©Salah Van Puymbroeck

Art, but not totally

What a new list of 25 iconic photographs says about how we (try to) view photography

Stefan Vanthuyne

05 jul. 2024 • 9 min

In early June of this year, T – the New York Times style magazine – came out with a list of ‘The 25 Photos That Defined the Modern Age’. To arrive at this selection of 25 photos – all of which speak mainly to modern American life – a group of experts was assembled ‘to discuss the images that have best captured – and changed – the world since 1955’.M.H. Miller, Brendan Embser, Emmanuel Iduma & Lucy McKeon, ‘The 25 Photos That Defined the Modern Age’, The New York Times, 3 June, 2024. There were seven experts in total: joining two editors from T were the photographers Stan Douglas, An-My Lê, Susan Meiselas, Shikeith as well as the head curator of photography at New York’s MoMA, Roxana Marcoci.

The two editors aside, the panel is composed mainly of people from the art world, Susan Meiselas being the exception that proves the rule as a celebrated documentary photographer whose work is mainly to be found in museums these days. According to the magazine, the reason for this is that the line between fine art and reportage is becoming increasingly vague. In the modern era, they argue, it has been typical for images to begin their lives in newspapers or magazines, to be later repurposed as art (see Meiselas). Art, in turn, has increasingly become a vehicle for information.

The consequence of this is that there are few photos of historical events on the list, by which I mean news or reportage images that evidence turning points in modern history. No execution in Saigon by Eddie Adams (though the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk captured by Malcolm Browne in 1963 does make it onto the list), no student protests, no Beatles, no assassination of JFK, no fall of the Berlin wall, no pandemic, no Trump. Instead we are presented with photos that assume a much more contemplative or symbolic position. Photos that are not from the heart of the action or pivoting around a topical event, but that take a step back, sometimes revisiting and reframing issues (such as in From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried by Carrie Mae Weems, taken between 1995 and 1996), and photos that, most of all, invite reflection. As, indeed, artworks often do.

There is Robert Frank’s Trolley – New Orleans from 1955 (the cover image of his classic photobook The Americans), and Department Store, Mobile, Alabama by Gordon Parks from 1956, two layered photographs that, in one frame, depict American segregation with particular poignancy. The photo of Parks was taken for Life magazine, but was never published. It was only in 2012 that it was rediscovered. These are two iconic images that testify to the modern American era and to modern American photography all the more. The same is true of the work of Diane Arbus, from which the panellists had difficulty selecting just one image. Boy With Toy Hand Grenade, from 1962, which used to make such lists because it was seen as emblematic of the prevailing national psychology of America, is not even among the contenders here.

There is also a striking number of photos that primarily have something to say about photography itself and how the medium has evolved – especially from an art-historical perspective – in relation to modernity, such as the conceptual Every Building on the Sunset Strip by Ed Ruscha from 1966. This is an example of a work that changed our view of photography first and foremost, and not so much our view of the world. A work that is also a fixture of classes about the post-war history of photography, but which is rarely, if ever, mentioned in lists of iconic images.

Here the balance shifts completely in the direction of art and this is an issue that is often debated by the panel. Stan Douglas is not entirely convinced by Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills from the late 1970s, in which she photographs herself as a female archetype of American cinema. While the art world canonises the work, Douglas asks: how important or influential was it to the world more broadly speaking? About Ruscha, the moderator of this debate reflects that the artist is not very well known as a photographer, but that this should not present an issue. Regarding a photograph of young people on the beach taken by Wolfgang Tillmans in 1993, Susan Meiselas remarks dryly that the work would not have grabbed her attention at all if she didn’t know it was a Tillmans.

Two images on the list generate a particular tension, which photographer, critic and curator Jorge Ribalta once aptly described as ‘the unresolved tension between artistic autonomy, social knowledge and politics’Guy Lane, ‘Jorge Ribalta on Documentary and Democracy.’ FOTO8, 2 July, 2009. . The photograph as a document, he argues, is ‘not totally art’. Instead it can be situated somewhere ‘between art and social knowledge’. So what to make of The Day Nobody Died (2008), by the now-disbanded duo Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin? The image – a photogram created by exposing six-metre-long segments of photographic paper to the sun for 20 seconds – is directly linked to the period when the British army was active in Afghanistan, but at the same time it says something exclusively about photography itself: an impressive example of Ribalta’s unresolved tension. But in essence it is art, based on a conceptual idea about photography.

