“A” question about contemporary photography…!

I received an e-mail last night asking me a question and thought that actually the exchange  might make a good blog post…(hope you don’t mind, Chris!)

Hi Jesse,

I have just read your article on ‘How Contemporary is the Royal Photographic Society’. I have a question for you that is causing some debate on the RPS Contemporary Facebook group.

The RPS appears to believe that to be ‘contemporary’ a photograph has to be part of a ‘body of work’. I am but an amateur, but have searched the web and seem to be unable to find this definition anywhere except from the RPS and in particular ‘Brian Steptoe’s’ article and definition.

I am trying to understand what ‘contemporary photography’ is and if a photograph needs to be part of ‘body of work’ to be defined as contemporary photography. As far as I can see this is not the case.

The importance to me of this question is to understand what contemporary photography is. If it is not a ‘body of work’ which is defined as in taking an ‘A’ panel or fellowship then I believe that the RPS needs to make it clear that it is their definition not a true one. Not that this is a problem, but I don’t like it, if I, nor others are being hoodwinked into a definition that is incorrect.

If you have the time I would appreciate hearing your view on the matter.

Best regards

Chris M Grew, Wiltshire

And my reply. Sorry if it’s a bit verbose…

Hi Chris,

Thank you for your e-mail which I have been giving some thought to over the past 24 hours.
I am pleased that the article I put together in 2009 is causing some discussion.
I teach photography quite a bit, and the question of creating photographs that form part of a ‘body of work’ is important for several reasons. On an aesthetic level, it is important to be able to visualize and put together a coherent set of images, so that they might ‘sit’ together comfortably in whatever context a student might want to make them for, e.g. a contemporary art space like a public gallery, or a set of images for a commercial project like a hotel brochure or whatever. Doing this effectively shows that students understand the visual language of photography and how it can form narratives and communicate meaning. Understanding how two images ‘work’ together too is important.
Generally speaking, when my students are working on projects, there are issues that orbit around the subjects they are exploring. A set of photographs, rather than just one, which might make some kind of ‘statement’ might be useful to a certain extent (e.g. Peter Kennard’s reworking of Constable’s ‘Haywain’) but generally speaking, one can say more, or address the multiple facets of the issues around the subject with an expanded set of photographs.
Lastly (these are not definitive reasons, but just what I can think of at present and have the time to address!), if a student shows me a set of photographs (4, 6, 10…whatever) that all clearly address the ideas that the student might have verbalised to me, then I’m going to be pretty convinced that their skills are developing in the right direction.
Now, obviously I am talking about the context of education, which has digressed a little from your original questions. But I think these are the reasons why the RPS Contemporary Group panel might feel the way they do, when it comes to assessing submissions, which is effectively the position I am often in as an assessor within Higher Education. I must stress that I have nothing to do with the RPS and can’t speak on anyones behalf. But as I understand it, RPS distinctions at higher levels are awarded for bodies of work, rather than ‘portfolio’ type submissions, which are by definition the opposite of a single body of work. Correct me if I’m wrong, but Simon Roberts for instance was awarded Fellowship status for his work We English.
Sets of images are common feature of contemporary photography: most practitioners work around certain themes or have specialist interests of a sort and their projects are exhibited in galleries and exhibitions. Go to any ‘contemporary’ SOLO exhibition and the work will be subdivided into different sets, projects or even just arranged chronologically. But there are plenty of exceptions to this. But usually – take Kennard’s ‘Haywain with Cruise Missiles‘ for example – the piece will be identifiable with an individual practitioner and it will be part of their ‘oeuvre’.
So my straight answer is: ‘no’ – a photograph does not need to be part of a set to be considered ‘contemporary’, but in most instances, it will be, and I can see how the RPS Contemporary Group encourages its members to work in such a way, and I support this approach.
‘Contemporary Photography’ also stands up to ‘Pictorial Photography’, which is really about vision on a much simpler level. In my article I quote Paul Hill describing the tradition in pictorialism, for ..’easel art’, which implies two things: firstly, that the thing might need to be appealing to look at (which much contemporary photography – in itself – is not) and secondly; that the thing is meant to stand alone, without the company of other photographs.
In terms of my own definition, contemporary photography is about using the medium to explore themes, ideas and things, and not just about making photographs that are aesthetically progressive. Also, the actual photographs can be subordinate to the ideas around the work. If for instance, if I go to a gallery and the work on display makes me really think and talk about the subject matter it’s representing, rather than how the photographer is making the work, then I think it’s doing its job properly. This kind of brings me back to my original comment to you: I am not just pleased that someone is bothering to read my article, but the fact that you are showing willing to debate the nature of photography is evidently ‘contemporary’ in itself. Long may this continue…
All the best,
For an interesting essay on collections of photographs, read David Campany’s essay ‘Almost the same thing: some thoughts on the collector-photographer’ the catalogue for the Tate’s exhibition: Cruel and tender: the real in the twentieth-century photograph (2003) Edited by  Dexter, Emma andWeski, Thomas, (eds.) London: Tate Publishing