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Unraveling the Evolution of Photography: From Traditional to Postmodern

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As an art form, photography has experienced three distinct artistic phases throughout history. This article will guide you through these three phases and their significance.

The different phases that photography as an art form has undergone are not often discussed. Art preceding photography has a long history with several distinct periods. Classical Antiquity, for instance, was followed by Renaissance Art, which was then succeeded by the art forms produced during the Age of Enlightenment — Rococo, Neo-Classicism, among others. Photography also has distinct periods, but being a relatively young art form, they are fewer and shorter.

So far, we have transitioned through three distinct phases: traditional photography, modern photography, and postmodern photography. Some might argue that we have moved beyond postmodern to post-postmodern, but that’s a topic for another time. For now, let’s delve into each of these unique phases and the types of photography they are known for.

Traditional Photography

Photography began as a scientific discovery. It was found that one could document the world with the right combination of light and chemicals. As this new science became more refined, creatives began using it to create art, giving birth to traditional photography. This genre includes sweeping landscapes, still life images, and portraiture that adheres to strict artistic guidelines.
Ansel Adams is a prime example of a traditional photographer. His photos possess the documentary quality of the first scientific photographic images, but they are more than just that. Rather than merely documenting, Adams’ work aims to showcase the immense beauty of nature. Unlike modernism and postmodernism, traditional photography doesn’t necessarily demand deeper meanings. The purpose of traditional photography is often to present beautiful subjects in an artistic manner. This is achieved through adherence to compositional rules, stark contrasts in color and tone, and so on.

Modern Photography

Modern photography is where we begin to see the deeper meanings behind the imagery. It is akin to modernist painting in that the work is often conceptual. Picasso’s work, particularly post-Cubist, is considered modernist. It’s not necessarily realistic but a conception of reality that carries a deeper meaning. In modernism, you’ll find scenes of great beauty, but they are often arranged to provoke thought beyond the scenery you’re looking at. There is also a lot of abstraction, and photographers of this period started experimenting with effects like motion blur to enhance the images.

Henri Cartier-Bresson is a perfect example of a modernist. To understand what modernism is all about in photography, look at Bresson’s photo of a cyclist. At first glance, you’ll see that this image is not so much about documenting everyday activities as it is about provoking deeper thought.

Postmodern Photography

Postmodern photography emerged in the second half of the 20th century, encompassing various themes. Primarily, postmodernism builds on the themes and conceptual ideas that began during the modernist period. This type of photography often features surrealism, expressionism, or other similar themes. Finally, we also sometimes see a departure from traditional rules of art. Compositions might break the rules by placing subjects in odd arrangements, or a definitive subject may even be absent.

Ken Josephson’s Drottningholm, Sweden image is an ideal example of the kinds of abstraction, unconventional compositions, and surrealism that you might see in postmodern photography. Keep in mind that this type of image is by no means the extent of postmodernism — instead, you’ll find an endless array of genres, subjects, and photographic styles.

Which Period is Right?

Photographers often wonder whether they should be creating images that belong to one period or another, but honestly, the choice is up to you, and there’s no reason to stick with only one. I myself have taken plenty of traditional images because sometimes simple beauty is enough. However, when the need to be more thoughtful arises, I don’t hesitate to create according to the standards of modernism or postmodernism.

Some photographers question if they can somehow bridge the gap between traditional and modern or postmodern imagery. This cannot be done because once you start adding something conceptual to the work, it is no longer a simple, traditional documentation of reality. By default, anything with an abstract or conceptual bent falls into the modern or postmodern categories.

Ultimately, choose the subjects and styles you feel like working with now. Of course, gallery owners will tell you that postmodern photography is the only way to go because that is the current style. It is what happens to be selling for the most money because it is what art collectors want to see. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a market for photography from older periods. In fact, I believe that all three types of photography are equally important to both photographers and art enthusiasts, and they should be expressed at the discretion of the photographer who is taking the photos.

In fact, I encourage photographers to try all three: traditional, modern, and postmodern. There is something to be learned from each period. Traditionalism, for instance, will teach you all about compositional rules because, in large part, that is what traditionalism is — following the rules to document the things that you see.

Modern and postmodern photography will teach you how to bend the rules you’ve learned. In addition, you’ll also learn how to think in the abstract and how to use various effects to enhance the meaning of the work that you are producing.

The bottom line is this: All three types of photography are valuable. They will each teach you something unique, and even though trends dictate that the art world wants to see postmodernism, you’ll find that plenty of other people will enjoy photography of all types.