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Contemporary Photography: Definitions and Styles

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contemporary photography.
Quick summary

Contemporary photography is a rich and diverse field full of opportunities for the budding photographer. Whether your interests lie mainly in journalism or you’re planning to make your big break in the fine art world and hope to understand the state of the industry a bit better, this guide will give you a very broad and contextual overview of what contemporary photography is based on and where it came from. We will go over the historical developments that have led to what you might call ‘the universal style’ and recognizable look of today’s photography, while also tackling thorny questions such as whether such universal styles can truly exist to begin with.

 

If you want to find success as a photographer in the world today, then you must first understand contemporary photography. Sounds straightforward, doesn’t it? At face value, the term ‘contemporary photography’ seems pretty self-explanatory.

Any image created in the very recent past with modern techniques, something that can’t be categorized as vintage photography, as an antique, or as belonging to any historical art movement, is simply contemporary by definition.

While that’s true, there is a lot more hiding behind the notion of the contemporary photograph. That is going to be our subject for today. We’ll be trying to dissect just what contemporary photography means – for you, your audience, and for the art world at large.

What is Contemporary Photography?

Let’s grab the issue by the root right away and try to define just what makes contemporary photography so special. I won’t be trying to narrow things down to just one working definition, though.

As you will see over the course of this article, the world of contemporary photography is much too diverse to describe in one short sentence.

Instead, let’s do our best to explore the different layers and interpretations of what makes contemporary photography special.

Wide-angle landscape photograph. Australian desert in color, cloudy sky.
Certain genres, like landscape photography, are often viewed as timeless. With that in mind, is there any way to really identify photos like this one as ‘contemporary’?

The first definition I am going to propose for the term ‘contemporary photography’ is the one I hinted at above: the literal one. The word ‘contemporary’ does not just refer to the present day, though. In fact, it can communicate almost any time period between the dawn of civilization and a hypothetical future. The deciding factor is the context of the speaker.

For example, if we talk about “contemporaries of Robert Doisneau“, we are not discussing the population of photographers working today whose styles might be comparable to Doisneau’s.

Rather, we use this term to define the group of people most comparable to him. That is, French street photographers active during the mid-20th century around Paris who shot in a romantic-candid style.

By extension, ‘contemporary’ could even refer to every single photographer who lived during the same rough time period as Doisneau. In that scope, it barely matters where they were from or what kinds of pictures they took.

Given these constraints, you may view contemporary photography as just that: a loose descriptor. In this sense, it’s an umbrella term describing all currently active shutterbugs all over the globe.

That makes not just me and you both contemporary photographers of the present day, but everyone!

The Problem with Defining Contemporaneity Literally

A close-up shot of a wristwatch with some photographic equipment sat behind on a desk. Wide-aperture shot showcasing some bokeh.
Defining contemporary photography purely by means of time and date throws up a lot of issues. First and foremost is the question of whether style, technique, and form should reign paramount over the time and place of the artwork being created.

It’s not too hard to see how this definition has proved irritating to a lot of photographers, critics, and philosophers alike. If contemporary photography can be reduced to a publishing date, what identity does it really have?

This question proves especially vexing when you look at how neatly art history has managed to compartmentalize photographic artists of the past into distinct categories, movements, and styles.

Pictorialists are unmistakable trailblazers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The 1920s Dadaists and Surrealists, such as Man Ray, seem inextricably linked to their native time periods.

At the same time, the war photography of David Douglas Duncan can hardly be described in other words than ‘harshly realistic’. That’s fitting, as it is indeed the gritty, super-detailed, emotionally charged nature of his documentary photographs that would set a long-lasting trend toward realism in photography.

But the further you go into the future, the less clear the terminology becomes. What happened?

Missing the Forest for the Trees

Colorful view of a dense forest. Moss-covered ground floor with thick trees and foliage in every direction.
Trying to understand contemporary photography purely in terms of contrasting it to older forms can easily lead to confusion. In particular, we run the risk of losing our focus by expecting the present to look like the past.

