The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism – Douglas Crimp (1993)

© Cindy Sherman (1979) - Untitled Film Still #48

Postmodernism has been a slippery concept for me to grasp in the past. By reading ‘The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism’ by Douglas Crimp (1993), I aim to get a better grasp of it and to relate it back to my own work if applicable.

Crimp (1993:109-112) starts off by identifying three kinds of presence – the presence where the observer is undeniably there like in performance art, the presence where there is an absence seeming like a presence and the type of presence where there is a presence and an absence. This third type of presence is evident in photographic works. Where the photograph is a reproduction of a work of art or even another photograph, this is the kind of presence Crimp attributes to postmodernism.

The aura of a work of art (like I discovered in the notes I made on Walter Benjamin’s (1936) essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’) is intrinsically linked to modernism. The presence/absence combination Crimp talks of that is inherent in photographs reproductions of works of art belongs to postmodernism. Here, when the photographic reproduction copies the work of art, the photograph is present – it was an indexical relationship between the photograph and the thing it copied. However, it is also absent – it is a copy of something already in the past and will never be that work of art.

At the same time I learnt the aura of the work of art is diminished when it is reproduced – especially if it is of high value and is copied prolifically. Therefore because of photography’s inherent diminishing of aura, especially in the 1970s, the museum sought to regain the quality of aura that had diminished. Since painting was effected greatly by photographic copies, painting tried to distance itself from photography in the form of expressionist painting.

Photography itself can possess aura through subjectivity where the mark of the photographer is evident in their choice of what they photographed. According to Crimp, postmodernism works alongside this modernist regaining of aura but only so it can subvert it and ‘show that it [the aura] too is now only an aspect of the copy, not the original.’ – (Crimp, 1993:117).

Crimp goes on to give examples of postmodernism where the aura of a photographic work and/or its original are played with including Sherrie Levine, Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince.

I feel like I am inclined to be opposed to appropriation like Sherrie Levine’s work. She takes other people’s work in order to say something (probably about the work’s aura) and does this in a creative way through context around the work. It does require context to operate though and is reliant on context. Also any aesthetics the photograph might possess are reliant on the original photographer’s subjectivity.

It is not that I am against democratisation of art through photographic reproduction – it allows for many creative possibilities playing with the rigidity of modernism. It is more that I would prefer if the work didn’t solely rely on context, maybe like Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills (1977-80). With Untitled Film Stills (1977-80), I would say it is possible with only a little context to work out Sherman’s creative direction (although somewhat ironically it is to ‘expose an unwanted aspect of that fiction, for the fiction Sherman discloses is the fiction of the self’ – (Crimp, 1993:122). Here Crimp is referring to the aura of the self brought about by narrative which unsurprisingly through postmodernism Sherman seeks to subvert.

© Cindy Sherman (1979) - Untitled Film Still #48
Fig. 1 © Cindy Sherman – ‘Untitled Film Still #48’ (1979)

Overall I found this essay very thought-provoking and I feel I have a much better grip on postmodernism. My work in my last module Documentary was mostly straight photography but with some twists and I was surprised to find the twists (especially for Assignment 2 – Ephemerality of the Image) tied in with postmodernism. That is because I took the notion of copies without originals and played upon this. A lot of my work for Documentary though did seem to possess one clear, intended meaning and moving forwards I would suggest my work could be more pluralist in meaning.


Fig. 1 Sherman, C. (1979). Untitled Film Still #48. [Photograph] Retrieved from: (Accessed 12/02/2019).

Benjamin, W. (1999) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction In: Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) Visual Culture: A Reader. London: SAGE Publications Ltd. pp. 72-79.

Crimp, D. (1993) ‘The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism’ In: Crimp, D. (eds.) On the Museum’s Ruins. Massachusetts: MIT Press. pp. 108-125.

Sherman, C. (1977-80) Untitled Film Stills. [Photograph]



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