Charlotte Cotton: The Photograph as Contemporary Art

[T]his book is intended to provide an introduction to and overview of the field of photography as contemporary art, with the aim of defining it as a subject and identifying its characteristic features and themes.
(2016 p.7)

Key points

Cotton divides contemporary art photography into eight categories or themes, which she has chosen “to avoid giving the impression that it is either style or choice of subject matter that predominantly determines the salient characteristics…” but instead “are more concerned with grouping photographers who share common ground in their motivations and working practices”.

Cotton’s eight categories are:
If This Is Art: photographers who have “devised strategies, performances and happenings specially for the camera”. Practitioners whose work is considered in this  section include Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Alfred Stieglitz, Sophie Calle, Zhang Huan, Rong Rong, Joseph Beuys, Oleg Kulik, Melanie Manchot, Jeanne Dunning, Erin Wurm, Tatsumi Orimoto, Gillian Wearing, Bettina von Zwehl, Shizuka Yokomizo, Hellen van Meene, Ni Haifeng, Kenneth Lum, Roy Villevoye, Nina Katchadourian, Wim Delvoye, David Shrigley, Sarah Lucas, Annika von Hausswolff, Mona Hatoum, Georges Rousse, David Spero, Tim Davis, Olga Chernysheva, Rachel Harrison, Roni Horn.

Lucas Blalock, Portrait Study (Nina) (2009)

Once Upon a Time: photographers who use tableau to tell a story. These include Jeff Wall, Philip-Lorca diCorcia (again), Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler, Sam Taylor-Wood, Tom Hunter, Yinka Shonibare, Sarah Dobai, Liza May Post, Sharon Lockhart, Frances Kearney, Hannah Starkey, Justine Kurland, Sarah Jones, Sergey Bratkov, Wendy McMurdo, Deborah Mesa-Pelly, Anna Gaskell, Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, Mariko Mori, Gregory Crewdson, Charlie White, Izima Kaoru, Christopher Stewart, Katharina Bosse, Miriam Bäckström, Miles Coolidge, Thomas Demand, Anne Hardy, James Casebere, Rut Blees Luxemburg, Desiree Dolron, Hannah Collins.

Deadpan: photographers capturing subjects without visual drama. These include Celine van Balen, Andreas Gursky, Walter Niedermayr, Bridget Smith, Ed Burtynsky, Takashi Homma, Lewis Baltz, Matthias Hoch, Jacqueline Hassink, Candida Höfer, Naoya Hatekeyama, Axel Hütte, Dan Holdsworth, Richard Misrach, Thomas Struth, John Riddy, Gabriele Basilico, Simone Nieweg, Yoshiko Seino, Gerhard Stromberg, Jem Southam, Boo Moon, Clare Richardson, Lukas Jasansky and Martin Polak, Thomas Ruff, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Joel Sternfeld, Jitka Hanzlovà, Mette Tronvoll, Albrecht Tübke, Rineke Dijkstra.

Something and Nothing: photographers who make their subjects “objects and spaces that we might ordinarily ignore or pass by”. Cotton includes Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Gabriel Orozco, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Richard Wentworth, Jason Evans, Nigel Shafran, Jennifer Bolande, Jean-Marc Bustamante, Wim Wenders, Anthony Hernandez, Tracey Baran, Peter Fraser, Manfred Willmann, Roe Ethridge, Wolfgang Tillmans, James Welling, Jeff Wall (again), Laura Letinsky, Uta Barth, Sabine Hornig.

Intimate Life: photographers who concentrate on “emotional and personal relationships as a collective diary of human intimacy”. Included here are Nan Goldin, Nobuyoshi Araki, Larry Clark, Juergen Teller, Corinne Day, Wolfgang Tillmans (again), Jack Pierson, Richard Billingham, Nick Waplington, Anna Fox, Ryan McGinley, Hiromix, Yang Yong, Alessandra Sanguinetti, Annelies Strba, Elinor Carucci, Ruth Erdt, Tina Barney, Larry Sultan, Mitch Epstein, Colin Gray, Elina Brotherus, Breda Beban.

Moments in History: photographers who “use the documentary capacity of photography in art”. Photographers in this category include Sophie Ristelhueber, Willie Doherty, Zarina Bhimji, Anthony Haughey, Ori Gersht, Paul Seawright, Simon Norfolk, Fazal Sheikh, Chan Chao, Zwelethu Mthethwa, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, Deirdre O’Callaghan, Trine Søndergaard, Dinu Li, Margareta Klingberg, Allan Sekula, Paul Graham, Martin Parr, Luc Delahaye, Ziyah Gafic, Andrea Robbins and Max Becher, Shirana Shahbazi, Esko Mannikko, Roger Ballen, Boris Mikhailov.

Revived and Remade: photographers who rework and/or remake pre-existing imagery. Included here are Vik Muniz, Cindy Sherman, Yasumasa Morimura, Nikki S Lee, Trish Morrissey, Gillian Wearing (again), Jemima Stehli, Zoe Leonard and Cheryl Dunye, Collier Schorr, The Atlas Group/Walid Ra’ad, Joan Fontcuberta, Aleksandra Mir, Tracey Moffatt, Cornelia Parker, Vera Lutter, Susan Derges, Adam Fuss, John Divola, Richard Prince, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Nadir Nadirov in collaboration with Susan Meiselas, Tacita Dean, Joachim Schmid, Thomas Ruff (again), Susan Lipper, Markéta Othová, Torbjørn Rødland, Katy Grannan, Vibeke Tandberg.

Physical and Material: photographers for whom “the very nature of the medium is part of the narrative of the work”. Included here are Florian Maier-Aichen, James Welling, Sherrie Levine, Christopher Williams, Sara VanDerBeek, Lyle Ashton Harris, Isa Genzken, Michael Queenland, Arthur Ou, Walead Beshty, Zoe Leonard (again), An-My Lê, Anne Collier, Liz Deschenes, Eileen Quinlan, Jessica Eaton, Carter Mull, Shannon Ebner, Sharon Ya’ari, Jason Evans (again), Tim Barber, Viviane Sassen, Rinko Kawauchi, Lucas Blalock, Kate Steciw, Artie Vierkant, Anne de Vries.


I found this book extremely informative and it is one I will return to repeatedly. It has enabled me for the first time to understand the scope and nature of the terrain of art photography. It also provides an invaluable framework and context for appreciating the work of individual photographers. While reading the text I was constantly amazed both by Cotton’s razor-sharp ability to get right to the heart of what a photographer is expressing in their work and also her ability to verbalise it for the reader.

Her wide-ranging survey of photographers forms a valuable resource in itself, and the reason I have listed them above is so that I have a handy reference to this information in future. I was surprised to see the large proportion of women included in the survey, and took considerable encouragement from this fact.

My only criticism of the book is that I struggled to really see detail in many of the images, even with a magnifying glass – but I do understand that larger print sizes and better quality reproductions would have made the book not just unaffordable but the wrong size for the distributors in its target market.

References and resources

Cotton, C. (2016) The Photograph as Contemporary Art (3rd ed.). United Kingdom: Thames & Hudson