In truth, the most likely answer is ‘nothing’.

Photographs did not unexpectedly change their fundamental nature overnight. Rather, it’s a limit of our perception that prevents us from defining what contemporary photography really means to us.

Why is that? In the simplest possible terms, it’s because living in the present comes with a quick loss of perspective. We have an easy time grouping artists of the past into neat boxes. But isn’t that because we aren’t familiar with more than a few dozen famous representatives of each group at most?

Today, more people are picking up a camera than ever before. The task of neatly drawing lines and showing who belongs to which kind of ‘camp’ within the photographic world of today is not just monumental; it might very well be impossible.

In hindsight, we will slowly get to realize which works stand out more and achieve more of a memorable character. Only then will we likely be able to describe today’s photographic artworks in richer language.

Is ‘Conceptual Photography’ Contemporary Photography?

Do you think that definition above is where it ends? You might be surprised!

Some find that defining contemporary photography strictly based on time is not enough. That includes not only professors of art history and philosophers but also working shutterbugs, including some of the most famous contemporary photographers around!

What we need, they argue, is a definition that not just puts contemporary photography into perspective. We also need a definition that helps describe what contemporary photography feels like to view and what its universal style might be.

One expression that has dramatically risen in popularity as a result is that contemporary photography is ‘conceptual’ in nature. Some have even suggested the use of the term ‘conceptual photography’ in place of ‘contemporary photography’.

Close-up view of an ordinary kitchen sink drain with a ring of Roman numerals around it. Concept photography discussing motifs of time and passage.
Conceptual photography has been a rising trend in recent years. By making heavy use of symbolism and photomontage techniques, it aims to arouse an idea or concept via the subject instead of merely depicting it in a natural state.

In simple words, conceptual photography aims to discuss a concept or idea. Rather than documenting an event or displaying a visual expression of a concept in an explicit manner, purely conceptual photographic images count on their capacity to stimulate the thought and imagination of their viewers.

A catchphrase you might have heard being used to describe this distinction is that ‘conceptual photography is trying to tell you something about its subjects rather than depict something of them.’

By itself, this is not a bad definition of contemporary photography. It’s true that conceptual photographs have been a big trend in recent years. However, it’s also equally true that it’s impossible to use the ‘conceptual’ definition of contemporary photography as a catch-all term.

There are tons of successful contemporary photographers out there who have no interest in conceptual storytelling. As long as that is true, defining conceptual thinking as the universal style of the current art movement makes no sense!

When Did Modern Photography Become Contemporary?

If we define contemporary photography at least partly based on the contextual time period it is made in, there is another thorny question that automatically arises: how exactly do you determine the starting point of this time period, assuming it is still ongoing?

To begin to answer this question, it helps to narrow down the starting and end points of modern photography first.

The Birth of Modern Photography and How It Relates to Us Today

photographers.
The daily life of a working photographer sure looked different during the 1930s! Changes in technology and the art world at large also trickled down to a wave of fresh creativity. This is what ushered in what we now know as the age of ‘modern’ photography.

Most experts would place the early days of modern photography sometime during the earlier period of the twentieth century. Often, historians highlight the styles of trailblazers such as Alfred Stieglitz or Edward Weston.

These important modern photographers and their work all share something important in common, which is the conscious creative decision to abandon older visual arts techniques inherited largely from oil painting. The haunting, almost surreal photographs of Stieglitz and the geometric, razor-sharp exposures of Weston may be very different at first glance, and they certainly belong to different genres and time periods.

But at the same time, they may both be called ‘modern’ in the sense that they represent a more mature approach than what was largely practiced during the 19th century. That older, vintage photography style, though diverse and wildly creative, was often the result of imitating classical portraiture and paintings. This is a trend that was decisively broken by the modernist era.

