Three Recent Movements In Photography

Since the death of Beaumont Newhall, the world's preeminent photo historian, earlier this year, scholars are reexamining the last twenty-five five years of photography, which Newhall had not adequately covered in his writings. In The History of Photography, Newhall had gathered historical data concerning the last fifty years in photography into a twenty page chapter entitled "New Directions." In doing so, he ignored some of the major and minor movements, or downplayed the role of those he included. Some of these photographic disciplines have dominated the medium during the past twenty years. This paper will discuss three such movements: New Documents, New Topographics, and postmodernism. It will also discuss the ideas behind these schools of thought and their leading artists. The impact and influence on later work will also be discussed.

After winning a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, Robert Frank made a photographic tour of the United States, showing an outsider's view of a strange and troubled country. His photographs were published in Paris, in 1958, under the title Les Americains. This book led the documentary style of photography into new areas and had a great influence on the artists taking part in the New York's Museum of Modern Art's 1967 exhibition entitled "New Documents." The artists, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand, had backgrounds in photojournalism and, like Frank, had all received Guggenheim Fellowships. What had caused the museum's curator, John Szarkowski, to cull these names from the ranks of reportage, was the unique way in which these three had photographed the "real." Winogrand and Friedlander, Susan Weiley explains, created "photographs of America's social topography in an apparently casual, but visually sophisticated, snapshot style."1 Garry Winogrand clarified this new documentary aesthetic when he stated, "I photograph to see what the photograph will look like."2 Arbus, who began as a fashion photographer, later began photographing the odd and unusual. Whether photographing nudist camps or transvestites, giants or dwarfs, Arbus became involved with her subjects. In her Monograph, Arbus stated, "Most People go through life dreading they'll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They've already passed their test in life. They're aristocrats."3

"New Topographics" was a 1975 exhibition that was similar to "New Documents" in that it, too, was in the documentary style of photography. In the catalog for the exhibition, curator William Jenkins explains that his use of the word "topography" refers to it's original meaning: "The detailed and accurate description of a particular place, city, town, district, state, parish, or tract of land."4 The works of such artists as Robert Adams, Joe Deal, Nicholas Nixon, and Stephen Shore portray a "man-altered landscape." Adams photographs the same landscapes sans humans as earlier photographers, but, according to Carter Ratcliff, juxtaposing these familiar vistas is that human "habitations are always included: tract houses and mobile homes of the flimsiest sort."5 Like Adams, Joe Deal used tract housing as a subject, but with a different agenda. Deal photographed to show a human order imposed on, and in contrast to the landscape. Ratcliff notes, "he shows how differentiation has been imposed on the terrain by scattered tract housing developments, while a great deal of rough terrain, not even partially amenable to the human presence, has been left."6 While "New Documents" and "New Topographics" were rooted in the "modernist" style of photography, they signaled a new age in the medium. These shows, and others during their era were a bridge to the eventual break from tradition that photography's last 15 years has encompassed.

This new aesthetic and, its set of ideals, was confirmed with a series of exhibitions in 1979 and 1980. The artists representing this movement, known as postmodernists, were Sherrie Levine, Cindy Sherman, and Richard Prince. The movement's vocabulary included words like appropriation, deconstruction, and manipulation. Levine's work asked questions reminiscent of those posed by Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain" in 1918, and were received with mixed reactions. Her photographs were actually reproductions of photographs by artists such as Edward Weston and Walker Evans. The captions, for example, "Untitled (After Edward Weston)" made this clear to the viewer that they were reproductions of the original. This work, explains Douglas Crimp, is addressing "photography's claim to originality, showing those claims for the fiction they are, showing photography to be always a representation, always-already-seen)."7 Cindy Sherman's work was shown at Metro Pictures in New York in 1980 and would, at first, appear to be autobiographical. In fact, Sherman is assuming the stereotypical role of the female in film, and Crimp agrees, stating, "There is no real Cindy Sherman in these photographs: there are only the guises she assumes."8 In later years, Sherman has applied this same idea to women's roles in life, as well as their roles history. Richard Prince, like Sherman, explores the roles we play, but rather than creating settings and subjects, he instead appropriates the images from mass advertising. His ideas on appropriation, or originality, are similar to those of Sherrie Levine. In his book, Why I Go to the Movies Alone, Prince writes, "His way to make it new was make it again and making it again was enough for him and certainly, personally speaking, almost him."9

Examining these three movements, we notice a progression, while if not natural, one that may be logically followed. The subjects and ideas differ, but they propose questions and arguments to their predecessors and for the medium as a whole. These three movements are only a small sampling of the ideas that have influenced the last twenty-five years of photography. It is a shame that with Newhall's death, an opportunity to include recent photographic achievements in his comprehensive history is now lost.


1 Susan Weiley, "The Darling of the Decade," ARTnews, April 1989, p.148.
2 Image, 15:2 (1972), p.4.
3 Diane Arbus with Doon Arbus and Marvin Israel, Diane Arbus (New York: Aperture, 1972).
4 William Jenkins, "New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape," Catalog for exhibition at International Museum of Photography, George Eastman House, Rochester, New York, 1975, p.6.
5 Carter Ratcliff, "Route 66 Revisited: The New Landscape Photography," Art in America, 64:88 (1976),p.88.
6 Ibid., p.89.
7 Douglas Crimp, "The photographic Activity of Postmodernism," October 15, Winter 1980, p.98.
8 Ibid. p.99.
9 Richard Prince, Why I Go to the Movies Alone (New York: Tantam Press, 1983), p.63.