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Image Conscious: Photography and Contemporary Art

May 16, 2009 - October 11, 2009


In the 1970s and 1980s, photography’s status began to change. Artists who had made a name for themselves as painters or sculptors began exploring photography’s potential: Andy Warhol, John Chamberlain, Robert Rauschenberg, Gerhard Richter, Ed Ruscha, Sigmar Polke, David Hockney, and Lucas Samaras all drew attention to the new tools available to make contemporary art. Colors became super-saturated with processes like Cibachrome and the Polaroid let artists “model” with large-format studio cameras and instantly developing film. Some artists began producing large-scale photographs for wall display. These larger prints that followed were better suited for public rather than private viewing, and departed from traditional genres and subject matter. Conceptual, theoretical, and aesthetic concerns began to replace more formal ones of process and composition, as artists emphasized one’s experience to a work of art rather than the artwork itself.


By the mid-1980s, photography was increasingly central to contemporary art and the old distinctions between it and painting and sculpture—or any other medium for that matter—began to dissolve, and along with them the worn out stereotypes of the “photographer” and how cameras could be employed to make images. Reborn as a powerful representational tool, rather than being seen as a narrowly-defined, self-referential technical process, photography would henceforth emerge as a dominant means for image making.


The present selection of works from the Cincinnati Art Museum’s permanent collection underscores the wide-ranging strategies for using photography in contemporary art. In these diverse works we can see a host of artistic concerns: from politics and the ecology to gender and sexuality; from consumerism and the body to the conceptual use of photography to engage other media, such as film, video, and performance art. Such images call into play our diverse range of experiences, while often times leaving meaning open-ended, to be determined by us as viewers. Today the multiplicity of themes, subjects, and particular techniques in photographic art has been greatly facilitated by the explosion of digital technologies and the advent of better and better cameras. Two generations of younger artists were raised in this brave new world of possibility, thus reminding us how important photography’s history is and its role in shaping and popularizing contemporary art.