A Time for Documentary, A Time for Conceptual

I talk about making photos and my approach, and sometimes I forget that there’s another whole way to make photographs. Not documentary. Not people that you meet in the street and ask for their portrait. Not street photography.

A photographer friend recently commented that she is looking for more photo subjects, new ideas of what to shoot. My usual answer is, “What can you shoot? What do you have access to?” But that leaves out one kind altogether–conceptual photography where the photographer is the director and creates the whole image from their own imagination.

She recently sent me a link to the work of Erwin Olaf, who I was not familiar with, and how fun it is to find new artists to explore! His work reminds me of two others who work in conceptual photography who I am a big fan of and have some of their monographs, Gregory Crewdson and Cindy Sherman.

There’s a long tradition in photography of creating images, similar to a writer creating fiction–the photographer sets the cast, the lighting, and places them in the location that is often a set they’ve created. It’s contemporary photography and originates completely out of the photographer’s imagination. I do enjoy this kind of photography, as long as it’s somewhat accessible, has a story that I can imagine.

Cindy Sherman, working from her own ideas and creating the photographs while casting herself, she’s an amazing artist who’s been working since the 1970s. There’s an old joke, “What does Cindy Sherman look like?” She’s been seen numerous times, but she changes her appearance constantly in her work that it’s difficult to know what she really looks like.

There’s a place for artists’ creation from conception to completion in addition to documentary work. In fact, it’s actually much more in demand than documentary work in the art world currently. Documentary work is less seen in gallery and museum shows than it once was in the heyday of street photographs by Elliot Erwitt, Joel Meyerowitz, Lee Friedlander, Helen Levitt and Garry Winogrand.

Untitled #96 sold at auction for $3,890,500 in 2011, making it one of the highest-priced photographs ever.

It’s just a matter of creating the image, conceptualizing it and bringing it to fruition. How to do that, you’re no longer stepping outside your door and making a photo of what you find, but making what you find because you placed it there, you brought the elements together.

A Gregory Crewdson creation, all his idea from concept to completion.
This is what a set looks like on a Gregory Crewdson production, almost like a movie set.

Aline Smithson puts out a daily post on Lenscratch which is a great site for seeing contemporary photographers’ working today. You can expect to find some unique artists making conceptual photographs today and Aline is amazing in her ability to make a post a day.

A few years ago, using a Mamiya C330S, I set up to shoot a black and white film series about a woman who’s writing a letter to a former lover, then after she finishes, she goes to burn it. I was thinking cinematically. I cast my partner in the role of the scorned lover. I am not sure it was successful, but you have to try things. You have to go play in the “art playground” and see what you make. And return again and again. That’s certainly not my normal domain, being a documentary photographer. But again, you have to try things. See what you create. I’ll leave you with that series.

Want to support my shows? You can, just visit this link at Paypal, or go to SupportKenneth.com to add your monthly contribution to keep the lights on!

Check out my YouTube Channel of Photography Talks: my 6×6 Portraits Blog (you’re here) and my Daily Photography Podcast. Thanks!

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