I Have an Affinity for Postmodernism Art

What, you may wonder, is ‘postmodernism art?’ And what does it have to do with a photographer artist statement? These are fair questions. There’s postmodernism architecture, postmodernism art, postmodernism photography, and so on. Without going too deeply into the weeds of just what ‘postmodernism’ is — and without being too devout with my definition — I offer a rough summation: all possibilities all at once, i.e. anything goes… sort of.

Because of globalization and the information revolution and the world wide web, billions of us have access to everything from every corner of the world, and from every moment in recorded history, that can be digitized. This makes us all into omniscient time-travelers. Humanity – and postmodernism art – exists outside of time. So, in this age more than ever, there really is nothing new under the sun. Anyone with internet access can see, hear or read pretty much everything from every period in recorded history.  How’s that for the opening of a photographer artist statement?

When it comes to creative work – this is where postmodernism in art comes in – there’s no technique or style or modality or mash-up or medium that’s out of bounds or even marginal. All the rules have been tested, re-tested, refined, broken, warped, morphed, shape-shifted, and reconstituted ad infinitum. You could make a CGI daguerreotype or an impressionistic collage from garbage. I’m thinking here of the amazing documentary ‘Wasteland,’ featuring Vic Muniz, which features his triumph in postmodern photography.  Of course, Andy Warhol said it best:  ‘Art is what you can get away with.’ Another litmus I’ve heard — attributed to Jackson Pollack — is the inquiry, ‘Does it work?’ Brutally straightforward; simple, unequivocal, sometimes easy to answer, other times not, but unerring. These guideposts are invaluable when looking at postmodernism art.

I’ve never operated from any conscious formal structure. I never thought I knew what I was doing. If there was a theoretical basis informing my artwork I was oblivious.  I was guided by intuition, impulse, happenstance and quietly whispering voices. (And clearly I’ve been guided by the trove of postmodernism in art surrounding me). These whispering voices had a lot to say, and in some mysterious right-brained, shamanistic way I got the messages. Philip Glass talks about tapping into ‘subterranean rivers.’  He knows the river is there.  He can feel it.  His job is to get that water to the surface. I can relate.

Where Does This Postmodern Photography of Mine Come From?

And how did I end up here? These are important questions to answer in a photographer artist statement, especially since there are so any reasons I shouldn’t have ended up where I have. The first being that – even though I’ve always been enchanted by image capture devices and image-making, and have made photographs as consistently and naturally as any bodily process (and got paid a lot of money to film TV commercials) – I’ve never, EVER thought of myself as an artist photographer.

I suppose it would have been like thinking of myself as a ‘breather,’ and taking up the profession of breathing. Photography, like breathing, was just something I was doing all the time, without emphasis. And when I say ‘all the time,’ I mean it. And doing it casually. Like my breathing, taking a picture is just something that’s happening. I must’ve snapped a hundred thousand pictures by now, most of them terrible. I don’t usually wonder if I’m taking a good breath or a bad breath (unless I’m getting a check-up or doing a mindfulness practice), nor do I – usually – wonder if I’m taking a good picture or a bad one. I just take it.  Separating the wheat from the chaff comes later. And it might take years before I believe a particular picture is anything special.

There is an exception to this general rule: episodes when I’m in a zone, that is, a semi-altered state while taking pictures. I have thought it’s akin to a shamanic state; a flow state where I could be almost anywhere, and something presents itself, something takes shape and I release the shutter. I’m virtually between dimensions, or a parallel dimension that looks nearly identical to this one. The camera sees the unseen. I feel disconnected, like an anthropologist from the future. For me, all photography that I give a damn about is basically an x-ray or an MRI. I want to know what’s beneath the surface. I’m also deeply conscious of the fact (I’m thinking quantum physics here) that whatever I’m photographing exists for no more than the fraction of time that the shutter is open, so might literally be of a different dimension, one that exists on a separate space/time continuum. All photography – even bad photography – has a timeless quality.

I love handling cameras and lenses. I love the mechanisms and the polished glass. One of the things I loved about being a Hollywood camera assistant was the chance to handle all those amazing Panavision cameras and lenses. Handling an anamorphic lens practically sends me into a rapture. And I have an easy understanding of how to get the best out of them. I love cameras and they love me back. I’ve always been able to get finicky cameras to function reliably. I’m a camera whisperer.

But this is not normal. My interdimensional, cyborg-like relationship with and affinity for image capture devices is not normal. And I say, ‘image capture devices’ to indicate my impartiality. For instance, I’ve had fun taking pictures with plastic disposable cameras. I’d also love to take pictures using a TSA carry-on luggage x-ray scanner. I always peak at the security display in airport security lines. Those pictures are so cool! And nothing wreaks of a postmodern photography esthetic like TSA baggage scans!

What might make me an artist photographer – rather than just a photographer – is the order of emphasis in my process:  I see the image, then use the camera to make it, rather than using the camera to see the image. There will be something I feel a need to communicate, and I use photography to communicate it. This was how I approached cinematography too. In contrast, lots of – many of them very successful and talented – cinematographers have a ‘signature look,’ in the way certain cuisines have a signature (read Italian food). These cinematographers impose their signature look on everything and in all circumstances.

Postmodernism Photography Does Not Lend Itself to a ‘Signature Style.’

A signature style is useful when opening a restaurant, and also when working as a cinematographer. But I would be a chef – and there’s more and more of this sort lately – that only cares about making food that’s different, original, tastes amazing and fortifies. It’s impossible to pigeonhole. That’s the nature of individual works of postmodernism art: it’s damned difficult to pigeonhole.

As a professional cinematographer (and now as an artist photographer) I’m damned difficult to pigeonhole. And I think this can work against you, even if you do great cinematography, because clients (in all fairness) need to know what sort of restaurant they’ll be eating at. And ad agencies and their clients need to know what the pictures are going to look like. They can’t afford to be surprised, even pleasantly. This model favors cinematographers, and commercial photographers – artisans – who approach their work by developing a signature look and repeating it over and over and over.

Postmodernism artworks, postmodernism cuisine, postmodernism architecture, postmodern photography, postmodernism art resists facile categorization. I’m able to create just about any kind of look (which is an attribute consistent with postmodern photography), but for me the ‘look’ must serve the communication. But a definite conceptual framework is necessary. Otherwise you’re left with a the artistic equivalent of a word salad. Success as a commercial photographer is all about style. Substance is irrelevant.  For me – I just seem wired this way – it’s all about substance.  That’s a pretentious thing to say, but I don’t say this from a pedestal. I do not disdain commercial artisans. Many I admire. I tried desperately to succeed as a commercial cinematographer, and I did for many years. The basic proposition that style trumps substance, though, just goes against my grain.

Julian Whatley is an artist & photographer who makes cinematic concept-based series that focus on a theme or storyline.
Julian Whatley