The effects of Postmodernism on visual art photography


Postmodernism in art refers to movements that react against and/or have evolved from themes of Modernism, but to understand Postmodernism it is first necessary to understand the main motivations behind Modernism.

Modernism began in the 19th century with the Impressionist painters rejecting the academic tradition of painting and choosing to convey a more personal experience. This rejection of tradition is one of the main themes of modern art, and it was continued through movements such as Neo-Impressionism, Symbolism, Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism, Suprematism, Constructivism, Dada, Surrealism, Social Realism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop art, Minimal art, and Neo-Expressionism (Modern Art, 2009, Encyclopædia Britannica). Some other important themes of modernism are emphasis on originality, individuality and authenticity, the presentation of the unpresentable e.g. personal emotions as an abstract expression, and the autonomy of art (Quigley, T.R., 2007).

The invention of photography was important to modern art in the sense that it offered a quicker and truer recording of the world around than drawing or painting could, effectively freeing these disciplines to take a new direction (di Bello, Patrizia, 2009).

Modernist photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz rejected the painterly style of Pictorialism and advocated emphasis on the realism photography is capable of, and of the use of photography to make a statement about the medium rather than about the world (di Bello, Patrizia, 2009) through the use of abstract compositions, dynamic viewpoints, and particular attention to and appreciation of perfect photographic technique.


Postmodernism appeared as a reaction to world events and the cultural shift that gradually happened over the 20th century. Its name literally means ‘after modernism’; and opinions vary over whether it is a reaction against or an evolved form of modernism. It is a difficult concept to define, but generally the key ideas of postmodernism are: the rejection of the notion of originality – everything has been done before so all art is referencing something and everything old is new again, appropriation and pastiche, the convergence of “high and low art”, questioning the accepted social normalities, giving the unseen, unheard and repressed a voice, shock value, taboo, the idea that anything can be a work of art, and art that sends a message, often using signs and symbolism.

“The artist becomes a manipulator of signs more than a producer of art objects. The viewer becomes an active reader of messages rather than a passive contemplator of the aesthetic.” (Quigley, T.R., 2007)


The relationship between contemporary visual art photography and Postmodernism is a somewhat symbiotic one. Postmodernism states that the world is made up of images, that there is no real experience only that which is coloured by the images around us, and that all images are there for the taking. Surely this attitude has something to do with the fact that photography is a highly reproducible medium, and as such allows mass circulation of images, thus rendering real experience less valuable, or necessary. (Wells, L., 2003, p. 178)

Just as Postmodernism is influenced by photography, contemporary art photography relies heavily on Postmodern ideas, especially those of reference and pastiche, of staging tableaux, and the use of signs and symbolism to impart a message.


One photographer whose work displays many postmodern traits is Jeff Wall. Jeff Wall is most famous for his large scale backlit photographs which range from still life images of the everyday to elaborately staged images which often reference other artworks. Educated as an art historian, Wall wasn’t interested in spending his time trying to find the perfect image, instead he aspired to make photographs that could be constructed and experienced the way paintings are (Lublow, A., 2007). Wall also wasn’t interested in presenting his images in the typical 8”x10” format, he felt that for work being displayed on a wall this was simply too small and did not allow the full appreciation of the image. So again he referenced the paintings he loved best, which were large pieces that engaged the viewer on a lifelike, human scale, and chose to display his large cibachrome prints on light boxes to illuminate the photo from behind.


“He produced them as unique objects, not in editions, and their aura was heightened by the mode of display: enormous transparencies lit from behind by fluorescent bulbs, a “light box” format that was typically used for advertising. Like a commercial light box, a Wall photograph grabbed you with its glowing presence, but then, unlike an advertisement, it held your gaze with the richness of its detail and the harmony of its arrangement.” (Lublow, A., 2007)

Just the way Wall presents his works is rooted in Postmodernism, in his treatment of a traditional medium with new technology. A modern Pictorialism, shot with a large format film camera, then digitally manipulated and presented as a huge backlit transparency. His work challenges the perceived authenticity of the photograph. Wall describes his attraction to this method of working…


“The fascination of this technology for me is that is seems that it alone permits me to make pictures in the traditional way. Because that’s basically what I do, although I hope it is done with an effect opposite to that of technically traditional pictures. The opportunity is to both recuperate the past – the great art of the museums – and at the same time to participate with a critical effect in the most up-to-date spectacularity. This gives my work its particular relation to painting. I like to think my pictures are a specific opposite to painting.” (Abadie, D., Consey, K., Lampert, C., 1995, p. 11)


Many of the key ideas of postmodern photography can also be seen in the content Jeff Wall’s work, an excellent example is Dead Troops Talk (below).


Figure 1 Jeff Wall - Dead Troops Talk (A vision after an ambush of a Red Army patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986) 1992

Transparency in light box 2290 x 4170 mm


Dead Troops Talk depicts a scene in which soldiers who have been killed on the battlefield are re-animated and engage with each other in what Wall describes as a “dialogue of the dead”. ( There are postmodern ideas of tableau, parody, appropriation, and hyperreality embedded in the content of the work. The imagery references Goya’s Disasters of War, photojournalism and horror films. The expressions of the soldiers, particularly the three characters clowning about in the background, lend the image a dark humour. Hyperreality, as discussed by Jean Francois Lyotard in his book The Postmodern Condition, is defined as: an image or simulation, or an aggregate of images and simulations, that either distorts the reality it purports to depict or does not in fact depict anything with a real existence at all, but which nonetheless comes to constitute reality ( Wall’s tableaux are all hyperreal in that sense of the word.


