Conceptual photography is photography that illustrates an idea

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  • Richard Long, 'A Line Made by Walking' 1967
    Richard Long
    A Line Made by Walking 1967
    © Richard Long
  • Vito Acconci, 'Room Situation' 1970
    Vito Acconci
    Room Situation 1970
    Photograph and text on paper
    support, secondary: 940 x 700 mm
    frame: 963 x 723 x 32 mm
    Presented by Barbara Gladstone 2001© Vito Acconci
  • Keith Arnatt, 'Self-Burial (Television Interference Project)' 1969
    Keith Arnatt
    Self-Burial (Television Interference Project) 1969
    © The Estate of Keith Arnatt
  • Political 1 sheet 19 Adam Broomberg, Oliver Chanarin
    Adam Broomberg, Oliver Chanarin, Political 1 sheet 19, 2010

  • Boyd Webb, 'Scott's Tent' 1984
    Boyd Webb
    Scott's Tent 1984
    Photograph on paper
    image: 1220 x 1523 mm
    Purchased 1985© Boyd Webb
  • Mat Collishaw, 'Sugar and Spice, All Things Nice, This Is What Little Girls Are Made Of #7' 1998
    Mat Collishaw
    Sugar and Spice, All Things Nice, This Is What Little Girls Are Made Of #7 1998
    Photograph on paper
    image: 350 x 278 mm
    Purchased 1999© Mat Collishaw
  • Robert Mapplethorpe, 'Self Portrait' 1983
    Robert Mapplethorpe
    Self Portrait 1983
    Black and white silver gelatin print on paper
    support: 374 x 375 mm
    ARTIST ROOMS
    Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008All Mapplethorpe works © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.
  • Sarah Lucas, 'Is Suicide Genetic?' 1996
    Sarah Lucas
    Is Suicide Genetic? 1996
    Photograph on paper
    image: 500 x 400 mm
    Purchased 1998© Sarah Lucas
  • Sarah Jones, 'The Dining Room (Francis Place) I' 1997
    Sarah Jones
    The Dining Room (Francis Place) I 1997
    Photograph on paper on aluminium
    image: 1500 x 1500 mm
    Purchased 1999© Sarah Jones, courtesy Maureen Paley, London
  • Cindy Sherman, 'Untitled' 1976, printed 2000
    Cindy Sherman
    Untitled 1976, printed 2000
    Black and white photograph on paper
    image: 189 x 127 mm
    Purchased with funds provided by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery 2001© Cindy Sherman
  • Tim Lee, 'Upside-down Water Torture Chamber, Harry Houdini, 1913' 2004
    Tim Lee
    Upside-down Water Torture Chamber, Harry Houdini, 1913 2004
    Colour photogarph on paper
    1150 x 1250 mm
    Lent by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, courtesy of the American Acquisitions Committee 2006© Tim Lee

Introduction

Since the invention of the photographic camera, artists have explored it as a means to stage a false reality, or capture an idea. This can be seen in one of the first staged photographs, Hippolyte Bayard’s Self Portrait of a Drowned Man, 1840.

However, the term ‘conceptual photography’ began to used in the 1960s, coinciding with the early explorations into video art and Conceptual Art. The phrase can refer to any use of photography within the Conceptual Art movement.

The development of conceptual photography

Using cameras, artists like Richard Long and Dennis Oppenheim began recording their performances and temporary artworks in a manner that is now often described as deadpan. The aim was to make simple, realistic images of the artwork that looked as documentary as possible.

Artists adopted this approach as far back as the early twentieth century when Alfred Stieglitz photographed Marcel Duchamp’s readymade made from a urinal, Fountain, for an exhibition in New York. The original Fountain was lost, but the photographs by Stieglitz remain and have become works of art in themselves.

Others explored conceptual photography as a means to stage an idea. This is often seen in advertising, where images are used to convey a clear concept, often using actors or props.

Conceptual photography has since expanded to include artists such as Cindy Sherman, John Hilliard and Broomberg and Chanarin. For them the medium is much more experimental, taking elements of documentation or staging but re-interpreting them in new ways.

The range of photography included under this title has diversified hugely with the availability of photo-editing software such as Adobe Photoshop. This allows anyone with a computer to create an image which other than a direct representation of what was in front of the lens.

Likewise platforms such as Instagram and Flikr have allowed any smartphone user to share their photography and create entire portfolios of work. Amalia Ulman is an example of one of these photographers; using Instagram to create an entire narrative around a fictional identity.

Further reading

Tateshots: Ishiuchi Miyako
‘This city was not real, but created by my photography’, says Miyako Ishiuchi. Her work offers a radical vision of post-Hiroshima Japan.

The Photographic Comportment of Bernd and Hilla Becher
‘I cannot help regarding these pictures as macabre monuments to human self-distortion in the name of social reason – all-too-human structures that are ridiculously social.’ August Sander.

Hold Still
Tate Etc. examines how artists have for more than a century documented, delighted and deceived with photography.

Performing for the Camera: 5 key artists 
Curator Simon Baker, selects his top five artists from a Tate Modern exhibition which looked at photography and performance.

Conceptual photographers in focus

Broomberg and Chanarin

Artists Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin talk about their work in Conflict, Time, Photography and its relationship to performance and real life.

Points of memory: Broomberg and Chanarin
Photographers Broomberg and Chanarin discuss their work The Day That Nobody Died 2008.

Artworks by Broomberg and Chanarin
Browse all artworks by the artist’s in our collection. 

Rodney Graham

In this short film, Canadian artist Rodney Graham talks about his ‘post-photography’ conceptual practice. He doesn’t see himself as a photographer but works with photographers to create performative images.

Artworks by Rodney Graham
Browse all artworks by the artist in our collection.

Related glossary terms

Fluxus, conceptual art, photography, performance, video art