Stefan Shillington
Stefan Shillington

It is tempting to say that too much has already been written about Modernism & Post-modernism, and that much of the writing has just caused the confusion. What follows is an attempt to pull out the essentials of these two fields of art without adding to the confusion

From its invention photography was seen as a way both to record the world and to produce art. Its great asset was its "realism", and from the start photographers were intent on achieving a good likeness of what was in front of the camera, or in the mind's eye. Towards the end of the nineteenth century however the desire to have photography recognised as an art form led to attempts to ape existing art forms, in particular painting. This pictorialism resulted in effects such as soft focus becoming very popular. By around 1920 however the desire to see photography as an art in its own right resulted in pictorialism returning to realism and objectivity, and to the rise of Modernism.

Modernism is a product of the Enlightenment, which had its origins, c1700, in the search through reason for knowledge and truth. As applied to photography it sought technical perfection in the quest for truth. Realism without technical manipulation was its goal. Creative achievement was to be found in the choice of motifs and photographic depiction, using only viewpoint, focal length and exposure, or if you prefer, framing, perspective and exposure. Nowadays such strictures are not so rigidly imposed. Manipulation is accepted if it helps to show what the author saw in his mind's eye.

Postmodernism arose (it is said in 1968) as a reaction to the perfection of modernism, to the sterility of the flawless representation of the found object. Henceforth the image would be fabricated by any method, with any degree of manipulation being acceptable. Creative achievement would be measured by the degree to which objectivity and realism were undermined. Technical finesse would not be allowed in relation to the quality of the work, except where technical quality was part of the message. Post-modernism is in fact anti-modernism. Modernism was seen to have failed; therefore everything had to go - nihilism. It happened in popular music too - the apparent perfection of Prog Rock was ousted by Punk.

A metaphor: John Szarkowski, arguably the greatest authority on photography of the twentieth century, captured the essence of the distinction when he spoke of "windows" and "mirrors". With Modernism we are invited to see what the artist sees, to look through the window at what is there. In Post-modernism we are invited to speculate about what is in front of us, to look in the mirror and apply our own experience to what we see. The modernist photograph is complete in itself; the post-modernist is not complete till it is viewed.

This simple picture of a wave is Modern, what you see is what you get.

In this Post-modern version, with its increased foreground, the viewer is invited to join the photographer standing in the water, and speculate about the risk of getting very wet.

This picture of a window seat suggests no more than that it would be a pleasant place to sit. It is Modern.

This view of the same window seat invites questions. Who is she? It is a 'she' isn't it? What is the document on the table? Is it relevant? Why is she not sitting in the other seat? We may conclude that she is waiting for someone, it may be a business meeting, but maybe it's a tryst, or both!? We have now imbued the image with our own meaning which it didn't have till we viewed it. It is definitely Post-modern.

This is a very plain and apparently uninteresting piece of sea. As it stands it is undeniably Modern.

Now we learn its title 'Graveyard, Western Approaches' It is no longer the plain piece of sea it was a moment ago. We are invited to consider that many people have died here over the centuries, maybe even people known to us. We will each think of this in our own way, depending on our life's experiences. It is Post-modern

© Stefan Shillington

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