An Introduction to Contemporary Photography

Featured art – Umbrellas from Above by Ina Dabi, available here.

When you look at a photograph online and see it labelled as ‘contemporary’, do you understand what the term means in relation to the image? Canvas photos and prints with this moniker are widespread and very common, but few people can explain why a piece of photograph is called ‘contemporary’ as opposed to anything else.

Contemporary as a photo genre encompasses many sub-genres and techniques that make it a difficult movement to classify but is easily the most popular and arguably the most accessible of the all the available styles.

So how do you tell a contemporary photo print from a modern one? The Canvas Art Factory explains in this post.

Dissecting the Definition

As previously mentioned, a lot of people (even seasoned photographers) often confuse the terms contemporary and modern with one another. While you can argue that the two are synonymous, the meaning in relation to photography and art in general differs.

The difficulty with defining contemporary photography is that a lot of people (even seasoned photographers) confuse the terms contemporary and modern with one another. Many will argue that the two are synonymous, but they differ when it comes to defining photography and art in general.

The term modern refers to photo prints and imagery that interpret a certain (and often idealistic) design and styles from the 20th century, such as the Art Deco and Bauhaus movements. ‘New Vintage’ is a more appropriate term for it as these photographs embody artistic elements that were new at the time but seem old-fashioned to us now.

At the Pub, Brisbane, 1982, by Rennie Ellis.

Rennie Ellis’ At the Pub, Brisbane, 1982, which depicts Australia’s decadent 80s is a ‘classic’ example of a contemporary photograph.

The official description of contemporary photograph refers to any photo or canvas print taken from the year 1980 and beyond. This definition is limiting, however, as it restricts contemporary to a time period when it can’t be bound to time at all.

Contemporary Photography instead refers to photo and imagery created in the now. The now can be right now as you’re reading this post or a ‘now’ in the far future. It is photography and art done in our time, whenever that time is.

Contemporary Techniques

When contemporary photography first emerged in the 1980s, it was classified as any photograph taken using non-traditional techniques. Due to the nature of contemporary as an art movement that’s always in flux, the techniques used in capturing imagery are never set in stone.

When instant image cameras such as polaroids and the like were first developed and became widespread, they were classified as a contemporary photographic technique. Digital photography is the current ‘contemporary norm’ in photography, but even now, many photographers are developing new techniques to capture their photos.

1922, Untitled Rayograph by Man Ray.

Man Ray’s 1922, Untitled Rayograph is an early example of a cameraless photograph.

The aforementioned ‘cameraless photography’ is a good example of a contemporary technique. Photographers who employ this technique use chemicals and photographic paper, placing their subjects on top of the light-sensitive material and then exposing it to light. The result is a photograph that’s ‘drawn by the light’, which is what photography literally means.

Contemporary as Adapting Art

The Contemporary photography movement is in a constant state of evolution and refinement, and the progress is dictated by the steady march technology; specifically, what medium photographers use to capture their image and portray it to their intended audience. In its infancy, contemporary art and photographs featured settings and subjects like what modern photographs capture. These include buildings and metroscapes, still-life, and candid portraits.

This eventually evolved to encompass a range of sub-genres and styles. Contemporary photography today now readily includes abstract, landscape, architectural, and even cameraless photography to name a few. Photo documentary and photojournalism are two sub-genres that are arguably the most popular as these depict image and subjects that are both pressing and in the now.

Photography for the Pioneers

The contemporary photo movement today continues to evolve and is more than just what’s trending in the world of photography. It’s experimental and continues to push and redefine its own rules and norms, creating a truly dynamic experience for both the photographer and the people who appreciate it.

Contemporary photography is more than just a genre or a style; it’s a concept and an expression of the artist at that specific moment – captured and immortalized in a photograph. It’s a movement for the pioneers and those unafraid to think outside the box.


At The Canvas Art Factory, we offer a selection of exclusive contemporary canvas photo prints from local and award-winning photographers in Australia. Call us today at +61 7 3383 2880 or visit our showroom to see what we have to offer!