Deconstructing Postmodernism

Blind Eye: Deconstructing Postmodernism

George DeWolfe

{Note: This article has been brewing for a number of years and I hope that it allows some clarification on issues that befuddle contemporary photography. At the very least it lays bare the mechanisms of Postmodern photography, the intellectual plague that has populated university art departments and critic’s pens for the last three decades. It is now ebb tide for a new realism. George DeWolfe}

Innovation is a twofold threat to academic mediocrities:  it endangers their oracular authority, and it evokes the deeper fear that their whole, laboriously constructed intellectual edifice might collapse. The academic backwoodsmen have been the curse of genius from Aristarchus to Darwin to Freud; they stretch, a solid and hostile phalanx of pedantic mediocrities, across the centuries.

Arthur Koestler

The Sleepwalkers

If a medium is representational by nature of the realistic image formed by the lens, I see no reason why we should stand on our heads to distort that function. On the contrary, we should take hold of that very quality, make use of it, and explore it to the fullest. It is possible that the subject matter best suited to that characteristic quality be the one dictated by it.

Bernice Abbott

It Has To Walk Alone

Infinity, Vol.7, No.11, 1951

Sometime in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s photography started to take a turn for the worse. Reality was fragmented.Largely responsible for this fragmentation was the new development of “Academic Fine Art Photography” and it’s sister discipline “Photographic History and Criticism.”  The basic herald of this movement, called Postmodernism, was – anything goes as long as people don’t understand it. This exposé deals with the five tools that the academic, intellectual, and philosophical worlds used to attempt to destroy visual awareness from photography.

Firstly, let’s discern between how photographs are made and what is said about them afterwards. The taking of an individual image with a camera is an act of visual awareness. It attempts to depict the reality in front of the photographer when the shutter is pressed. Just the opposite occurs when people start talking about the picture. They impose upon the photograph many things that are not in the image, mostly what other people, primarily expert photographic historians and critics, have taught them to say and think about what photographs should be, especially on cultural and gender issues. What has happened in the past three decades is that people who teach and learn photography in college art departments, traditional or digital, have gradually confused what is said about photographs and how an image is actually made. The two are entirely – even radically – different. Talking about a photograph is different than taking one. Yet through cultural and art agendas, most faculty and students are unaware that Postmodern creep has replaced aware vision with the contending conceptual clamor of contemporary camerawork, a false view of the world that no one understands or wants to.  Following are the ideological ways a picture is different from words. They follow the shifty tenets of Postmodernism precisely. I call them the Five C’s, the five obstacles standing in the way of photographing as a visually aware person.


Postmodern photography is all about concept, even the fact that Postmodernism purports to be the perfectly aware representation – a representation of a representation. Conceptual thinking, imposing an idea on the world from the inside of our minds outward, is truly anathema to vision. Visual awareness occurs when no thinking is present, no thought is at work, and our minds are like a blank slate ready to receive the world rather than impose our will upon it.

Because of the intellectual trend existing on contemporary art faculties, conceptual thinking is more revered than seeing in creating an image, and almost all instruction and learning goes on under this aegis. When thinking is considered more important than vision the natural result is to use words to explain the image and why it is important and how it fits into our culture. What happens next is almost comical – students go out and try to photograph the stuff just talked about – a conceptual version of a conceptual discussion – surly meant to confuse even the most dedicated of their enthusiastic cadre, let alone the rest of us.

What happens when visual awareness is the primary modus operandi?   We see. We see because we combine the basic elements of human vision with awareness. The world in front of us (and the camera) becomes as pure a visual world as we can get, because the mind has yet to conceptualize and tell us what that world is. Nobody said that this was easy to accomplish, learn, or practice. In fact, it is manifestly important yet nearly impossible. But the reason it was panned and subverted in the past three decades is because thinking is easier than seeing, and weak minds prevailed.

The visual way works opposite from the conceptual. A photographer working visually discovers the world through images they take. All of the images come out of looking at the world and responding to it, probing its mysteries. Instead of debating in a classroom how many teeth are in a horse’s mouth, the visually aware photographer goes out and counts them.


Culture is an illusion. Culture is, at best, a tertiary overlay on reality and, at worst, taken for reality. Postmodernism treats culture as though it were the only reality. The problem here is not that it isn’t okay to photograph “culture.” The problem exists when you treat culture as though it were the only thing one can possibly photograph and that it, in turn, affects all that we photograph. Because you are part of culture, the Postmodernists say, you can only photograph culture. They propagandize photography only as an instrument for social change, not as a way to discover and reflect upon the world.

