Thursday, April 9, 2009

Book: Charlotte Cotton, The Photograph as Contemporary Art

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2004 by Thames & Hudson. 224 pages, with 222 illustrations. Cotton is now the head of the photography department at LACMA. (Cover image at right.)

Comments/Context: Given the rising popularity of contemporary photography, it is somewhat surprising how few good surveys of recent activity in the medium are available. While a biennial catalog or collection summary can perhaps provide an overview of current trends, these picture books often lack any sort of underlying framework, needed to make sense of the dizzying array of work being made.
Charlotte Cotton wades into this chaotic mess and does an admirable job of creating some structure. The backbone of this small volume is a group of seven themes she has used to classify the many different styles and types of work, which then become the chapters of the book. These buckets are the following:
  • If This Is Art: events or circumstances preconceived/created for the purpose of making an image (in contrast to the "decisive moment")
  • Once Upon a Time: narrative photography, including the staged tableau/scene
  • Deadpan: objective, cool aesthetic
  • Something and Nothing: still life and interior/exterior architecture photography
  • Intimate Life: storytelling in the context of domestic/personal relationships
  • Moments in History: aftermath imagery, mixing social/documentary practices
  • Revived and Remade: Postmodernist appropriation and reworking
Each section is made up of a string on one paragraph summaries of photographers working in that particular mode, complete with small representative images. While one might quibble with the definitions of the categories or the reductive nature of choosing a single image to represent an artist's approach, overall, the taxonomy works quite well. The book covers lot of ground and helpful lists of photographers working in related styles can be derived from the text.

Collector's POV: While there is a thin narrative thread that ties this book together, I'm certain that a reader could just as easily open to any page, encyclopedia style, and read the paragraph about a specific artist and find value. As such, it is an easily browsable reference book of relatively current photography (5 years old at this point).
As a collector, the book's primary worth is in its grouping of like artists. If we enjoy the work of photographer A, this book is successful in referring to the work by photographers B, C, and D, who have a similar aesthetic but might not have been known to us previously. As such, we can develop a hit list of promising new artists to explore. Given the diversity of work being produced today, having a short, well curated list to tackle is well worth the price of the book.

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