Who Were the Pictures Generation?

The Pictures Generation challenged mass media imagery infiltrating society during the 1970s with confrontational and provocative artworks.

May 5, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art


The Pictures Generation were a loosely associated group of artists from 1970s America who used their art to interrogate popular culture and mass media. Artists worked with various types of media, including film, photography, video and performance, to criticize the saturation of biased images and advertisements that were infiltrating contemporary society. The name for the movement came from a 1977 exhibition at the Artist’s Space in New York, titled Pictures Generation. We take a look through a handful of the artists who led the movement, and made highly influential art that continues to shape the nature of contemporary thinking today. 


1. Cindy Sherman

cindy sherman film still photograph pictures generation
Untitled Film Still #21 by Cindy Sherman, 1978, via MoMA, New York


American photographer Cindy Sherman made her name in 1970s New York with a series of black and white self-portrait photographs in which she styled herself as various film noir archetypes including the femme fatale, the damsel in distress and so on. In doing so, she asked us to consider the ways in which women were being typecast into various set roles within the film industry, and in society as a whole, rather than being understood as their complex and nuanced selves. Since then Sherman has continued to make an impressively vast range of photographic self-portraits, styling herself in a series of continuously complex guises, from clairvoyants and clowns to fading Hollywood stars. 


2. Richard Prince

richard prince untitled cowboy
Untitled (Cowboy) by Richard Prince, 1991-1992, via SFMOMA, San Francisco


Richard Prince emerged during the 1970s as a key player in the Pictures Generation for his appropriation of mass media imagery from advertisements and book covers in a range of mediums. He earned a widespread following for his ‘Cowboys’ series. In this group of work he ‘re-photographed’ the cowboys from Marlboro adverts, playing with and distorting the original images through enlarging, blurring and cropping, a process which emphasizes their artificial, mythical status as fictitious symbols of American desire. Since this time the artist has sustained a long and successful 40-year career using appropriated imagery to critique the supposed authenticity we are offered up through widespread popular media. 


3. Barbara Kruger

kruger body battleground
Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground) by Barbara Kruger, 1989


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American conceptual artist Barbara Kruger has been making her trademark red, black and white text art in the Futura Bold typeface, featuring thought-provoking, provocative, and challenging words and statements that challenge the language of advertising. She is particularly well-known for questioning systems of power and control in the United States, pushing us to think about the ways in which the government and other public bodies can manipulate us through various means of public messaging. Kruger has expanded her text-based art into a range of media, including photography, graphic design, video, installation, sculpture and architecture. 


4. Robert Longo

robert longo men in the cities pictures generation
Robert Longo, Men in the Cities, 1980s


New York artist Robert Longo is best-known for his ‘Men in the Cities’ series, in which he drew in graphite a series of smartly dressed men and women contorted into strange, distorted bodily positions suggesting suspended moments of movement, violence or pain. The drawings were based on photographs the artist took of his friends posed to mimic the violent fight and death scenes that were populating movies and tv programs of the time. In order to get his models to jerk their bodies, Longo would throw tennis balls at his models, photographing the moment when they twisted away to avoid being hit, or pull their bodies with ropes into unusual poses. The resulting images reference the glamour of capitalist society during the late 1970s and early 1980s, while also pointing to its dark, disturbing undertones that have been referenced in films such as Wall Street, 1987 and later American Psycho, 2000.


5. Laurie Simmons

laurie simmons pushing lipstick pictures generation
Laurie Simmons, Pushing Lipstick (Spotlight), 1979


American photographer and filmmaker Laurie Simmons has been staging strangely uncanny domestic scenes with dolls, ventriloquist dummies, puppets and anthropomorphized objects since the 1970s. Her strangely haunting imagery explores themes around feminism, domesticity and consumerism, and the ways they have impacted on how women understand their place in the contemporary world.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.