Another Postmodern photographer who works with staged scenes is Joel-Peter Witkin. Joel-Peter Witkin’s photographs are elaborately staged studio photographs with roots in fantasy and spirituality and reference a long line of painters such as Velasquez, Cimabue, Giotto, Rembrandt, Arcimboldo, Picasso, Goya, Delacroix and Heironymous Bosch. Witkin’s photographs are quite shocking to look at, and many people do not understand them. They can include dead bodies, pornographic imagery, people with both minor and severe deformities, hermaphrodites, severed body parts, bodily fluids and excrement, and seemingly sacrilegious imagery.

What most viewers probably don’t understand is that according to Witkin, these photographs are not necessarily the playing out of his own morbid fantasies and desires; they are what he calls his “prayers”. Witkin is a deeply spiritual person, and believes that people with deformities are living proof of the infinite will of God, a “testimony illuminating and revealing one of humanity’s possible destinies. A photographic reflection of their existence… can, however, provoke violent reactions, including the desire to protect the public from the impact of this reality.” (Celant, G., 1995, p.15)

Witkin seeks not to objectify these people as freaks for the amusement of others; he treats them with dignity, making them into works of art rather letting society hide them away.

“The formless and the deformed, the base and the terrifying must be brought back into the light.” (Celant, G., 1995, p. 25)

Witkin’s works are heavy with symbology, as can be seen in John Herring P.W.A., Posed as Flora with Lover and Mother, New Mexico, 1992 (below).


Figure 2 Joel-Peter Witkin - John Herring P.W.A., Posed as Flora with Lover and Mother, New Mexico, 1992

 Above is a portrait of Witkin’s friend John Herring, who died of AIDS. Knowing he was dying of AIDS, Witkin wanted to make a classical portrait of Herring’s life, joy and death (Celant, G., 1995, p. 29). He referenced Rembrandt’s Saskia as Flora, 1635 (right), and posed Herring as Flora, the goddess of flowers, as he was a florist.   

Herring’s lover and mother are in the portrait, his lover posed as if holding John in an embrace, his mother posed as if holding him as an infant. John is placed on a cloud to show his elevation above life and existence, the creature going out of him represents his illness. The small child and the small white dog represent innocence, the thing Herring loved most. (Celant, G., 1995, p. 29)

To the casual observer this image is just bizarre, and looks like a humourous take on classic painting, but as with all of Witkin’s works, there is a much deeper message.                                                                

Figure 3 Rembrandt – Saskia as Flora, 1635, London, National Gallery

Another trait that Witkin displays which is in line with Postmodern photography is the way he manipulates his prints and negatives. As part of the printing process, Witkin often scratches and gouges his negatives and prints, treats them with harsh chemicals in order to achieve discolourations, and prints through tissue paper to get a fuzzy look reminiscent of the first experiments in photography. This is the opposite of the Modernist idea of the technically perfect photograph, and is a revisiting of the style of the Pictorialists.


The occurrence of Postmodernism has been of real value to contemporary art photography, for although the Modernist appreciation of “straight” photography has its place; Postmodernism has allowed photographic artists the freedom of using the medium to really express themselves, to make a point, or to highlight issues of society in a subtle and intriguing way. That is the beauty of contemporary photography, it invites reflection, and causes the viewer to have to look and think to really appreciate the work, therefore making the work enigmatic and captivating.



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Abadie, D., Consey, K., Lampert, C., 1995, Jeff Wall, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, Paris


Celant, G., 1995, Witkin, Scalo, Zurich, Berlin and New York


Wells, L., 2003, The Photography Reader, Routledge, London




di Bello, Patrizia, 2009, Modernism and Photography


Modern Art, 2009, Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica Online


Quigley, T.R., 2007, Modernism to Postmodernism,




Abadie, D., Consey, K., Lampert, C., 1995, Jeff Wall, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, Paris


Appignanesi, R., Garratt, C., 1999, Introducing Postmodernism, Totem Books, New York


Celant, G., 1995, Witkin, Scalo, Zurich, Berlin and New York


Docker, J., 1994, Postmodernism and Popular Culture: a Cultural History, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge


Lyotard, J-F., 1984, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis


Smart, B., 1993, Postmodernity: Key Ideas, Routledge, London


Wells, L., 2003, The Photography Reader, Routledge, London



Krauss, R., Post-Modernism: Within and Beyond the Frame, Art of the Western World


Madoff, S. H., 1985, What is Postmodern about Painting: The Scandinavia Lectures, II, Arts Magazine, October 1985








di Bello, Patrizia, 2009, Modernism and Photography


Modern Art, 2009, Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica Online


Quigley, T.R., 2007, Modernism to Postmodernism,