Postmodernism is the name given to the defining artistic movement of the second half of the 20th century. Aspects of postmodernism in art and literature include surrealism, abstract expressionism, and the Theatre of the Absurd. Postmodern photography is characterized by atypical compositions of subjects that are unconventional or sometimes completely absent, making sympathy with the subject difficult or impossible. Like other postmodern artists, the champions of postmodern photography contend that it is possible to ignore the “rules” and still create art.
Art critics and theorists gave the name “modernism” to the art, literature, and music created during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Modernism was characterized by a rejection of previous artistic trends, such as Romanticism and a tendency toward realism. Postmodernism took this further by questioning standard definitions of “art” itself. Modernism and postmodernism were both controversial within the art world, and even the meanings of the terms themselves are the subject of debate. The general public, meanwhile, was often mystified by these works; many viewers questioned whether they were even “art” at all, which some postmodernists saw as a validation of their approach.
Postmodern painting was often characterized by an abstract, or non-representational, approach; works often appeared to be random colors or scribbles without an overriding design or meaning. Postmodern photography takes the same approach, but the medium offers special challenges for the postmodernist. The camera captures a perfect representation of whatever is in front of the lens. This means the images must be carefully chosen in order to remain abstract. Too much artifice, however, is contrary to the postmodern concept.
The word “banal” is often used in relation to postmodern photography. Banal means “ordinary” or even “boring.” As traditional photography focuses on subjects that are interesting, unusual, or beautiful, the choice of banal subject matter is an obvious one for postmodern photography. Again, the idea is to challenge the viewer, whether that viewer is an art critic, academic, or casual passerby. The artist asks a question or, rather, forces the viewer to ask, if the subject is ordinary or boring, whether the image is still a work of art.
The photographer William Eggleston has been called a consummate postmodernist. Eggleston worked with color images at a time when only black and white photography was considered “art” by critics and museum curators. While some questioned his choice of a format that was seen as common or pedestrian, its eventual acceptance made color photography a valid form for other artists to use. This illustrates how postmodern art, while sometimes controversial or confusing, has benefited the practice of art as a whole.