From Modern to Post-Modern Photography

Seagulls in flight. Intentional camera movement (ICM) photography with lots of motion blur.
The use of intentional camera movements (ICM) to creatively utilize blur appeared late during the modernist period but eventually became one of the most famous stylistic innovations popularized by post-modern and contemporary photographers.

Of course, there is a perennial paradox inherent to any art movement.

No matter how revolutionary a thought may be, no matter how many barriers it may break down and how many paradigms it may challenge, any artistic movement can grow stale with time.

This is what many photographers eventually saw happening during the latter days of the modernist era. Generally speaking, most would draw the line somewhere between the late 1950s and the mid-60s.

Note one important distinction: this is where the transition began, not where it necessarily ended. Plenty of veteran photographers continued practicing in a modern photography style for many years afterward.

Icons of Early Postmodernism in Photography

An abandoned armchair in a tight alley photographed in Italy. Symbolic color street photography.
Symbolic representations of the odd and out-of-place against rustic or mundane everyday backdrops, coupled with dramatic use of color, defined early post-modern photography.

In any case, the middle of the century, post-World War II, saw many changes. Plenty of young (and controversial) photographers emerged, throwing the established rules of the past fifty years into the bin. For example, William Eggleston quickly rose to fame during this period, and not just by practicing color photography – still a rather taboo sight in fine art galleries back then.

He also abandoned notions of classical beauty and achieved something of a quasi-documentary style. His method of embracing the quaint and odd of everyday life won him as much condemnation as admiration.

Similar themes – such as the fascination with the strange, the bizarre, and the previously unspoken and hidden parts of life – emerged in the work of artists like Diane Arbus. Street photography, itself a product of modernism, transformed greatly during this period. That’s in large part thanks to people like Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, and Joel Meyerowitz.

All of these masters and their contemporaries greatly adapted the hitherto accepted definition of street photography to achieve something more intimate, more human, and in many cases, much more surreal than before.

This so-called post-modern art approach is what laid the foundation, many argue, for contemporary photography of today.

Concluding on the Problem of Definitions

In the end, a complete treatise on just what is contemporary photography – and what it is not – could very well run the length of a novel. As you have already seen in this article, there are plenty of candidates for such definitions. Practically all of them are mutually contradictory, in addition to being limited and anything but universal.

With that said, the burden ultimately falls on you – the photographer – to decide what contemporary photography really means to you. The following section of this guide applies, however, no matter how you make up your mind. Technique, thankfully, doesn’t care about definitions!

Let’s delve deeper and look at some further elements of style and technique that really set contemporary photography and the current trends apart from those of the past. Of course, not all contemporary photographers will necessarily make use of everything present here in their work.

Instead, consider the following a rough list of easy-to-spot hallmarks of style and substance that you may easily find in contemporary art galleries anywhere in the world today.

Multimedia and Crossover Techniques

A modern and professional studio photographer touching up a portrait session using multiple input devices and an all-in-one post-processing suite. Concept of contemporary photography editing in the studio.
Thanks to powerful post-processing suites and advanced digital camera gear, multimedia workflows have become increasingly common. Plenty of experts cite this development as an essential component of contemporary photography.

Especially since the beginning of the current century, contemporary photography has tended more and more towards a sort of symbiosis with other artistic mediums.

Hitherto considered entirely distinct, different disciplines are interacting with each other today more than ever before. This has made multimedia art, and crossover work an important hallmark of contemporary photographs.

The traditional gaps between videography and photographic artworks especially are narrowing considerably as more and more artists mix elements of the one with those of the other.

Use of Advanced, New Technologies for Storytelling

A bird's eye view of a crowded neighborhood in Hong Kong. Drone shot composed from a high altitude.
This stunning drone photograph would have been nearly impossible to pull off in an era before accessible UAVs and digital camera technology.

With the kinds of technology available to contemporary photographers today, creating narratives and hand-crafting the perfect frame has never been more effortless.

