Last summer, Aperture, the critically acclaimed non-profit photography institution, exhibited an intrepid selection of work from fifty contemporary photographers in their annual “Summer Open” series – an open submission exhibition which permits all current image makers to apply. The exhibition, entitled “Photography Is Magic”, was organized by the seminal independent curator and writer Charlotte Cotton, whose book of the same name had just been published by Aperture. Foremost intended as a critical survey of artists who are engaged with experimental medium-specific processes, set within a contemporary image environment, and as Cotton described “framed by Web 2.0”, both the exhibition and Cotton’s book have, in the last year, summarily been recognized as having astutely defined salient trends in contemporary photography.
These defining features and current trends are concisely identified by Cotton in her statement for the “Photography Is Magic” exhibition. She writes, of the artists:
“…they share a fascination with and substantial knowledge of the historical roots and the contemporary state of photography. These artists actively play with the medium’s heritage—re-animating and re-contextualizing its alchemical properties—to render ideas about its contemporary material value. They are astutely aware of the viewers’ perceptions and trains of thought, grounded in our shared context of an ever-expanding image world. They invite us to pay attention to the thriving possibility of photography as an experimental platform, rich with materiality and visual sleight of hand.”
These factors of new contemporary photography are quite prescient; Cotton’s curatorial vision and coalescence of the particular thematics, aesthetic inclinations, and the medium specific production processes defining emerging photographs are still decidedly new and are are only now garnering a palpable standing in the global market.
Most readily recognized in the work of artists Lucas Blalock, John Lehr, Delaney Allen, John Houck, Jessica Labatte, and Anastasia Samoylova, most of whom were included in “Photography Is Magic”, the experimental nature of their photographic practices are definitive of this burgeoning movement in photographic history. But what is it, in a name?
In Leonard Shlain’s magnificent text “Art & Physics”, art is described as the initial stage in abstract thinking and social advancement, but as an augury eventually supplanted by language. Art, Shlain writes, is evocative for imagined states and modes of being-in-the-world – this is the “magic” ascribed by Cotton – but it is language which proffers applied meaning and conceptual fecundity.
To maintain applicable meaning, market based tenacity, these new trends in photography necessitate words. Although there is no definitive term to describe contemporary photography (that will be for art historians to ascribe), these new trends often parade on the market under a variety of phrases, but most commonly are exhibited under ambiguously specific names such as: “contemporary conceptualism”, “manipulated photography”, “post-internet art”, “digital culture”, “photograph-as-material”, and “sculpture based photography”. An effective list of phrases to be keen on in terms of collecting, these art-jargon sentiments confirm forthright that perhaps contemporary artists are doing precisely what they have always done; providing visual clues for language that does not yet exist.