Conceptual art has been criticized and adored by critics and art consumers alike. While some of the criticism capitalizes on lack of technique and aesthetic, much of the criticism stems from the confusion of the term “conceptual.” After all, what characterizes a work of art as conceptual? Adding photography to this debate only increases this confusion. So, what is conceptual photography? This type of photography at least can be narrowed down to a medium, yet it is still difficult to concretely define. So in this article, we aim to demystify the idea of conceptual photography by looking at its history and how it is used today. 

WHAT IS conceptual photography?

Defining conceptual photography

Conceptual photography is often seen as a niche within conceptual art. But understand this niche, we must be able to distinguish it from other types of work in the photographic medium. Let’s take a look at the definition to learn more about its characteristics. 


What is conceptual photography?

Conceptual photography aims to express ideas and concepts through photos. Conceptual photography derived from conceptual art. Both hold that the idea or concept is paramount in the creation process. The ideas that conceptual photographers explore are wide ranging and are typically achieved by staging a photograph in a way that represents the idea they desire to communicate. 

What is conceptual photography used for?

  • Advertising
  • Abstraction
  • Social commentary

Early Examples

History of conceptual photography

Conceptual photography derived from the Conceptual Art Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Conceptual art emphasizes the importance of an idea or concept over technique and aesthetic, largely used to express the abstract with physical material. 

Photographers took part in this concept as they applied it to their medium. Although the practice of staging photographs is as old as the invention of the camera and photography itself, conceptual photography naturally leaned into abstract ideas. 

This photograph titled Leap into the Void  was taken by French artist Yves Klein in 1960. It’s regarded as one of the earliest conceptual photographs and a pivotal work in the progress of photography.

Leap into the Void by Yves Klein in

Leap into the Void by Yves Klein in 1960

While it can be difficult to define conceptual photography. Leap Into the Void has all the elements that modern conceptual photographs still hold today. It’s staged, elicits emotion, and has provoked conversation for decades after its creation both about how it was taken and what it means.

Because conceptual photography is meant to illustrate an idea, the purpose of it is wide ranging. Let’s take a look at a few of the ways photographers use conceptual photography for different purposes. 

types of conceptual photography

Advertise an idea

Advertising has one specific goal: to sell an idea. Ideas may be meant to sell a product, service, or even deter consumers from specific products. Whatever it may be, advertising aims to persuade. 

But this can often be a difficult task in advertisements that utilize still images. Conceptual photography is a common technique to illustrate a whole sales pitch into one photograph.

In this ad by Tabasco, they needed to convey the hotness of their hot sauce in one image to entice a consumer to buy. Concept based photography was used to create this idea by combining the bottle with a fire extinguisher. 

Tabasco Conceptual advertisement

Tabasco conceptual advertisement

Of course, not all ads are designed to sell you a product or service. Some are designed to deter you from consuming a specific product. Anti-smoking ads have taken full advantage of conceptual photography ideas to illustrate the concept of “smoking kills” in various ways. 

Anti smoking ads

Anti-smoking ads

As you can see, even advertising concepts can be big and difficult to communicate. Conceptual photographers use advertisements to be simple yet effective at communicating a message to a consumer. This type of photography makes it possible to illustrate an entire sales concept in a single image to be used in a magazine or on a billboard.

conceptual photography examples

Express social commentary

Art in general is one the primary ways human beings create social commentary. Photographers specifically express their thoughts on society through conceptual photographs. 

Whether it is a comment on the state of politics, technology, or general societal behavior, these ideas have been creatively expressed by conceptual photography. For example, what is this image by conceptual photographer Prasad Naik saying about consumerism?
Conceptual photography by Prasad Naik

Conceptual photography by Prasad Naik

The projection of the barcode on the subjects casts a shadow similar to a jail cell reflecting how humans can be captive to consumerism. It is not new for artists to be frustrated with societal behavior. Conceptual photography is just another way for artists to express the frustrations and thoughts. 

conceptual photography tips

Tell a story

Unlike cinematography, photography works in still images. Telling an entire story through a still image can be challenging. But conceptual photography allows photographers to use anything at their disposal to illustrate a story within a single image. 

In this photo series by Marja Pirilä titled Interior/Exterior, Camera Obscura Dreams, rooms were converted into a camera obscura. This effectively allowed her to capture the interior of the room and the exterior simultaneously.

Camera Obscura — Marja Pirila

Camera Obscura  •  Marja Pirilä

Pirilä brilliantly used this effect to conceptualize a child having a dream. The result is a photo that holds immense storytelling power. 

As you can see, conceptual photography is a creative way at illustrating the internal state of a human being. Beyond dreams, conceptual photographers have found the method effective at portraying the complex emotions human beings experience. 

abstract conceptual photography

Reflect internal states

One of the challenges many artists face is expressing the internal experiences they have within in an external way. Conceptual photography has been used as canvas to express these internal states in creative ways. 

Whether you are trying to express a specific anxiety, joy, or internal conflict, the ability to stage a scene for a photograph can result in incredibly creative ways to portray the abstract.

Ade Santora • Blind with Anger

Conceptual Photography Examples

Oftentimes, conceptual photography that reflects the internal state of an artist is designed to be provocative and elicit emotions. While the creation of this type of conceptual photography can be cathartic for the photographer, it can also be cathartic for a viewer seeing emotions they have experienced expressed in such an accurate way. 


When Was the Camera Invented?

If you’re intrigued with the camera obscura conceptual photographs we mentioned above, learn how the technique was taken from the mechanics of the camera itself in our next article. We’ll take a look at when the camera was invented and how the camera obscura practically created photography. 

Up Next: Camera History →
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  • Kyle DeGuzman graduated from San Diego State University with a Bachelor of Science in Television, Film, & New Media. He currently resides in Denver, Colorado spending his time writing, filmmaking, and traveling.

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