Why Photographers Don’t Get Modern Art

This short piece is a summary of the PetaPixel article by John Mireles which was kindly shared by Clive White in an OCA forum (see here).

Summary of Article

The article presents a condensed historical summary to provide background to the situation. Beginning with the early days when photography was trying to establish itself as an art form, photographers attempted to replicate paintings because art was dominated by paintings. This produced the style known as pictorialism and is known as a soft, dreamy style. However, pictorialism wasn’t appreciated by all photographers. For example, Edward Western wrote a damning article in Camera Craft stating that “photography following this line can only be a poor imitation of already bad art” (Weston 1930).

The Rise of Modernism

With photographers “muscling into painter’s turf”, some commenters believed that the end of painting was near. The rise of modernism helped to resolve this conflict.  In the case of photography, the modernist idea was that photography should do what it does best – to capture the world in two dimensions. Weston (1930) argued that “the physical quality of things can be rendered with utmost exactness: stone is hard, bark is rough, flesh is alive, or they can be made harder, rougher, or more alive if desired”. Modernist photography is exemplified by sharp focus, large depth of field and technically correct exposure. Classic examples include the work of members of the f/64 group: Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and others.

In the world of painting, modernism took an entirely different direction:

“If the function of painting was no longer the realistic reproduction of the visual world — that was photography’s job now — then it became free to pursue other, nonrealistic representations of time, space and form.” (Mireles 2017)

Mireles gives a couple of examples of modernist painting: Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. So while both camps embraced modernism, the results were entirely different, leading to the situation where modernist photographers find it hard to understand their painter counterparts.

Post-Modernism and Beyond

Things get more complicated that this simple divergence, however. Mireles states that “while Modernism still rules in the world of professional and enthusiast photography, it has largely been abandoned by artists working with photography as a medium”.

Enter the post-modern world where suddenly what is in the frame may play a only a minor role.  Bull (2009) defines post-modernism (as the term is applied to photography) as “an approach to the medium that paid little or no attention to aesthetic content and focused instead on the cultural context of photographs”.

This situation causes even more conflict with modernist photographers. As Mireles says, “this idea that one must read additional documentation to understand an artwork contradicts those Modernist values held dear to photographers — especially the precept that an image should be complete in and of itself”. In art circles, no longer can an image be expected, or relied on, to contain a complete narrative. Increasingly, viewers are expected to have a comprehensive knowledge of philosophy, semiotics and popular culture as a starting point. They also have to absorb artist’s statements and other written material before actually getting to the photographs themselves. And perhaps there are soundscapes and overlaid video etc. etc. Rantoul (2016) points out that “for most works, separate the photographs from the words and you have no ability to comprehend what is going on”.


The article by Mireles concludes with the thought that modernist photography is stuck in a dead end. Great images will continue to be produced, but they will never be accepted by the contemporary art world. He argues that contemporary art will continue to change and develop, while photographers (at least those with modernist leanings) will be left behind. The challenge, then, is to decide on which side of this fence we wish to be on.


Coming from what I now understand to be a strongly modernist, tending to minimalist, background myself, I found this article to help me gain perspective on the gap between modernist-derived photography and contemporary art. I have to confess that I am one of the many (very many, actually) who just don’t “get” much of contemporary art. When I am required to read a small book, or understand a photographer’s personal life in order to start to appreciate their work, I think somehow we’re missing the point. As Rantoul states “this resides perilously close to using the photographs as illustrations, really another field entirely”.

I feel there must be a middle ground. For example, Kaylynn Deveney’s work The Day-to-Day Life of Alfred Hastings, (see here) quoted in the course notes provides a good example. The text (mostly anchor-text, from my reading) works to support the images, but not overwhelm them.  Indeed, the photos can be appreciated without the text entirely, in my view. The photos themselves are well composed, well lit and mostly straight in style – in short, modernist. However, the addition of text and the strong narrative suggest at least a nod to the post-modern.

For my own work, I think I need to keep an open mind. I also need to understand that, while the photography might be poor from a modernist viewpoint, perhaps the whole package works from a contemporary art viewpoint. And therein lies the challenge – to appreciate both worlds.


Bull, Stephen (2009) Photography. [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.com (Accessed 27 Feb 2017)

Mireles, John (2017) Why Photographers Don’t Get Modern Art. At: https://petapixel.com/2017/03/04/photographers-dont-get-modern-art/ [Accessed 06 March 2017]

Rantoul, Neal (2016) Opinion: A Disturbing Trend in Photography. At: https://petapixel.com/2016/05/31/opinion-disturbing-trend-photography/ [Accessed 11 March 2017]

Weston, Edward (1930) ‘Photography – Not Pictorial’, Camera Craft, Vol. 37, No. 7, pp.313–20. Available at: www.jnevins.com/westonreading.htm [Accessed 07 Mar 2017]


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