How do photographs become works of art from 1950 to 2000?

A Portfolio of Piles

In the latter half of the twentieth century, artists moved from investigating the characteristics of the medium in the form of straight photography to a more conceptual examination of the ways photographs circulated and produced meaning. Artists featured here such as Ed Ruscha, Lise Melhorn-Boe, and the artist group NE Thing Co worked with photographs that were deliberately mundane in order to call attention to, and often critique, the ways photography has been used in day-to-day life. 

Some artists took up photography as a means of appropriating the imagery and styles that proliferated in an increasingly image-saturated commercial culture. These artists—sometimes called The Pictures Generationdifferentiated themselves from professional photographers creating artistic photographs. For example, while Eliot Porter achieved recognition as an artistic photographer with his colourful pictures of nature that emphasized his skill and originality (such as with the volume Forever Wild, featured here), Sherrie Levine made a name for herself by re-photographing artistic images by photographers like Porter (or Edward Weston or Lewis Hine) and critically interrogating the very idea of photographic originality. These two examples illustrate the divide that emerged at the end of the twentieth century between photographers who created art and artists who used photography as part of their artistic practice. 

Part of what the artists of the Pictures Generation were responding to was a shift in the art world as photography increasingly found its way into museums and art galleries. Historical photographs created for a variety of purposes, including geographical and ethnographic surveys, motion studies, and documentary photography, found their way onto the walls of art galleries and were increasingly treated as original works of art. As a result, according to Stephen Bull, the “potential multiple functions of the images are narrowed down to that of the expression of their respective photographers” (Bull 132). The tendency to treat every photograph as a work of art has the potential to soften the impact of documentary photographs like those included in the album The Fight against Apartheid!

Some twentieth- and twenty-first-century artists mine archives of historical photographs with a different purpose: not only to turn such photographs into works of art, but also to confront and critique the ways photography has been used as a tool of colonialism. For example, Jeff Thomas engages with the work of early-twentieth-century photographer Edward Curtis, whose twenty-volume The North American Indian is held by Bruce Peel Special Collections. With My North American Indian Volume 21, Thomas opens up a conversation with Curtis's photographic project in order "to challenge the silences in the archive" and "build a new paradigm that connects past and present."

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