What Is Conceptual Photography?

Conceptual artists from the 1960s and 1970s experimented with the camera in order to challenge the existing norms, shaping conceptual photography in the process.

Jun 8, 2024By Pierre-François Galpin, MA Curatorial Practice

what is conceptual photography


The position of photography as an art form was debated from its beginning in the mid-19th century. However, photography made its way to museums by the 1960s through many exhibitions and acquisitions. At the same time, American and European conceptual artists altered the traditional practice of photography by using it to express an idea which was at the essence of conceptual art. They adopted the camera as an experimental tool. Photographs of their ephemeral works allowed them to advertise their practice and ensure their legacy.


Surrealist Experiments Towards Conceptual Photography

L’Inquiétude [Anxiety] by Man Ray, 1920. Source: Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Fine art photography has its roots in early 20th-century photographs, which placed a strong emphasis on the craft and form of the medium. Later on, Dadaists and Surrealist artists experimented with the possibilities of the camera, leading to the emergence of a conceptual approach to photography through which artists not only depicted a subject but illustrated an idea. The American artist Man Ray experimented with photography in the 1920s and 1930s, creating many memorable images. He would play with angles, lighting, and different visual effects. This resulted in sometimes equivocal and unhesitatingly aesthetic photographs, such as L’Inquiétude [Anxiety] (1920), where he tentatively represented an emotion rather than a material subject. The photograph is blurry and evocative, leaving the viewer puzzled, if not anxious to know more about it. Other artists from around the same time, such as Claude Cahun, would also experiment with the camera, creating self-portraits of performances by dressing up and embodying different characters.


Performing For the Camera

conceptual photography martha wilson portfolio models
A Portfolio of Models by Martha Wilson, 1974. Source: Pinault Collection


Many conceptual artists developed performances based on instructions, cues, or controlled improvisation. Artists of the late 1960s and early 1970s used the camera to compose and create photographs as documents of these performances. American artist Martha Wilson created a series of characters that she impersonated using her own body and face in photographs that could not be described as self-portraits.


These works became conceptual photographs representing the fictional identities of the artist, based on gender stereotypes. Her series A Portfolio of Models (1974) showcases different female figures (such as The Working Girl or The Lesbian), for which Wilson chose clothing, styling, and a pose in a very studio-like image. She then paired each photograph with a short text, in which she humorously described the character’s life and motivations. She worked together with photographer Victor Hayes on these images.

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giovanni anselmo entering the work photograph
Entering the Work by Giovanni Anselmo, 1971. Source: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra


Other artists used the camera to stage repetitive acts or experimental situations representing their intentions and goals. Italian artist Giovanni Anselmo who was a member of the Arte Povera group, placed his camera to face a field and ran into the frame once the camera’s timer was on. The final piece was titled Entering the Work (1971). The work speaks about the conceptual idea of entering one’s art, piercing its secrets, while at the same time reflecting on the artistic work that’s being done in order to produce a piece. It also directly ponders on the camera’s capacity to capture movement, and therefore time and space. The work has been printed on different mediums (paper or fabric) and in different sizes, highlighting photography’s great ability to be reproduced and disseminated.


Photography as Documentation

bonnie sherk public lunch performance photograph
Public Lunch by Bonnie Ora Sherk, 1971. Source: Museo Feminista Virtual


Obviously, photography can also be used as a way to document moments in time. Conceptual artistic practices include performances and ephemeral works. In those instances, photography (as well as video) has often been the only way to record, keep track, and later on publicize these works. Photography helps performance artists ultimately make their art sellable and collectible. In 1976, Artforum critic Nancy Foote wrote an essay called The Anti-Photographers about the delicate, yet paradoxical, relationship that conceptual artists had with photography. The author noted: “Conceptual art has never been plagued with accusations that it belongs on photography’s side of the tracks, yet the condition in which much of it could or would exist without photography is open to question.”


Without the camera, many conceptual artworks would only exist in narrated accounts or artists’ instructions.


