Modernism, as an artistic movement and concept, has had such a profound impact on the way the world relates to art. From painting to architecture, I’d argue that no artistic movement remains as prevalent, and so entrenched in our daily lives, as does Modernism. Pollock, de Kooning and Rothko, to name a few, are incredibly influential and known Modernist painters. In sculpture, Modernism gave us Duchamp, Picasso and Giacometti.
What about Modernist photography? Well, I personally love Paul Strand and Edward Steichen. They fall into the school of Modernist photography, right? Here in lies one of the problems that photography has always faced. Assuming it’s an art (and I do by the way), what periods and movements does it follow? I need art to be classified into a period, a movement, a school, whatever. If it isn’t it starts to get messy. I start classifying photography by its choice of subject matter: landscape, portrait, or wedding.
These are the issues taken up by Edward Steichen, and a host of great photographers, at a small MoMA symposium in late 1950. What is Modern Photography? I recently came across this recording while researching an essay on Modern art, and it is truly amazing. It isn’t a groundbreaking commentary on photography as art, it doesn’t define Modern photography, but it offers an audible glimpse into a world that we generally only read about.
Some of the panelists contend that there is no such thing as Modern photography and others dodge the question entirely by focusing on other genres, such as documentary. What this 80 minute recording reveals, is that there really is no consensus on what the hell photography was, is or what it is going to be. The fact that there was such a lack of agreement is interesting. For one, Edward Steichen led the panel, the MoMA’s curator of photography and renowned Modernist. Secondly, the panel consisted of photographers that we consider to be champions of Modernism. So while this recording leaves the listener with more questions than answers, I think it is invaluable regardless.
Photography has always struggled to be accepted as fine art and maybe it will continue to. I think this recording illustrates that more than it touches on concepts of Modern photography. Maybe it is an advantage that photography doesn’t fall into a category neatly the way some art does. I don’t necessarily think of categories as a bad thing, by the way, but they can certainly be used that way. But, here is photography defying the norm, then as it does now. What is more exciting than being an artist working in a medium that can’t be classified?