The ultimate purpose of photography is depicting reality. No matter how you word it, in whatever book of photographic history you care to read, this salient fact always backs Postmodern critics into a corner. Postmodernists frequently rationalize anything to weasel out of the corner, but all photographers are ultimately faced with showing the reality in front of them. This is the message behind Bernice Abbot’s insight: if we have an instrument that can depict reality in a visually accurate manner then it begs the question, “What is Reality?”

Over the centuries, one thing that Western and Eastern philosophers agree on, whether they represent monistic (the world is one thing) or dualistic (two things) ideas, is that there are basically two parts to reality, the known and the unknown. Philosophers attach importance to one or the other or both, but each seems to be important. To whatever philosophical ideal you belong, you have to account for the known and the unknown.

If the known and unknown represent what reality is, then a photograph is a picture of this. We can look at this in another way: We can say that a photograph is a picture of a moment of reality and therefore incorporates both the known and unknown parts of reality to a greater or lesser extent in the image. In a truly experiential and practical way, reality is the moment in front of us, and this makes the camera and visually aware photographer the ultimate philosophical instrument. We have yet to explore, as Bernice Abbott suggests, pure photography’s fullest extent. Postmodern photography refutes this idea, boldly declaring that everything has been done before and one can only now copy and crib. Appropriation it’s called. Stealing.


All photographs are made out of context. Especially Postmodern photographs. Postmodern photographs are meant to be contextual, in context, which means that they visually are in the environment or setting or culture in which they were made, and that anyone can discern this context from the image. In the dialectical bombast that raised Postmodern photography to it’s present high seat, ordinary photographs that historically existed, everything that had gone before, was pronounced out of context because it didn’t take into account the culture of the day. But there is a problem here. Postmodern photographs are conceptual, the result of thinking and concepts and ideas, and the expression of one person’s mind. Now THAT is out of context. The irony is that any individual photograph has no context, unless accompanied by words to support it. So many of the Postmodern photographers write on their images or their photographs are accompanied by text. They cannot exist without words. This makes it easy for the critics to explain and elevate the genre.

The visually aware photographer, however, sees things differently. They know that all photographs and are produced from attending to a moment in time and therefore, by definition, have no context. Tony Packer once wrote:

Awareness cannot be taught, and when it is present it has no context. All contexts are created by thought and are therefore corruptible by thought. Awareness simply throws light on what is, without any separation whatever.” (Packer, Tony, The Work of This Moment, Boston, Charles E. Tuttle, Inc., 1995).


The battle between Form and Content in art is an old saw that can never be solved, but you can try by yelling loud enough. Postmodernists inform us (again and again) that only Content is important, in fact, they insist that Content is the only thing in a photograph. I understand their motive for this – a move away from what they considered too much Form in images, but they killed the hog and went too far. They didn’t consider the fact that you really can’t eliminate Form from any artwork, photograph or otherwise. The minute you make one pencil mark on a piece of paper, you have created Form – and Content. You are compelled, as a visual artist, to wrestle with both. Because the visually aware photographer takes both Form and Content into account, the image can express the nature of reality better than trying to employ either Form or Content alone. Without Form to add relationship and structure to an image Postmoderism reveals all chaos without connection. Without Form there is no “visual” message in the picture. Form holds the Content together.


Collaboration is one of those politically correct words that is gender specific to Feminist (and Marxist) Postmodern theory. Because most of the great masters were individual white males, something had to be done about this individual preeminence and how art was produced if the Feminist/Marxist agenda was to attain stature. The individual artist is now passé, because for thirty years Feminist/Marxist/Postmodern and other scalawags have proclaimed and canonized it so. So this is it, then. All photographers are now condemned to collaboration in making their photographs. I’ll alert the media.


For those who take a burn to all this, consider the fact that photography’s prime mission is to depict reality, and that Postmodern photography has largely circumvented this for cultural reasons and perhaps even for political and personal ones. Through the intellectual parsing of Content, Context, Content, Culture, and Collaboration agendas Postmodernists have diverted and subverted what photography is possible of accomplishing. By allowing the box canyon of culture to decide what is available for photographing, they have created a 30 year illusion they can escape from only by representation.


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