Personally, I like to compare this image to ‘Ceasefire’, the short series made by Paul Graham in Northern Ireland between 6 and 8 April, 1994, when the Provisional IRA announced a temporary cessation of hostilities for three days. For these images, Graham pointed his camera upwards and photographed the grey, overcast sky. In the art magazine Frieze, Mark Durden saw the images as a metaphor for the uncertain political situation at the time in Northern Ireland. He added: ‘It’s hard to see these pictures as involving anything but a retreat from representation.’Mark Durden, ‘Paul Graham’, Frieze, Issue 20, 6 January, 1995. If Graham’s images, in which there is at least still a lens pointing at something, are a withdrawal from representation, then Broomberg & Chanarin’s image is a withdrawal from reality, from the world. Most of all, it is a retreat into photography.

By contrast, also included in the list is Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1985), which falls perfectly in the middle as a documentary photograph that managed to capture a socially and politically significant era from within, and in a very vital way. Goldin took photos for very personal reasons but ended up making what is, in retrospect, a remarkable document of 1980s America, when all those who did not belong to the norm were marginalised and the AIDS epidemic was wreaking a havoc the likes of which had never been seen before. This havoc was also quite literally unseen, as people preferred to look away from it. The work itself was overlooked at the time as people in the established art world, especially men, felt that the photographic quality was poor. It did flourish in the underground scene, however, as part of a series of ever-changing slideshows accompanied by a soundtrack compiled by Goldin herself. This culminated in a book being published in 1986. Goldin has since gone down in history as one of the greats and a pioneer of the now ubiquitous genre of diary photography. Furthermore, this work is a wonderful ode to those who lost their lives in the AIDS crisis in New York.

Lists such as this tend to spark criticism – who’s in them and who’s not, and who gets to choose? – and you could suspect the compilers of making them for this very reason. In this case, however, it’s mainly the premise that raises questions. Much more than the extent to which these photos typify our view of the modern world, this list seems to be about the status we seek to give photography and photographers within it. Especially now, in our digital world, where the medium is becoming less and less tangible. Not that it was always possible to touch it before, but its tangibility, in one developed or printed form or another, did at least create that impression.

Whether consciously or not, this list represents the claiming of the medium by a group of intellectuals who, as professionals, are very much fixated on the image. A consolidation of a certain position of competence that, like the line between art and reportage, is increasingly crumbling under the pressure from smartphones and now AI. It feels like a sort of safeguarding of photography within an institution – that of art, of media – and it goes to show that this institutional treatment of photography is still governed by the same conventions as in the past. Photos only gain legitimacy once they have been published in a book, magazine or newspaper, or if they end up on the wall of a gallery or museum.

But images are also iconic when they are claimed by the people, often based on a shared feeling of sorrow, rage or powerlessness. These are the kind of images that spring up from below to lead their own lives, unbridled and gaining new meanings along the way that readily transcend their original intentions. We are entering the situation as described by American philosopher and historian Susan Buck-Morss, where images that are ‘no longer viewed as copies of a privately owned original, move into public space as their own reality, where their assembly is an act of the production of meaning. Collectively perceived, collectively exchanged, they are the building blocks of culture.’Susan Buck-Morss, ‘Visual Studies and Global Imagination’, transcript of a lecture given during a trip to the United Kingdom as the 2004 Visiting Scholar at The AHRB Research Centre for Studies of Surrealism and its Legacies. Take, for example, the many murals made across the world by unknown street artists based on a photo of the murdered George Floyd. This was a banal selfie, simply his (as in literally his own original property) profile picture on Facebook.

The author would like to mention the following text, which, while not quoted directly, was an important source: Krzysztof Pijarski, ‘On Photography’s Liquidity, or, (New) Spaces for (New) Publics’, in Why exhibit? Positions on Exhibiting Photographies, ed. Anna-Kaisa Rastenberger & Iris Sikking, (Amsterdam: Fw:Books, 2018), 17.

This text was originally written in Dutch and has been translated by Jonathan Beaton.

Stefan Vanthuyne is a freelance writer on photography. Currently he is also a visiting lecturer at Sint Lucas Antwerpen and Sint-Lukas Brussels.