For instance, during the 1970s American artist Bonnie Ora Sherk created a series of visionary performances in urban environments of San Francisco, California, exploring the relationships between humans and nature. Her performance Public Lunch (1971) took place at the San Francisco Zoo, where Sherk decided to eat lunch in the big cats’ cages during opening hours. Video footage and photographs became the only records of that artwork. They show Sherk sitting at a table, next to the lions’ and tigers’ cages, being fed like an animal. While the artist didn’t take the photographs herself, she decided to use photography as a tool to transmit her message. These images have become deeply associated with her practice, as well as with the general performance art of the time.


Conceptual Use of Photography

joseph kosuth one three chairs installation
One and Three Chairs by Joseph Kosuth, 1965. Source: Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid


As seen in the examples above, most conceptual artists were not photographers. Performance artists would have friends or hired photographers record their art pieces. Other conceptual artists, interested in the relationship between text, image, and meaning, also included photographs in their work in order to question our relationship with abstract ideas and reality.


One of conceptual art’s seminal artworks was made by American artist Joseph Kosuth. It’s called One and Three Chairs (1965) and it features a display of three versions of a chair. There’s a definition from the dictionary, a manufactured chair, and a photograph of the chair. All three elements (the physical object and the two prints) embody the same concept—a chair.


In that particular work, Kosuth used photography to simply ask the question: What is a chair? Is a photograph of a chair equivalent to its written definition? The work is collected and displayed in many institutions around the world using different chairs and definitions written in various languages. Kosuth’s instructions for the piece state that the chosen chair should be photographed as it is installed in the museum’s gallery.


ed ruscha air water fire tropical fish photograph
Air, Water, Fire from the Tropical Fish series by Ed Ruscha. Source: Artspace


American artist Ed Ruscha also uses photography in his works. In the early 1960s, he took a series of photographs of urban environments in Los Angeles, focusing on one element of the landscape. For instance, he photographed gas stations and produced an artist book titled Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963). A decade later, Ruscha was invited to collaborate with the limited-edition print firm Gemini G.E.L. and create a new kind of still-life photographs in a series titled Tropical Fish (1975).


His print Air, Water, Fire from that series is a colorful and luscious image. It shows a bike pump, a seltzer dispenser, and a small figurine of Satan placed on a red plastic background. Each of these objects represents the three elements from the title. The objects’ juxtaposition is rather comical if not banal, adopting a type of Pop Art aesthetic. While the series’ concept is ambiguous, its images show how a conceptual artist can play with the codes of consumerism.


A Boxed Set of Conceptual Photography 

conceptual photography marioni vision box magazine
Vision #5 – Artists’ Photographs edited by Tom Marioni, 1982. Source: Crown Point Press


In 1982, American artist Tom Marioni curated a boxed set of 54 black-and-white reproductions of photographs made by different artists. For the project, Marioni invited artists like Marina Abramovic, Chris Burden, Paul Kos, and Richard Long to submit a conceptual photograph (not a documentary one), to be featured in this portable exhibition. The box, titled Artists’ Photographs (1982), was actually the fifth and last issue of Marioni’s magazine Vision, dedicated to conceptual art and published by Crown Point Press. This last issue of Vision focused on the conflict between photography and conceptual artists. By the late 1970s, photography made its way into the art market. Artists such as Cindy Sherman or Jeff Wall, of the so-called Pictures generation, adopted the conceptual artists’ ways of playing with photography while they embraced and confronted pop cultural imagery.

Author Image

By Pierre-François GalpinMA Curatorial PracticePierre-François is a curator, writer and teacher. His interests overlap between photography, new media, and performance art with a focus on conceptual art, storytelling practices and sociopolitical issues. He has curated contemporary art exhibitions both in museums and independently in the United States. His writing has been published in such media as YIELD Magazine, The Exhibitionist, Art Practical, and for RITE Editions. He holds an MA in Curatorial Practice from California College for the Arts and an MA in Regional and Urban Strategy from Sciences Po Paris.