Contemporary awareness 2

I want to start with a few of my own before looking at the artists selected by the OCA.

There seems to be a lot of contemporary work that exists in the fluid state between fact and fiction. Photographers such as Cristina de Middel (b 1975, Alicante) talk about the ‘interpretative prism’ and showing reality through metaphor and construction. [1]  Roger Ballen (b 1950, NYC), to me one of the most interesting photographers working today, takes this to an extreme. Whilst very much a formalist, he collaborates with his subjects and overlays his own psychological ideas to transform reality.  Frank Machalowski (b 1971 in Berlin) also melds fiction and reality in his series Tierwald. In Monsters he creates eerie images from long exposures of crowds which become dehumanised.

 The list of fascinating fine art photographers is long and intriguing – in an extremely time-consuming way – so I must be disciplined here and only mention a few.

Matthew Dols (b 1973, Baltimore) is a fashion and fine art photographer based in Dubai. He recently received his RPS distinctions for his project Sentimentalist: “I wanted to make photographs that transcend the societal focus on physical beauty and engage with the nature of who a person is at their essence. What they represent and who they are. Not just what they look like.”  These works are delicate but powerful and a little sinister at times which I love. Gorgeous evanescence and matt water colour textures.


Richard Learoyd (b 1966, Nelson, Lancashire) uses a giant camera obscura to create stunning portraits and still lifes. They are hyperreal but with a painterly feel – the models are even chosen for having a timeless look about them. As there is no negative, every image is unique and sells for around £80k. Sean O’Hagan says: “Learoyd’s technical ability is matched by a more intangible gift which gives his images a sense of stillness and quietude that is rare. For me, Learoyd’s images evoke the hinterland between waking and dreaming, between the tangible and the oddly, unnervingly unreal. They hover there, reminding us of the sense of wonder photography carried in its early days: that alchemical power to captivate and transform.” [2]

Antoine d’Agata (b 1961, Marseille) studied under Larry Clark and Nan Goldin and produces intimate work which explores his addiction and sexual obsessions and pushes the artist to his limits. The images are dark and often distorted, deliberately perverting photographic conventions.  “It’s not a matter of explaining or solving anything about darkness itself, it’s a matter of dignity, of being honest when facing my own rage, my own desire, my own fear, not giving in or giving up, and of keeping it up every day, being an actor in my own life and in society, refusing to be a scared and passive consumer.” [3]

José Ramón Ais (b 1971, Bilbao) produces gorgeous landscapes in a romantic almost American Sublime style. They are hyperreal giving a mythical quality to the work. I find these images to be incredibly soothing as they evoke a nostalgia that is probably deep inside an ancestral memory.


I became a big fan of Zarina Bhimji (b 1963 Mbarara, Uganda) during a visit to the Whitechapel Gallery in 2012 which is documented here.  Since then I have been quite inspired by her meditative approach. I think this is also a good example of art photography which initially seems pretentious and inaccessible but which slowly reveals its many layers and leaves a powerful impression.


Elina Brotherus (b 1972, Helsinki) often explores very personal feelings of isolation and solitude. She is a Finnish artist, a well-known member of the Helsinki School, who now lives in France. Suites Francaises conveys her sense of displacement while she struggled to learn a new language.  There is a simple and slightly bleak feel which is quite common in Nordic art.


Calum Colvin (b 1961, Glasgow) brings together photography, sculpture and painting creating epic scenarios with multiple layers and unusual juxtapositions.  His work does not appeal to me visually at all but I like the idea of constructing complex narratives with a variety of signs.


Gregory Crewdson (1962, Brooklyn, NY) is famous for his elaborate staging and lighting set-ups, involving large production teams, to portray small town America through melodramatic tableaux. He says his images relate to childhood memories of his father’s work as a psychoanalyst and was strongly influenced by Diane Arbus and Edward Hopper.  Exploring dreams and nightmares as well documenting darkly the US suburbs, Crewdson says he looks ‘at the blurred lines between reality and fiction, nature and artifice, and beauty and decay.’ [4]  Some of Gillian Hyland’s work has a similar feel to me.


Alexander Gronsky (b 1980, Tallinn, Estonia) shoots beautiful landscapes with tiny human figures that give the viewer space to contemplate the relationships between people and their environments. The ironically entitled Pastoral shows Russian suburb-dwellers enjoying the outdoors a stone’s throw from the cityscapes of Moscow and heavy industry. Many of Gronsky’s images are quite bleak but transcend documentary: ” ‘Pastoral’ refers to the space as some sort of substance to be discovered, something that needs to be felt not only with the eyes.” [5]


David Hockney (b 1937, Bradford) is a master of photo collage (“joiners”) playing with scale and perspective to create exciting new worlds, heavily influenced by Cubism. Interestingly, this approach arose because Hockney was “dissatisfied with the distortion created by a wide-angle lens” [6] . I love the effect and also can see the appeal of the process, albeit lengthy and painstaking.  It has the same feel as film-making for me where you are ‘shooting for the edit’ and need to make sure you have enough footage and sufficient overlaps. This is a great way to get a sense of movement and allow the viewer to explore the subject but with just one final image.  It also reminds us of how many thousands of perspectives there can be for one scene.


