Postmodernist Photography
Essays Culture Art

Postmodernist Photography

Gabriele Sartoris

Douglas Crimp and the 1977 Pictures Exhibition

“Photography may have been invented in 1839, but it was only discovered in the 1970s,” states the late Douglas Crimp in his essay collection On the Museum’s Ruins, published in 1993. The essays represent a postmodern reflection on contemporary curatorial trends combined with critical analyses of some of the practices of artists with whom he collaborated while curating the 1977 Pictures exhibition.

Crimp’s choice to put photography at the center of postmodern artistic production is best understood in the context of the art world of 1960s–’70s New York where art institutions mainly privileged minimalist sculpture and performance. Joshua Shannon’s The Disappearance of Objects explains this privileged position arose from a loss of urban texture and materiality due to metropolitan landscape developments. Shannon writes; “the many changes in New York City in the period—including urban renewal, the ascendancy of the commodity-sign, deindustrialisation, and computerisation—amounted together to an abstraction of the city.” Consequently, artists relied on sculpture to embody the abstraction of this phenomenon and underscore the impressive changes in consistency and character of the readymade manufacturing objects that had once brought the city rapid economic growth. Meanwhile, Crimp also comments that art institutions favored performance, a medium that indulged in the interaction between spectator and the temporality of the event where physical presence is key for both performer and viewer, confined by site specificity. Whether in ephemerality or rough materiality, both trends sought to capture the fleeting moment lodged in a specific setting.

Art institutions were reluctant to embrace photography as an art form—in large part due to an attachment to the Modernist notion of authenticity. This notion was best defined in Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” where the term “aura” describes the transcendental aspect of an artwork that, if deserving of this title, radiates its cultural and historical legacy. “Aura” connotes not only the artist’s crafting abilities but also the staggering time-space experience of being in the presence of a uniquely superior piece, passed through generations—a blend of elements Benjamin thinks cannot be mechanically reproduced. Benjamin, an associate of the Frankfurt School, invokes some themes that postmodernist thought generally problematizes: authenticity, cohesion, and originality. The Frankfurt School directly influenced postmodern theory, and so it is relevant that Benjamin framed photography’s potential for illustration and reproducibility as totalitarian ideologies were rising in Europe during the 1930s. For this reason, we are constantly reminded of the exploitative nature of mass-media, which, ultimately, the Frankfurt School conceives of as an attempt to sedate the proletariat, whose revolutionary potential will atrophy until it no longer poses a threat to the ruling order.

Camille Paglia offers a less condescending take on popular media, as a great manifested commentary on contemporary life deserving of attention and appreciation. Paglia has often remarked that Andy Warhol’s emergence in the 1960s terminated the European avant-garde tradition of rebellion against bourgeois culture by appropriating the commercial motifs of our daily life. Pop Art’s celebration of celebrity culture, mass produced objects, and popular media combined with the glittering photo’s promise of timeless allure appears as, by the 1960s, photography had completely saturated the visual environment with journalism, advertising, the sciences, and archaeology reports. Photography appeared to escape the traditional definition of art, or at least it was elevated to all aspects of life and culture but the museum. Artists found themselves at a crossroad: to indulge the ossified expectations of respectable and established art institutions or to risk being dismissed as frivolous by engaging with the medium that most captured the sizzling life outside museum walls. Inevitably, as Liz Wells notes in Photography, by the 1970s the emphasis on the conceptual art forms combined with postmodern discourse regenerated the gallery with photography specifically and more varied artistic practices generally.

The Pictures exhibition opened at a non-profit gallery called Artists Space on September 24 1977 in Manhattan and was curated by Douglas Crimp. The project’s title played on the ambiguity of the word “pictures,” which can refer to different mediums of artistic expression such as painting, photography, print and film. Besides, as the curator stated, in verb form, “to picture” can indicate either a mental process or a physical production. It is a vague description or action that does not specify medium or æsthetic style. In true postmodernist fashion, it seeks to represent something outside rigid artistic antinomies. The five emerging artists featured in the project—Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo, and Philip Smith—used a variety of mediums including film, video, and photographs combined with more traditional art forms such as drawing, painting, and sculpture. In common, these artists worked with the idea of representation and the notion of copy.

