Review: Photo Art - Photography in the 21st Century


Book Reviews, Photobooks

In spite of a “hot” photography book market, books giving an overview of contemporary photography are still fairly rare. Photo Art, edited by Uta Grosenick and Thomas Seelig and published by Aperture, is the latest and most welcome attempt to fill in the gap. Listing a whooping 112 artists, according to the editors the book is “a comprehensive survey of photography in the early 21st century”.

There is no doubt that presenting more than one hundred artists results in an impressive view of contemporary photography - whether or not is in “comprehensive” is, however, an entirely different matter, and it invites criticism, which - unfortunately - might distract from what the book manages to achieve.

As regular readers of blogs will know, contemporary photography is a very active and varied art form, with literally many thousands of artists producing an extremely diverse output that is hard to grasp unless one spends a lot of time on it. There are various epicenters, located on different continents, and various “schools” (if we want to call them that) and styles; and photographers employ techniques ranging from the most basic and old-fashioned to the technologically most advanced. Debates are raging between traditionalists and those who don’t shy away from digital manipulations, between proponents of black-and-white and of colour, between “street photographers” who claim to find the ultimate art around us and those who use elaborately staged sets to investigate what the imagination can come up with. How can this immensely varied scene be introduced?

The answer, of course, is surprisingly simple: One needs to make a selection - and then be aware that it’s a selection, and that someone’s selection might be quite different from someone else’s. Given the paucity of photography books that aim at looking at the bigger picture any such attempt is extremely important, and Photo Art clearly provides a very good example of what one could show.

Given the fact that a selection has to be made, Photo Art achieves its goal not necessarily from which artists are included (and which are excluded), but from the overall view it gives. When looking through the book, I could not avoid wondering what a similar book (“Photography in the 20th Century”) would have looked like, had it been published one hundred years ago: I have no doubt the variety we see today did not exist back then (obviously, I am not talking about colour photography or computers here).

In the book, each artist is given four pages (an introduction on one page and three pages for images) plus a photo of the artist right at the beginning. Thus, the book starts off with a few pages of these portraits, and the variety of the portraits foreshadows the shape of things to come.

Photo Art must not miss in the book collection of anyone interested in contemporary photography. Just like the extremely varied photography blogs it showcases contemporary photography as one of today’s most interesting art forms - if not the most interesting one (sorry, painters, sculptors, and potters!).