The digital photography revolution itself laid the groundwork for this, of course. Shooting without limits and sharing photos without the need for printing did a lot to revolutionize many genres, first and foremost photojournalism. With the arrival of more complex digital editing software, the near-boundless capabilities of this photography medium became even more obvious.

Even more recently, we entered a new era of creative freedom through technology. Everything from advanced digital camera features such as IBIS and automated high-speed shooting to handheld phone photography and AI based powered post-processing technology have greatly affected contemporary art.

In some cases, this wave of new technology has even led to the rise of entirely new genres, media, and alternatives to traditional subjects. Who could have possibly foreseen how 21st-century wildlife photography could have looked like, let’s say, without the advances in crop-sensor digital camera bodies, image stabilization, and UAVs?

Blurring Lines: How Contemporary Photography Defies Categorization

low-key black and white contemporary photography.
One trait many famous contemporary photographers share is their ability to create pictures that combine commercial appeal with the aesthetic sensibilities art galleries crave. This has led to a breakdown of previously taken-for-granted divisions between photographic fields.

Another crucial hallmark of contemporary photography is the way it rejects strict definitions of photography as either ‘commercial‘, ‘fine art’, ‘documentary‘, or ‘photojournalism’.

The street photographers of the modernist movement already protested about these kinds of distinctions. Since their own genre famously resists easy classification, they questioned the value in seeing photography as a group of separate disciplines.

But it wasn’t until the post-modern art movements of the 1960s and 70s that this paradigm really began to collapse. It did so under the weight of trailblazing, genre-bending contemporary photographers. Challenging the status quo, they made (and their descendants continue to make) contemporary art that challenges any easy description.

More often than not, contemporary photographs can be educational and entertaining at once. They may document a real-world event but at the same time use skillful storytelling techniques to inject a personal message. They may be highly creative and even surrealist, yet unabashedly commercial in their intent.

Such contradictory symbiosis of concepts is perhaps one of the strongest currents throughout contemporary photography.

Understanding Contemporary Art from Behind the Viewfinder

Close-up still life of a snail shell. Monochrome exposure. High detail, high magnification Macro photography.
Still lives and detail studies like this one are an ‘evergreen’ discipline that has never waned in popularity, no matter which photographic moment is currently dominant. Many view this style of photography as timeless and refuse to label it in terms such as ‘contemporary’ or ‘vintage’.

As you can tell, understanding contemporary photography may be even harder than shooting it skillfully. That is not to say that photography throughout the past decades has become too complex for its own good.

True, there are more opportunities than ever before to explore your own ideas and realize personal projects through your photos. But that does not mean the bar to entry has risen to the stratosphere accordingly!

Not every one of us needs an intricate understanding of history, science, and contemporary art theory in order to shoot great pictures. Likewise, much of the technology that powers the jaw-dropping capabilities of contemporary photography is devilishly simple to use, if not to understand.

That’s in stark contrast to the much earlier period of the 1800s we discussed above. Back then, early photographs relied on ingeniously simple optical equipment and chemical reactions.

The downside, however, was that most photographers had to gather and manufacture all their own supplies. This came at great cost, both financially and in terms of self-education.

Through this dramatic shift, we have arrived at the precipice of a completely new era. We live in an age where the very definition of what a photograph can be has been challenged countless times. Our methods for producing amazing pictures only keep getting more advanced yet streamlined.

In simple English, it’s never been easier nor more freeing to step into making contemporary art as a photographer. With that, I wish you great success in your creative endeavors!

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Jonathan is a writer and photographer currently based in Poland. He has been traveling the world, taking pictures, and writing about his experiences for over five years. His favorite subjects include landscapes and street scenes.
Jonathan is a writer and photographer currently based in Poland. He has been traveling the world, taking pictures, and writing about his experiences for over five years. His favorite subjects include landscapes and street scenes.
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