As Benjamin remarked, reproductive technologies question if not entirely erase the concept of originality. Postmodernist thought goes even further by suggesting that an original might have never existed at all. What we as spectators are left with is the experience of one single picture at one exact time. The Pictures artists aimed to address the Modernist claim of photography’s originality by purposely revealing its fictional and constructed nature. Postmodernism is by definition skeptical of absolutist claims. Therefore, originals of the photographed props cannot be relocated, and all images appear to have been manipulated by the artists prior to their showcase. Postmodernist ideas additionally coalesce around the view that humans inhabit a world of dislocated signs, in which the appearance of things is separated from their authentic source and possibly reallocated to a different one. Frankfurt School’s influence in critical discourses has guaranteed that the mass trade of images is perceived as having changed our relationships to their originals, seen as obsolete and reduced to nothing more than the birthplace of mere representation. The Pictures artists represent a postmodernist motif that has little concern with the notion of “aura” or authenticity. Anything, from history to human experience can be reconstructed and, according to this view, exploited.

Jack Goldstein’s The Pull is one of the artist’s only works of photography to have been featured in the exhibition. Three images depict separately in a sequence: a diver, a falling man, and an astronaut on a monochromatic background with colors that subtly range from pale blue, grey and aqua. The figures appear tiny when compared to the amount of matter in which they are reproduced in the act of floating or falling. The vastness of the field in which they are located compared to their size might evoke sensations similar to the sublime, the Romantic notion of contemplation upon witnessing a natural scene that simultaneously overwhelms and excites us. Yet, these scenes are experienced from a safe distance and, therefore, as spectators, the primordial experience of fear is neutralised. According to Crimp’s original exhibition catalogue, these pictures are the physical representations of mental images that individuals have come to internalise as second-hand experiences. The incident of falling from the sky, for instance, has been rendered only through popular media in newspapers and television; it is not directly something that most of us are familiar with. The Pull is therefore a poignant example of an experience that has been mediated through pictures found in our daily interaction with popular media.

In Golden Distance, artist Troy Brauntuch confronts the viewer with a pair of prints each reproducing a black and white picture of the back of a woman’s head. In the image on the right, a golden circle contains the figure with a caption in an elegant font that reads; “Whispers around a woman”. Douglas Eklund in The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984, explains the work by comparing it to advertisement techniques. For Eklund, the withdrawal from signification triggers both frustration and desire. If a caption is usually placed to describe or give instructions, Brauntuch purposely amplifies the aporetic quality of an already-enigmatic image with obscure text. Techniques such as colored highlighting and superimposed text, found in advertisement, are subverted while exercising the same magnetic pull of well-designed ads. The critic sees the images as distant in their significance, and the absence of explicit meaning combined with the anonymity of the faceless woman become the object of the viewer’s ultimate desire.

1 2 3, also a work by Brauntuch, is composed of three photographic silkscreen prints that reproduce enlarged sketches of a stage set, a vestibule, and a tank, printed on a deep blood-red background. The spatial convention of the drawings, placed at various locations, is distended , suggesting an invisible progression of the scene with the removal of primal details. We come to learn only through the exhibition’s catalogue that the artwork contains reproduced sketches originally by Adolf Hitler. Crimp argues that this information changes the entire perception of the images. It connotes in a way that the drawings cannot, as they do not directly reflect Hitler’s world-historical atrocities. Eklund goes even further and reports that Brauntuch was fascinated by the seductiveness and monumentality of authoritarian aesthetics. He found the sketches as printed images in history books, which he appropriated by resizing and reprinting them, resulting in an annihilating and incomplete effect. Eklund suggests, describing the process of appropriating the images, that by endless reproduction meaning is lost. Since they do not directly disclose any information about the psychology of their creator (as they are only pictures), our understanding of their purpose must be imported. An image by itself can only serve its purpose if it is inscribed within a structured context.

