Can photography be art? It’s a question we don’t hear so much these days. The medium that struggled for years to earn its spot on the gallery wall now seems to have claimed that space. And every other space. “[Our] addiction to photography is so overpowering that it has become a reflex, an impulse so strong that it often replaces the desire to exist in the moment,” as author Charlotte Jansen writes in her latest book, Photography Now, which follows 2017’s Girl on Girl: Art and Photography in the Age of the Female Gaze. “Photography is integrated into contemporary experience to such an extent that we consume the world through it.”
The question then is how can art be photography? If images, like words, are a form of comprehension and communication, how can artists use this language to say something new? Jansen has the formidable, perhaps impossible, task of presenting a who’s who of 50 global practitioners shaping the medium today. Amongst her selection are names that could have appeared in this book had it been published 10 years ago – veterans like Cindy Sherman (b. 1954), Nan Goldin (b. 1953) or Wolfgang Tillmans (b. 1968) continue to be influential for those at the cutting edges of image-making – along with some – JoAnn Caliss (b. 1940) or Ming Smith (b. 1973) – only recently receiving the recognition they deserve. Others such as Nadine Ijewere (b. 1992) or Alix Marie (b. 1989) are already making waves relatively early in their careers.
Her choices, whilst worthy in their own right, also point to wider contemporary trends, alluded to in texts that blend biographical insight with art historical context and close visual analysis. An interest in process and refusal to be contained by conventions or genres is shared by Joana Choumali (b. 1974), who embroiders her photographs and Daisuke Yokota (b. 1983), who burns his using acid or fire, for example. Likewise, Lorenzo Vitturi (b. 1980) creates eye-catching still lifes from sculptures he’s assembled from products procured at markets, from Ridley Road in Dalston to Balogun in Lagos, addressing issues of globalisation and consumption in a completely different way to that of a traditional documentary photographer or photojournalist.
Throughout is a sharpened social consciousness, a concern with identity, race, gender and sexuality, often explored by adopting elements of performance or fiction. Juno Calypso (b. 1989) makes highly stylised staged self-portraits that probe beauty ideals with eerie wit. For Poloumi Basu (b. 1983), images are tools for activism. Her project Blood Speaks, which focused on the practice of chaupadi – the forced exile of women during menstruation, directly led the Nepalese government to criminalise this practice. Photography, as defined here, is an art form well suited to our time; accessible, conceptual, always shape-shifting, with “the power to be the mouthpiece of humanity,” as Jansen puts it, “tethering us to reality as events spiral out of control.”
Photography Now by Charlotte Jansen is published by Hachette. Find out more here.
Words: Rachel Segal Hamilton
1. Poulomi Basu
2. Juno Calypso
3. Luo Yang
4. Jo Ann Callis