Modernism can be generally seen in two ways- the era of experimentation and seeking to transform culture and insights; or as a period of intense elitism. Postmodernism can be distinguished from modernism as it moves past the self-inclusive world of previous movements and back into the territory of everyday life. Postmodernism is a repercussion of modernism and, put simply, it is anything beyond modernism which was normally situated on idealism and an equilibrium view of human life and society and expectation of progress. Scepticism is one of many aspects of postmodernism, suggesting that there may be infinite truths. It veered from what is seen as the traditions of art, for example, what is depicted in high culture, and breaking past cemented rules regarding style. Postmodernism allows creators to express themselves and give them the sense of freedom, expression and power that other things in life may not offer them, however, this may be controversial to many who are not as compliant to this newly found flexibility of expression. This movement is an attitude that cannot be defined, as there are many different approaches and interpretations as to what it is. There is often the question of the original and the copy, and whether postmodernism is in itself unique, as the history of photography and its creative processes can sometimes be lost or overlooked. Is there still originality in photography?
In the book titled ‘Simulacra and Simulation’ by Jean Baudrillard, written in 1994, he writes that there are four successive phases of the image; the first is that it is a “reflection of a basic reality”, it “masks and perverts basic reality”, it “marks the absence of basic reality”, and finally, it “bears no relation at all to reality- it is its own pure simulacrum, a copy where there is no original” (Baudrillard and Glaser, 2014). According to Wikipedia.com, simulacra is an image or representation of someone or something- they are “copies that depict things that either had no original to begin with, or that no longer have an original”, whereas a simulation is the “imitation of the operation of a real-world process or system over time” (Simulacra and Simulation, 2017).
The postmodernist movement has been explored using mediums such as philosophy, the arts, architecture and literature. This exit from the modernist era is known to hold irony, and protest against the ideological state apparatus and social development (En.wikipedia.org, 2018). It indulges in comedy and praises the essence of parody and play. Those who follow the postmodern movement may think that claims to knowledge and truth are products of social, historical or political discourses or interpretations, and are therefore contextual or socially constructed (En.wikipedia.org, 2018). Postmodernism offers a “provocative and often critical view of those sign systems by recombining, appropriating and re-presenting familiar images”, and the themes that are often portrayed by the artists include that of “consumer culture, the art market, history, gender and race” (Phaidon, n.d.).
According to the Tate art gallery, Postmodernism in art was “specifically a reaction against modernism which had dominated art theory and practice since the beginning of the twentieth century” (TATE, 2018). Traditional belief systems that occurred in Western society and culture from the 1960s were tested by this movement. First used around 1970, the term ‘postmodernism’, in relation to the art movement, does not confine itself to a set style or theory, thus becoming the opposite of what it is defined as. There are various ways to express this genre through art making, however it may have been said to have begun in pop art in the 1960s, embracing conceptual art, neo-expressionism, feminist art, and the Young British Artists of the 1990s.
In 1967, political theorist, filmmaker and author Guy Debord wrote a book titled, ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ which included the work of philosophy and Marxist critical theory. Debord brings forth and develops the concept of the Spectacle. This book became a crucial piece of text for the Situationist movement. It explores subjects such as the ‘Degradation of human life’, ‘Mass media and commodity fetishism’, ‘Comparison between religion and marketing’ and the ‘Critique of American sociology’ (Wikipedia, 2018). In the book, Debord describes the world as becoming a ‘Spectacle’, “In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation”. He also states that the “spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images. The spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual excess produced by mass-media technologies. It is a worldview that has actually been materialized, a view of a world that has become objective” (Debord, 1970). Therefore, contemporary visual culture was viewed as a “spectacle disseminated through photographic forms, reproductions of reproductions, simulacra of a reality that never existed” (Willette, 2012). The spectacle of popular culture started a connection with contemporary visual culture through photography, thus creating a certain type of social relation.
With postmodernism, it can sometimes be a question of the original and the copy. Originality consists of being ‘new’ and the ‘first’, however in this current postmodern world, it is harder to find true, authentic pieces as there is so much history, specifically within the arts. Many things may not seem original in this age, and there is a lot of regurgitation of work from the past. Some artists, such as Jeff Wall, have been caught in the act of appropriating previously created artworks- in Wall’s case, a woodcut by painter Katsushika Hokusai titled ‘Travellers Caught in a Sudden breeze at Ejiri (c.1832)’ was interpreted by Wall through a photograph with the same compositions and elements. Other notable postmodernist photographers and artists include: Robert Rauschenberg, Douglas Kellner, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard and Kevin Sonmor, among many others.
Born in 1946, Jeffrey Wall is a Canadian artist who was a key influence in the art scene of Vancouver since the early 1970s- his “large-scale back-lit Cibachrome photographs and art history” are also very well known (Wikipedia, 2017). In his photography, Wall explores aspects of Vancouver, and in doing this he creates backdrops using the cities’ “mixture of natural beauty, urban decay and postmodern and industrial featurelessness” (Wikipedia, 2017). Whilst Wall was an undergraduate, he began experimenting with conceptual art- many of his artworks are staged. They indicate the “history of art and the philosophical problems of representation” (Wikipedia, 2017). In his photographs, the compositions draw attention to the work of artists such as Hokusai and Édouard Manet, or to writers like Ralph Ellison and Yukio Mishima,. Complete with crews, sets, cast and digital postproduction, some of Wall’s photographs include complex productions- being labelled as “one-frame cinematic productions” (Wikipedia, 2017).