Alfredo Jaar (b 1956, Santiago, Chile) is an ‘architect making art’ who creates installations, often using photography, to comment on global socio-political issues such as the Rwandan genocide.”There’s this huge gap between reality and its possible representations. And that gap is impossible to close. So as artists, we must try different strategies for representation.” [7]  Jaar’s work is confrontational and deeply moving – he has found brilliant new ways to tell complex stories and challenge us to think about things differently.  Jaar says that art is 99% thinking which is a good reminder.  The man is an inspiration.

James Nachtwey (b 1949, Syracuse, USA) is a photojournalist, specialising in war photography so I am not really sure he belongs on this list. Like Sebastião Salgado, Nachtwey’s work is incredibly artistic and uses this approach to ensure his message is conveyed.  ‘ “Francisco Goya is the patriarch of war photographers,” he says of seeing Goya’s The Disasters of War at the Prado in Madrid. “It was the first time I’d seen a portrayal of war by an artist that showed the barbarity, not the glory.” ‘ [8]

Edward Olive (b 1970, Dublin) seems to be quite an unusual character, working as a film and TV actor as well as a wedding, portrait and commercial photographer in Spain. He is probably most famous for his ‘erotic’ images.  This is a brilliant example of how to shoot a wedding with a very distinctive style.  From Olive’s bio: “Dissatisfied with the focused perfection of modern digital images and seeking an alternative look for his pictures he started adapting analog lenses (he extracted from broken old cameras with a large metal hammer we understand) onto his digital reflex using masking tape and built DIY lighting from microphone stands, disco lights and Kelvin correction gelatin discarded by technicians on his acting jobs.” [9]  Olive came to photography late but is a great role model for his experimentation and expressive approach in pursuit of his artistic vision.  A man not afraid of imperfections and the Anton Corbijn influence is clear.  He is also very good at winning prizes and competitions which certainly helps the CV.

Lise Sarfati (b 1958 French Algeria) grew up in Nice but later lived and worked in Russia before moving to California.  Many of her images are portraits of women looking away from the camera.   They have a sadness and wary look about them and can be quite unsettling, allowing us to muse on their identities and place in the world.  Her work challenges and transcends the male gaze  and leaves us wondering about what happened before and what will happen next.


 Jan Saudek (b 1935 Prague) creates strange scenes that look like old studio shots with some slapstick eroticism, hand-tinted.  Confined to a concentration camp during childhood and then forced to work clandestinely during the Soviet years, Saudek’s art is a reaction to that oppression, exploring erotic fantasies and other forms of escapism.  There are contortionists, large naked bottoms and religious motifs in elaborate staged tableaux. I was thinking I didn’t really like his work until I discovered that he made the image below which was in my first scrapbook when I started my Art O’level back in the early 80s!

Lorna Simpson (b 1960, Brooklyn) worked as a documentary street photographer before concentrating on more conceptual photographic art, combining images and text, to explore issues of race, culture and gender in contemporary society. She also uses other media such as serigraph on felt, newsprint, painting, collage and film. Although some of the issues Simpson tackles are outside of my direct cultural and political understanding, her work appeals to me strongly on an aesthetic level.

Jeff Wall (b 1946 Vancouver) is best known for his tableau-vivant photography.  The images are often large scale and backlit to bring in ideas of cinema and advertising hoardings. In some cases he recreates scenes he has witnessed but did not photograph at the time. “Wall calls his photographs, after Charles Baudelaire, ‘prose poems’, a description that emphasises how each picture should be experienced rather than used to illustrate a pre-determined idea or a specific narrative. His pictures may depict an instant and a scenario, but the before and after that moment are left completely unknown, allowing them to remain open to multiple interpretations. The prose poem format allows any truth claims of the photograph – the facts we expect from journalistic photography – to remain suspended, and Wall believes that in that suspension the viewer experiences pleasure.” [10]  Wall has studied art history and is fascinated by composition, movement and form.  His obsession with micro-gestures is also of great interest to me.

A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) 1993 by Jeff Wall born 1946

Another fine art image which has caught my eye recently is this which was taken as one shot apparently:

Something About Love by Andrey Kezzyn

Something About Love by Andrey Kezzyn

And now I must stop…


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