Understanding Conceptual Photography (With 17 Helpful Examples)

It’s relatively easy for us to classify most of the images we encounter on a daily basis, even if such classifications sometimes amount to nothing more than pigeonholing — this is a macro shot, this is a landscape shot, that’s just a regular ol’ portrait. I guess it works well enough to satisfy the human inclination to categorize everything.

But what happens when what we’re looking at eludes our attempts to put it in a box? Do we dismiss its artistic merit? Give it some sort of abstract label? Perhaps call it “conceptual”?

Conceptual photography seems to be one of those things that is either so poorly defined that it ends up being lumped in with various other genres of the craft, or is presumed to be somehow above “regular” photography and ends up being altogether cloistered away.

To be sure, the abstract is an important element of conceptual photography, but the main purpose of conceptual photography is to express a specific idea; that idea could be social commentary, a personal, emotional exclamation or a political statement. It doesn’t matter what the concept itself is; what matters is that the concept is catapulted into the viewer’s psyche through the use of visual symbols.

Whether these symbols are straightforward and easily accessible or subtle and ambiguous depends on the photographer’s motives and personal style. Some conceptual photographers fully intend for their work to be interpreted the same by everyone, while other conceptual photographers relish the pursuit of subjectivity — they want their images to stir up a wide range of interpretations.

There are certainly many more considerations involved in assessing what conceptual photography is, but sometimes — and this may be one of those times — words fail to impart fullness of understanding. One picture can do the work of a thousand words. Study, learn from, and enjoy the images below.

157/365 (+1) by martinak15, on Flickr
sharkana by geirt.com, on Flickr
Clouds by Jonathan Kos-Read, on Flickr
About the author

Jason D. Little

Jason Little is a photographer (shooting macros, portraits, candids, and the occasional landscape), writer, and music lover. You can see Jason’s photography on Flickr, his Website or his Blog.

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