Wall became intrigued in still lifes in the early 1990s and can be recognised for his large-scale images of contemporary everyday genre scenes that are often times residing with figures. In his early photography, Wall had focused on themes such as conceptual art, alongside aspects of appropriation art of the 1970s and 1980s- he did this by “investigating the assumed, required elements of fine art and borrowing narrative and visual details from outside the established art world genres” (The Art Story, n.d.). Through his work, Wall addresses issues from moments that he has witnessed, read or heard in his own life, however, he doesn’t not blatantly copy the art, instead he “changes some visual and physical elements as he pleases and depicting scenes as frozen moments in the middle of an event” (The Art Story, n.d.).
His work titled ‘A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai)’, 1993, required a mixture of actors, sets and special effects. In this specific piece of work, there are four people standing on brown field with what looks like a canal behind them. Two skinny trees tower over the subjects and are bent from the wind’s force. The person on the far left seems to have lost their papers in the wind, creating an interesting design formed by both the papers and the trees leaves. The sky looks cold and grey, and all of the colours within the images are dull, however they work well together to create this type of ‘earthy’ tone. The overall atmosphere looks gloomy and cold. This photograph was based on ‘Travellers Caught in a Sudden breeze at Ejiri (1832)’, a woodprint created by Japanese painter and printmaker Katsushika Hokusai. ‘A Sudden Gust of Wind’ is a recreation of this 19th-century Japanese era, however it takes place in British Columbia- it took more than one year to create 100 photographs so as to “achieve a seamless montage that gives the illusion of capturing a real moment in time” (Wikipedia, 2017). To create collages of various individual negatives, Wall has used digital technology, blending them to look like a single photograph.
Although both art works are extremely similar, they may portray different meaning. Hokusai’s woodprint looks more traditional with the simple, natural landscape, whereas Wall’s interpretation contains a much more modern setting and environment due to the electricity posts and the models’ clothes.
Richard Prince is an American photographer and painter born in 1949. In 1977, Prince started to mimic the work of other photographers. According to the New York Times, he is viewed as “one of the most revered artists of his generation and a provocateur who sometimes rattles people by freely borrowing imagery from pop-culture sources” (Kennedy, 2017), and he decided that his work would be focused on pop culture. He then went on to re-photograph four photographs that were featured in the New York Times previously- Prince continued this re-photographing process into 1993. One of his most famous works is ‘Untitled (Cowboy)’ (1989) in which he re-photographed a photo taken previously by photographer Sam Abell.
The original image was for a cigarette advertisement, and to create this work piece, Prince simply cropped the original image to cut out all logos and text- he re-photographed many more of Marlboro’s advertisements featuring cowboys. This was to be sold for over $1 million at an auction in 2005, making prince a millionaire off of someone else’s work, however Abell did not gain any financial earnings from this. In an interview with ‘diyphotography.net’, Abell addressed this situation alongside the “art establishment’s attitude towards stolen art” very calmly (Samuels, L., 2015). He states that he is not angry or particularly amused, but Prince’s actions were legal, however he feels that “it’s obviously plagiarism” (Samuels, L., 2015). On the other hand, Prince feels differently. He states that “the pictures I went after, “stole”, were too good to be true”. He then goes on to say, “they were about wishful thinking, public pictures that happen to appear in the advertising sections of mass- market magazines, pictures not associated with an author…It was their look I was interested in”. He finishes off by stating that he “wanted to represent the closest thing to the real thing” (Guggenheim, n.d.).
The meaning of the image of a cowboy riding a horse in a western landscape varies depending on the context in which the image is placed- the cropped image hung in a gallery would have a completely different meaning and story to the image being placed in/on a cigarette advertisement/packet. The cowboy portrays masculinity, and could be a signal to the frontier culture and the “American dream”. It could also be argued that advertisements like these are glamorizing smoking because of the images the cigarettes are often associated with- giving off the image of masculinity through portraying strong, independent, adventurous men (cowboys). The fact that the subject is alone in an empty field, surrounded by nothing but fields and sky, and is riding the horse could portray a sense of freedom on the mind.
Both Jeff Wall and Richard Prince are similar in that they both copy or directly take another artists’ previous idea/image, however, whilst Wall mimics the exact scene, compositions and elements of Hokusai’s work, Prince literally takes the same image from the cigarette advertisement and simply crops it. They are different, however, as they both created their works in different ways, therefore giving them both different results- Wall took the effort to recreate an image, complete with models, location and a set, whilst Prince lazily cropped and enlarged a photograph, something any other ordinary person can do.
To reiterate, postmodernism in photography is both controversial and beneficial in that there is a question of originality, however at the same time it provides creators with the freedom to make whatever they please- even if it means copying someone else’s work. It is hard to place a strict definition on postmodernism as it varies and can be interpreted in so many new and different ways. It may be hard though for creators to continuously make new and unique art because of the lack of authenticity that sometimes exists within the art world.