Towards the 21st Century

To celebrate new ideas in photography, we are asking people to nominate up to five photographers who have demonstrated an openness to use new ideas in photography, who have taken chances with their photography and have shown an unwillingness to play it safe.

—Joerg Colberg, Towards the 21st Century

It was great fun to watch these posts all week. In particular, I loved Stella Kramer’s selection of Sophia Wallace.* I’m not that into the bleeding edge of photography so a lot of names which were mentioned were photographers I had never heard of.Colberg has nicely summarized things as well. Looking at the list, I notice three names were picked more than once: Paul Graham,** Jessica Eaton,*** and Alec Soth.**** This is both a good thing and a bad thing for me.

*I’ll come back to her later.

**By Fototazo, Harvey Benge, and Colin Pantall.

***By Brian Formhals and Fototazo.

****By Brian Formhals and Christopher Paquette.

I’ve been wrestling with putting my own list together all week. Eaton was the first one I thought of. Graham was close behind.* So this means I either have good taste or am only aware of the obvious. Either way, seeing other people come up with names on my list only delayed my post.

*I didn’t think of Soth but then he’s already somewhat of a rockstar—Or as much of one as you can be in the online photography world—and while he isn’t on my list he definitely makes sense as someone to watch.

I also have to reference my original response to this question. In particular:

Photography, by coming into existence in parallel with modern art, has always had people who were pushing elements of it into sophisticated areas where the subject of the image isn’t the main point.


Less taking picture of things; more taking pictures of concepts.

What I’m looking for are people who are exploring the toolkit and really pushing into the abstract areas of where that exploration takes them.



Edward Weston
I don’t believe these people are necessary current photographers though. For me, Weston is still the master of texture. His exploration of it and the way everything becomes an abstract study is an example of the kind of thing I’d like to see moving forward. If you start looking at Weston’s images as photos of things you completely miss what he’s doing. You have to look at the concepts he’s playing with and you’ll start seeing how peppers, shells, nudes, landscapes, etc. are all part of the same experiment.

We need to go back and look at other great photographers from the past and think of them outside of the photography timeline but rather part of the modern art timeline. And once we start looking at photographers as modern artists, we’ll have a better sense of what the true next steps for photography are.


Jessica Eaton
Light and color. But specifically nailing additive colorspace in a way Tauba Auerbach’s RGB Colorspace Atlas—as brilliant as it is—can’t hope to ever reach. She takes the Weston approach and completely abstracts out the subject matter so it’s almost impossible for it to distract us. What’s left is pure exploration of concept. And it’s fantastic.

As a bit of a color nerd I find Eaton’s work particularly exciting. But these experiments into the nature of color and light appeal to more than just the color nerd in me. Oh, and we can add her to the list.


Paul Graham—in particular, The Present
Time and editing. Graham of course is only the latest to really tweak how we see time. This exploration has been going on since the beginning of photography as well and can be tracked from Muybridge to Edgerton to Sugimoto. Explorations in time often seem like—or be presented as—technical exercises but they all change and question the way we see the world. Photos capture a moment. Kind of. Since the real world is in constant movement, our obsession with stopping action takes us into areas where, while we learn about what things are doing in microseconds, we’re really seeing things which don’t actually exist. Long exposures are the opposite side of the same coin. When we start pushing the limits of how we see the world, we end up in strange territory.

Graham in particular finds a way to evoke Muybridge’s motion studies while at he same time telling us things about the way we see the city and approach street photography—in the process directly blowing up the myth of the decisive moment. His images are all normal for us, but in displaying multiples he starts breaking down life into a series of moments and makes us question how they go together and how we choose to keep or discard specific ones.


Julien Levesque
Interaction and location. Photography is no longer static. We interact with photographs daily and use them to inform and assist our daily lives. Levesque’s interactive Google Street View collages change our assumptions in ways which open up new possibilities to see the world while reminding us how dependent we are on photography right now.


Sophia Wallace
Gender. Specifically questioning presentation and identity. This isn’t part of the photographic toolkit but is instead a larger social question—though it happens to be especially relevant to photography due to the kinds of photographic images we’re bombarded with each day and the way photography in particular stalks women. All I have to do is think back to the Olympics and how male and female athletes are portrayed—let alone the grey areas which result from women like Caster Semenya. Wallace wasn’t even on my radar until this week. Now I can’t get her work out of my head. I’m amazed how she is able to avoid snark and sarcasm and just take great portraits that tweak our expectations.

Honorable mention

Because I can’t fully ignore documentary work. We need to keep an eye on the number of photographers who are working on documenting our impact on the Earth—Burtynsky, Hatekayama, Ruwedel, etc. There are too many photographers working here to choose just one. But where the 2oth century was marked by documenting nature and then moving onto the built environment. The 21st century will be marked by documenting our footprints. Photography appears to repeat itself first as farce, then as tragedy.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

8 thoughts on “Towards the 21st Century”

  1. Pingback: Blinders | n j w v

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