Exercise: conceptual photography

This exercise asks for a viewing of interviews run by Source Magazine, enquiring about conceptual photography . And then, to explain my own understanding of conceptual photography.

The series of interviews were helpful to gain an understanding of how and why the term evolved and its place among photography genres, even it that seems to be subject to some debate.

There are a few aspects to my understanding.

Firstly, semantics and the importance of having a word to describe something. When conceptual photography surfaced in the 1960s, there was not the critical industry around photography that exists now. It is suggested that the term conceptual was adopted by photographers (John Hilliard) to help describe their work / a ‘flag to indicate a photograph might require more work to understand’. Effectively a label to assist viewers / critics in placing and categorising the work. In the interviews, John Roberts suggested that during the 1970s the photographic discourse became dominated by humanism, so the ‘conceptual term’ was useful to flag an alternative perspective. It is also suggested that there is a discontinuity between now and the 1960s and therefore the term (as originally used) is dead.

My understanding of the term conceptual (in its original guise) is work that is more concerned with the expression of an idea than a visual aesthetic. However, this can be contentious as Sean O’Hagan observed; there is an inference that other photography is not based on a thinking approach and doesn’t need some effort to decode it. All photography is conceptual to some extent (a photography is a concept of its referent). There can be confusion between the concept of a work and the notion of it being conceptual. Personally, I would reserve the term conceptual for work where the idea drives the making of the work and the idea might also be more interesting than the visual that is representing it. Alternatively, analysing first and shooting later; rather than shooting first and analysing later.

To find a contemporary example of conceptual work, I looked at the April 2019 edition of the BJP and saw that Erik Kessels’ 24HRS in photos work was featured. The concept here was to physically show the number of photographs uploaded to Flickr in 24 hours so viewers might gain some visual understanding of the enormity of the numbers.

Source: uk.phaidon.com © Erik Kessels