Sons and Lovers, by Sherrie Levine, is a series of thirty-six silhouettes created out of fluorescent tempera on graph paper that depict profiles of men, women, children, and dogs. The profiles are inspired by the 1950s soap operas that mesmerised American spectators. The title also evokes the family dynamics which make up the plots of many daytime shows. As Eklund notes, Levine does not offer a logical and coherent sequence of her compositions. We learn through Crimp’s commentary that out of five different characters the only recognisable individuals are the silhouettes of three American presidents: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and John F. Kennedy, that resemble the profiles printed on coins. Each piece combines two of these silhouettes facing each other; the only variation is the scale of the heads and their blend. As mentioned, Levine draws inspiration from the melodrama; the repetitive sequences of the same characters might critique the archetypal plots and clichés they portray. Moreover, the recognizability of some of the characters and the inaccessibility of others suggest that the artist aims to insinuate a storyline that is not there in the first place. A gap is created between what we see and what our imagination is accustomed to receive from TV screens. Levine invites the viewer to compensate for this lack of information. Significance-creation is not excluded by a picture’s lack of immediate meaning. On the contrary, it can stimulate the invention of new tales as our imagination gropes for meaning in the correlation between one signifier or another. Thus we invent a narrative.

Not included in the Pictures exhibition, Cindy Sherman is nevertheless among the best-known artists of the Pictures generation and a crucial confidant (and friend) to Crimp as he wrote his essay “The photographic activity of Postmodernism” published in 1980. The paper discusses Sherman’s 1979 work, Untitled Film Still, a series of seventy black and white portraits, as a summary of postmodern concerns. The artist reenacts unnamed characters that all appear to have been disturbed, interrupted, or captured in the act, frozen in a still of a film that does not exist. Sherman’s work achieves the postmodern by highlighting the disparity between a medium that claims to capture the real and the purposeful fabrication driving the artist’s actions. Sherman likewise blurs the lines between personas in popular films and her modelling presence. Whether her models are dressed in 1950s housewife clothes or as a film noire femme fatale, the utter lack of temporality forces the viewer’s to interrogate the scene and provide a missing narrative. As Crimp writes:

“The strategy of this mode is to use the apparent veracity of photography against itself, creating one’s fictions through appearance of a seamless reality into which has been woven a narrative dimension. Cindy Sherman’s photographs function within this mode, but only in order to export an unwanted dimension of that fiction, for the fiction Sherman discloses is the fiction of the self.”

Unlike some of the previously discussed artists, Sherman chooses not to appropriate already existing physical images but ethereal or archetypal ones that are staged for us. Photographs in the postmodern sense do not function as a transcription of the real but as a representation that achieves significance in relation to other representations, themselves with no precise source. It comments on reality by decoding reality’s construction, not by corresponding to it.


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Crimp, D., 1997. On the Museum’s Ruins 3rd ed. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Crimp, D., 1979. “Pictures.” October, vol. 8, pp. 75–88. JSTOR, JSTOR, Available at: [Accessed 8 October 2020].

Crimp, D., 1980. “The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism.” October, 15, 91-101. doi:10.2307/778455 [Accessed 9 October 2020].

Crimp, D., 1978. About Pictures. Picture as representation as such, [Online]. Flash Art n°88-89,. Available at: [Accessed 8 October 2020].

Crimp, D., 1977. Pictures September 24 – October 29, 1977. Exhibition Catalogue, [Online]. Committee for the Visual Arts, New York. Available at: [Accessed 10 October 2020].

Eklund, D., 2009. The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

MoMa, 2012. Douglas Crimp On Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still #60, 1980. [video] Available at: [Accessed 14 October 2020].

Paglia, C., 1992. Sex, Art, and American Culture, London, Penguin Books

Shannon, J., 2009. The Disappearance of Objects: New York Art and the Rise of the Postmodern City. Yale University Press.

Wells, L., 2015. Photography [electronic resource] : A Critical Introduction. 5th ed. [ebook] Florence, Taylor and Francis. Available at: [Accessed 10 October 2020].

Featured image: The Pull photo (1976) by Jack Goldstein via The Met Museum.

Gabriele Sartoris is a writer originally from Switzerland now living in London, UK. You can find Gabriele on Twitter.