s first toys – the sort of art that a small child could relate to. The idea was to make huge reproductions of easter eggs, valentine hearts, balloon animals and other joyful images in brightly coloured metal. Unfortunately, many works ended up taking longer and being far more costly to produce than planned. Luckily, in 1992, Koons was commissioned to produce a piece of work for a German art exhibition in Bad Arolsen. Koons duly made one of his most popular works, Puppy, a forty-three feet high sculpture of a West Highland White Terrier puppy made out of flowers arranged on a skeletal steel structure. It was bought by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in 1997 and installed outside the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. The Celebration series also included several 9-feet tall highly polished steel hearts, painted in different colours.

Jeff Koons – Postmodernist Artist or Showman? – Differences of opinion about Koons’ worth as an artist essentially revolve around differences in the meaning of art. Traditional art theory places great importance on the craftsmanship disclosed by an objective work of art. Furthernore, purists consider that only certain subjects are worthy of artistic representation. Using these criteria, critics point to the lack of craftsmanship in Koons’ works, and the fact that a lot of the work was performed by assistants. What is more, his subjects are uniformly low-brow – too low-brow to be “artistic”. His admirers, on the other hand, point to his popularity among the general public, his high regard among museums, and his bank balance, and say something like: it may not be art, but people like it.



Source for Jeff Wall, Andreas Gursky, Cindy Sherman and Jeff Koons:

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