by Lindsey Welch
In a recent conversation within a local photography group, the subject of what a conceptual photograph is, and in contrast what a literal photograph entails, came up. It was interesting because the general feeling was that a literal photograph is one that accurately represents the subject, while a conceptual photograph is one that had been heavily fabricated and preplanned, highly Photoshopped or studio constructed, and to follow, generally expressive or emotional in nature. What caught me was that this was the consensus among working professional photographers who typically are not involved in academia. However, I believe this is a subject often incorrectly described, perhaps pushed forward by the commonality of Photoshop, and ease of access to technology.
Going from descriptions like those available on Wikipedia , it is perhaps easy to understand how people conclude that the more obviously constructed the image, the more conceptual it must be. Further, that a literal photograph is more akin to a straight photograph in that it has not been constructed, and thus has less premeditated concept. I think this is a confusion in the photographic world. For, while images from say The Parkeharrison’s  or Erik Johansson  is highly Photoshopped, constructed and conceptual in nature, often work in leading fashion magazines which has been highly Photoshopped is not through admission of technique conceptual in the same way. Frequently, this highly Photoshopped fashion work can be described as literal as it is meant to represent what is in the frame, which is also the actual subject. This is proof that just because a work is highly constructed does not mean it is conceptual. Additional to note, work from Johansson or the Parkeharrison’s can also be classified as surreal. Not all conceptual photography has to be surreal, as seems to be another misunderstanding I have encountered.
I have been studying the work of several photographers for my own project whose work is conceptual but also what we might consider ‘straight’, but it can be argued they are not literal as they express a complex concept or idea beyond the frame.
Millee Tibbs’ 2005 project “Self-Portraits” is my first example . Millee Tibbs is a conceptual artist and graduate from RISD. Her project statement explains:
“The series Self-Portraits is an attempt to expose the way images (particularly self-portraits) are constructed. The subject is obstructed by other elements in the image and is not visible in the frame. The caption contradicts the visual information in the image, creating a slippage. The subject is not what we see, but rather what is missing. The absence of the subject heightens our desire for it, leading us back in an endless circle of searching for that which cannot be found.”
In this project, Tibbs demonstrates through concept the way images function, the nature of a photograph. It can be said this image is constructed, as in, adding the caption that accompanies it, the concept is built for the viewer. The photograph is not literal as the image itself is not about what is present in the frame, but about our attention to what is missing, and what our mind infers must be there despite is absence.
Another photographer whose work I admire on this s basis is Natascha Seidneck. Seidneck is currently an assistant professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver and Co-Curator at the Center for Visual Arts. In her 2015 project titled “Uncanny Territory”, she explores fictional post-apocalyptic landscapes through largescale images of frozen in-studio debris  .
“The series Uncanny Territory is comprised of large-scale color photographs depicting otherworldly landscapes and is inspired by the idea of humans suddenly disappearing from our planet and how the earth might reclaim its territory. The images are made by constructing small ice sculptures and documenting the process of the objects melting. Within these sculptures I embed images printed on transparency, paint, sand, glass and other found objects. The visual representation of the object becomes something entirely different than the object itself, in part by manipulating the scale and lighting.”
While the images are of constructed objects, the photographs of them are essentially straight, and the concept lies in the use of scale disorienting execution and printing. However, they become the landscape devoid of human presence in their combined presentation together with the concept.
A final example of images like these that I have been examining, is Alia Malley’s project “Captains of the Dead Sea” . In this project she captures scene and architypes that are present in our minds due to the media exposure that has come before. Making images of landscapes and details that resemble those we already know to denote the alien or otherworldly. Malley reinforces this by printing much of her work on newsprint, thus confirming the images as media artifacts, we can come to suspect these may be images of the Moon, Mars or even a fantasy planet from Star Wars .
“Captains of The Dead Sea “explores the continuity between fact and fiction, history, and hoax. A convincing journey through deep space and across the stark terrain of distant planets, the images that comprise Captains read like media artifacts from an authentic space chronicle yet were primarily shot on location in desert settings of California and the Southwestern United States”.”
In Malley’s images, much of the concept comes from our own preexisting relationship to media and images, she affirms this notion through using the artifact we come to know represents a kind of truth, newsprint. The images themselves, if taken alone could be considered straight photographs, as they only document what is in the frame. However the conceptual nature of them rises out of the appeal to our media exposure.
These photographers’ projects can all be said to be completely unPhotoshopped, and are not apparently constructed to be obvious to what they are. They are all actually quite literal in some ways, appearing exactly as they would in real life and roughly referring to themselves in many respects. However, each photographer has used our ability to read images against us, in a way that affects an outcome that makes each image other than it appears. The images become constructed in our minds as out imagination, already trained by looking at images, takes over to let us understand their purpose and concept. None of them is elaborate, emotionally expressive, or surreal fantasy at face value. There are some attributes of the surreal, but rather than using elaborate dreamlike imagery, they use context to invoke this quality.
. Wikipedia, Conceptual Photography. < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conceptual_photography >
. Robert and Shana Parkeharrison homepage. < http://parkeharrison.com >
. Erik Johansson homepage. < http://www.erikjohanssonphoto.com >
. Millee Tibbs, Self-Portraits. < http://www.milleetibbs.com/sp1.html >
. Natascha Seidneck, Uncanny Territory. < http://nataschaseideneck.com/uncanny-territory >
. Natascha Seidneck on Lenscratch. < http://lenscratch.com/2016/01/natascha-seideneck-uncanny-territory/ >
. Alia Malley, Captains of the Dead Sea. < http://www.aliamalley.com/captains-of-the-dead-sea/ >
. Alia Malley on Lenscratch. < http://lenscratch.com/2015/10/alia-malley-captains-of-the-dead-sea/ >