Reading- ‘The Photograph as Contemporary Art’- Charlotte Cotton

Second Edition. Book Cover

‘ThePhotograph as Contemporary Art’ by Charlotte Cotton is a book published in 2004 that brings together a series of writings and photographic examples as a collective overview of the photography world in the 20th and 21st century.  Cotton highlights key figures in the forefront of the photographic field as she briefly details major principles found in each chapter.

Cotton introduces the first chapter in how photography captures the everyday in which she refers to performance and documentary during the 1960’s and 1970’s.  Cotton addresses the method of how photography can occasionally rely on chance or search for their subject matter as Cotton uses the term ‘…the object chosen and presented as the work of art..’ (Cotton, p.8, 2004) .  Here, Cotton makes the reader aware that subject matter can be interpreted from absolutely anything, even if it is something that we would not think as visual art.

As Cotton introduces the second chapter of the book, she refers to tableau in narrative and staged photography in which she also refers to western painting from the 18th and 19th centuries.  Cotton makes a point of how the narrative examples seen in this chapter may relate to traditional examples of photographic art from earlier periods, however this does not mean to say that contemporary imagery is recreating elements of work from these eras but rather giving reference to them as she says ‘…painting can be found an established and effective way of creating narrative content through the composition of props, gestures…’.  Cotton makes it clear that tableau photography involves drawing original concepts depend on how the staging is managed and thus this brings importance to how subject matter is composed as well as what the subject matter actually is. This brings about ideas to my own practice in terms of how I can be open minded in what I choose to photograph as a still life concept and focus more on how to compose a subject rather than concentrating on what the subject represents.

Cotton also discusses how ordinary objects and spaces can act as subject matter through artistic methods where there is focus on how we can ‘make’ a subject ‘become’ the subject.  Cotton refers to how the simplest thing can create an impact on an audience through the way it is presented to us.  What cotton is saying is that anything is subject matter and this is an intriguing idea as this leaves the photographer the advantage of capturing an object or space by giving it a striking perspective.  For example, a scrunched up piece of paper could be subject matter by observing its form at a close point of view.

In other sections of this introduction, Cotton refers to various well known names in the photography industries during the 20th century.  Leading photographers such as Thomas Demand, William Eggleston and Stephen Shore are encountered in which Cotton particularly discusses the working methods of Eggleston and Shore.  This is a subject that is quite engaging (having previously observed the works of both photographers, especially Shore as of recent).  Reviewing once again on both Shore’s and Eggleston’s work, it is interesting to see the difference between each photographer.  Eggleston’s work captures everyday life in a casual sense where his images present subjects from almost awkward angles and appear overexposed in some areas.  On the other hand, Shore brings a sense of perfection where he also captures the everyday building or signpost but in a carefully constructed way.  For example, images from his series ‘Magical Surfaces’ are perfectly exposed and the subject often sits in the centre.  Eggleston presents images that give a sense of movement while Shore’s images are silent and still.

Reading the introduction to this book has given me reminder of practitioners and conceptual ideas that I can relate to.  I particularly found Cotton’s discussion of narrative photography and analysing general subject matter with reference to chapters two and four relatable as this enlightens my ideas of how I can use subject matter to my advantage and it doesn’t have to matter what the subject is.

Book Reference

Cotton.C (2004) ‘The Photograph As Contemporary Art’ London, Thames & Hudson Ltd, p. 7-19



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