Conceptual photography in Contemporary art

Contemporary art can be defined variously as art produced in the present moment or generally any art produced since World War II.  Contemporary art largely focuses on the conceptual value of the art works rather than focusing on the technical or skills of the piece.  Another prominent feature is that contemporary art is not focused on a realistic style, but is a reflection of the artist’s personal style and divided into different schools of concept and form. Those artworks very often represent the artistic own expression and delve into their psychological characteristics to document modern social change. Conceptual photography is the art of projecting the thoughts of the artist into the minds of the viewers using just the contents of a photograph.  This may be a more intangible idea where the photo is not an explicit example of the actual concept, but a general expression of the idea (DPShots, 2011).  As conceptual photography is a part of contemporary art as a photography genre, usually the photographer will put several photos together by computer editing or just use the original films to edit, or the traditional way of setting up a posed shoot involving props and a studio.

One Chinese conceptual photographic about the ‘Great Leaps Forward’ (1958)

This photo was made during the ‘Great Leap Forward’ period in Chinese history, (1958-61) during that period, the government’s plan was to use China’s vast population to rapidly transform the country from an agrarian economy into a modern communist society through the process of agriculturalization, industrialization, and collectivization. The campaign was based on the Theory of Productive Forces, and intensified it after being informed of the impending disaster from grain shortages. The photo above expresses the government’s desire to increase the national’s economic output by using super-sized cotton pods with girls happily dancing on them.  The subliminal message in this image was to reflect the mainstream of the society who had thoughts of getting rich more quickly under the new government initiative.  This imagery suggests getting super-large yields of cotton with larger than average pods through using industrialization and expending less energy.  The girls are dressed in good quality traditional farmer-style clothing while dancing on the cotton; this denotes that the uniforms are very well made and that the actual pod of the cotton is so strong that the girls can dance on them.   The difference in size between the people and the cotton was deliberately used to project a new and contemporary message which has more artistic flair than previous posters and played to a more make believe fantasy world.  The largest and most dominant image on the poster is the overly large cotton pods signaling larger crop yields.  The poster represents the psychological and social changes happening at that time with both the government and population wanting to live a better life without facing reality.


DPShots, (2011). Conceptual Photography: 50 Beautiful Examples. [Online] available from: [accessed on 10th Jan 2011]

Liyu (2010). What is conceptual Photography. [online] available from: [accessed on 10th Jan 2011]

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2 Responses to Conceptual photography in Contemporary art

  1. heather28 says:

    I think the image ‘Great Leaps Forward’ is an interesting cultural and political comment especially as it was made as far back as 1958. I looked up your link, DPShots, (2011). Conceptual Photography: 50 Beautiful Examples at as I was excited by the idea of 50 examples of conceptual photography. But I think a lot of the images are more kitsch than conceptual. Most seem to simply be a play on words, eg ‘Air Guitar’, and ‘AnnTena’ (misspelt even). ‘Please speak to me again’ is interesting, but to me it fails as a social comment as it is too elegantly composed and sweetly coloured. Even then the crass title demeans it. This is my view; we are asked to raise different perpsectives, and so I have! Heather

  2. paula roush says:

    ethan, its great you bring in chinese photography into the discussion on conceptual photography; the image you chose ‘Great Leaps Forward’ (1958) appears to be what has been described as photography as a Socialist Realist propagandist tool, a form of fictionalised realism at the service of the state ideology. To find examples of conceptual photography in china one may need to look further afield. Most exhibitions that have shown chinese contemporary photography in the west, point towards 1993 and the establishment of the East Village Area of Beijing for the emergence of photography to document performance and as a work of art itself. Check this exhibition, for example: Action – Camera: Beijing Performance Photography for some of those artists. For your seminar presentation would be great to contrast these two forms of photography as they have been practiced in china, during the cultural revolution and after!

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