By the 1960s, commercial interests were channeling photography in two main directions. One was toward public communication. Illustrated magazines of mass circulation, such as Life, Look, National Geographic, and Sports Illustrated, promoted the notion that photographs had a special capacity for communicating insights about modern experience. The other main direction was toward personal commemoration. Companies such as Kodak and Polaroid mass-marketed photography as an easy means of celebrating modern affluence and leisure. No vacation or family holiday was complete without a flattering record of its pleasures.
Photographers seeking to make art struggled to locate their efforts with respect to these commercial forces. Many of them regarded the illustrated magazines with ambivalence or outright disdain and denigrated popular photography as so much thoughtless button-pressing. These highbrow practitioners responded to the commercialization of photography by exalting the fastidiously composed and executed print.
But Ruscha and some other young artists took a contrary tack, adopting photography in a manner that sidled up to both journalistic and popular modes, often to satirical effect. Artists in Southern California were particularly active in this regard: consider Ruscha’s deadpan 1963 book Twentysix Gasoline Stations, or John Baldessari’s 1966-68 image of himself standing beneath a tree that appears to be growing out of his head, captioned succinctly: Wrong. Such works spurned the dictates of fine-art photography in favor of slipshod or outright «incorrect» compositions, banal subject matter, and dopey didacticism.
Conceptual artists playfully critiqued photographic conventions to demystify both serious painting and serious photography. For example, they debunked the notion of expression, which had been crucial for a preceding generation of artists in both media. When Bruce Nauman made his Self-Portrait as a Fountain (1966-67), not only did he stage sculpture as a photograph, acknowledging the photographic mediation of aesthetic experience, he also punctured the aura of artistic