The King’s New Suit of Clothes

From Modernism to Post-Modernism

By Tom Millea Back to

Thirty years ago the very nature of photography changed. A completely new paradigm emerged and was installed in less than a decade. The change was radical and complete. The photographic community abandoned everything I knew as photographic art and substituted another new set of beliefs. In one fell swoop, Modernism was out and Post-Modernism was in.

By the middle sixties, photography, for the first time, had become profitable. With money available, new galleries opened. I was living in New York City when Lee Witkin opened the Witkin Gallery, and it was an instant success. There was so much material available it was just flying off the walls to a group of collectors looking for anything new that might turn a profit. New collectors wanted work no one else had, which was selling at prices more reasonable than the cost of paintings.

Photographers began to make money from their work. More galleries opened. Photography was now seen as an art form and a new wave of critics writing for major newspapers gave it their imprimatur. Schools and universities offered courses and even degrees, often opening whole new departments devoted to the art of photography. The great photographers were able to find jobs teaching, often starting departments in major universities. In a few short years what we know today as photographic education and photo collecting was firmly in place. The pace was mind-bending. Vintage photography became more difficult to find and more costly. By the middle seventies, galleries were looking for new work and universities were graduating class after class of degreed photographers.

Galleries latched onto these young stallions, promoted their work and raved about them as the new masters. These young graduates began to teach. New organizations sprang up, like the Society for Photographic Education, where thousands of young teachers would come to conferences to network, share work, search out galleries, and look for teaching jobs.

At first it was the masters of photography, men and women who had a lifetime of experience to share with students, who were teaching. By the middle eighties, it was people in their twenties and early thirties teaching 18 year-olds what they had learned from the masters. The teaching went from direct experience to intellectual understandings of people who had little life experience and even less experience in the art of photography. This had a profound effect on what was taught and the work being made.

Modernism did not sit well with these people, because at 23 or 26, most people do not have enough life experience to understand, in depth, the work people like Stieglitz or Weston produced. Minor White once said it takes 10 years just to learn the craft of photography. Universities were graduating people after four or five years. The level of craft quickly went downhill. The philosophy of photography followed suit.

It was the sixties and early seventies. Young people were in the streets protesting the war and social injustice. Causes became the lifeblood of the period. Modernism, which espoused the internal growth of an individual, no longer fit with the times. In order to be taken seriously, the artist had also to be socially relevant. Modernism was out and Post-Modernism was in.

I learned a work of art had meaning. It had intrinsic value. I was taught that the viewer ap- proached the art and listened in silence to what it had to say. That may take a minute or a lifetime, but a great work always had something to say if only we were silent and had the ears to hear it. Great art not only told a story, it reached us on an emotional and non-rational level. Connection was made in the space between the object and the viewer.

Post-Modernism turned that around. Art no longer had internal meaning. Meaning was whatever the viewer brought to it. I would stand in a gallery and watch people make up stories as they looked at the image. There was no longer the idea that the image might have its own meaning and be able to tell its own story.

Photography became an art form dedicated to social and political change. The written or spoken word was now an integral part of the image. It was impossible to understand a photograph without another person explaining it to the viewer. This came from universities where the intellect was more important than the non-rational. Images have become intellectually facile rather than internally profound. Irony has replaced profundity in the making of a photograph.

After all this, what is Fine Art photography? What is craft and what is its proper place? I never hear these questions asked any longer. People pick up a camera and think they know all there is to know. Ignorance is seen as a grace and questioning the meaning in art is looked upon as an aberration.

I realize I am of an older generation. I also realize that each new generation must rediscover the visual world for themselves. Change is necessary; but not all change is useful. I have gone back and searched other people’s ideas that might help me understand more clearly how I feel about my own work. In this search I came across a definition by the philosopher Hegel. He defined fine art as “the rational impulse man feels to raise his inner world and that of nature to spiritual consciousness, to make of it an object in which he recognizes himself.”

Yes, I said to myself, this is what art means to me. I have spent my life living and working toward this goal. As I looked around in this new Post- Modernist world, I realized Hegel’s definition had been changed at its core. To this new generation, Modernism, which espoused Hegel’s definition, was rejected and Post-Modernism took its place. Post- Modernism dropped the word “spiritual” and replaced it with “social and political.” Relevance has replaced aesthetics. The common denominator and political correctness have replaced aspirations of the spirit.

Today, in order to be considered relevant, an artist must also be socially and politically relevant. External causes have replaced internal growth. Anything of the spirit is suspect now, even the word itself. To my mind, it is much easier to change or espouse change for someone or something else, rather than to examine or change oneself. Internal change is difficult and takes time, a lifetime in fact.

Changing something outside myself is much faster and does not require the artist to look into a mirror. This makes a great deal of sense when the artist has just graduated from the university at twenty something and is looking to make a reputation.

The second question I asked was what role does technique play in my work? Etienne Gilson came up with the best definition I have seen. He said craft is “…the particular manner of imparting to a particular material the particular type of form that is proper to it.” I want to hang this statement on my wall! What a marvelous concept, succinct and beautifully stated!

Both my platinum and digital images are printed on matte paper. They must be printed on matte paper in order to impart the specific visceral response I desire from the print. I know if I see it reproduced on glossy paper, it is no longer my image, as it no longer carries my intent; it no longer speaks as I intended. Technique is not arbitrary. The smallest change in technique is going to change the nature of the image and its meaning.

Universities and people teaching workshops have divided themselves into separate camps. One side teaches concepts where students are encouraged to throw anything at a piece of paper to see what sticks, or the work is so conceptualized it takes an essay of novel length to explain what one is looking at. The other camp insists the student learn technique. Every camera, lens, film, paper, chemical, and lighting technique is explored to the exclusion of the image. It seems in this camp the image itself is an afterthought.

Universities have graduated many wonderful writers and curators of photography. They have turned photographic art into the printed word and produced people who think about images, rather than great artists who make the images.

Photography is the last discipline to adopt new ideas. Architecture and painting understand that Modernism is not dead and has much more to offer the working artist. They have taken the best of Post- Modernism and Modernism and merged the two to come out with a stronger way of seeing the world for this 21st Century. I hope photography follows suit.

About the Author

Tom Millea