Exercise: Artistic styles


Write up to 150 words about an issue that you feel worthy of comment. It can be immigration, finance, social deprivation, domestic violence or any contemporary issue that you feel strongly about. Then make an image that expresses your concerns in one of the three artistic styles listed below. This is not an easy task and you may have to do some research before you start.

Once you’ve completed your first image, have a go at a second image in another style. Try and make time to attempt the third style – or at least make some notes outlining how you’d go about it. You could then come back to this exercise later and put your ideas into practice.

  • Constructivist
  • Surrealist
  • Conceptual

Write the three tasks up in your blog alongside illustrations of constructivist, surrealist and conceptual photography you used as research for your image-making.


Before getting into my response, here’s a summary of my understanding of the three styles in question, based on my reading and research.


  • Art based on society
  • Started in post-revolutionary Russia circa 1920
  • A reaction against the pre-revolutionary past including established ideas about art
    • “It sought an art appropriate to the social and political ideals of the new ordered, by implication, questioned realism as a mode of representation.” (Clarke 1997: 189)
  • Art that is ‘constructed’ in a quasi-industrial manner
  • Art that is ‘constructive’ i.e. is for social good
  • Stylistic identifiers: angles, geometric shapes, industrial imagery, low or high angles (suggesting domination/submission), multiple exposures/collages, text overlays (e.g. propaganda poster style)
  • Adjectives used to describe constructivist photography: brash, aggressive, energetic, strident, vibrant, knowing, self-conscious
  • Example artists: El Lissitzky, Aleksandr Rodchenko, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy


  • Art based on the artist’s mind
  • Again from around the 1920s but started in western Europe
  • Art inspired not by external factors but by internal ones – imagination, dreams, fantasies, subconscious mind
    • “Surrealism was premised on challenging philosophical distinctions between interior experiences and exterior realities.” (Wells 2009: 282)
  • Grew popular alongside growth of psychoanalysis (Freud etc)
  • Intention wasn’t specifically to shock but taboo subjects often came to the fore
  • Example artists: Man Ray, Philippe Halsman, Clarence John Laughlin


  • Art based on ideas
  • Not really a style or ‘movement’ in the same way as Constructivism or Surrealism (though it was an identifiable trend in the 1960s/70s), but rather a new methodology of using art itself
  • Often made societal comments (e.g. increased consumerism) but in a much more subtle way than Constructivism
  • Interpretation by the viewer is a significant element of the art (the ‘receiving’ and ‘reading’ of the idea)
    • “Artists were concerned to draw attention to the manner or vocabulary of expression; also, to contexts of interpretation, that is, the influence of the situation within which the spectator responds to the image or art object” (Wells 2009: 286)
  • Conceptual art allowed photography to be accepted as a valid medium of artistic expression (Wells 2009: 286)
  • Characteristics of the medium can be part of the means of expression (self-aware, self-referential)
  • While any photograph is of something, a conceptual photograph is also about something
  • Example artists: Cindy Sherman, Thomas Demand, Broomberg & Chanarin


The issue I examined is food poverty.

I started volunteering at a local food bank at the start of this year and am increasingly saddened and shocked at the increase in the need for such institutions to exist in the 21st century. 13 million people live below the poverty line in the UK (even with re-definition of poverty in recent years).

That these food banks need to exist in the fifth richest country in the world (IMF 2015) points to an outrageous climate of inequality in the UK right now. Government policy is behind the increase in use of food banks over the last decade. As at September 2015, benefit delays and changes remain the biggest cause of food bank use, accounting for 43% of total referrals (Trussell Trust 2015). This is a political issue, with political causes and political solutions.


For this one I went for the overtly political angle. As per the original characteristics of the style, it’s strident, geometrically constructed, includes an unusual vantage point – and is far from subtle.



Rather than looking at the causes of the problem, I tried to depict the sensation of going hungry through dreamlike (/nightmarish) imagery. The open mouth signifies both a scream of anguish and the bare cupboard.



I haven’t actually produced a Conceptual image but have thought about how I might go about it. I have in mind the theme of “Living from hand to mouth” and am working on ideas around depicting a hand-to-mouth existence through the use of selective imagery of hands and mouths. I’ve also considered the juxtaposition approach, where I could position artefacts from a food bank (forms, vouchers etc) and/or statistics around food poverty alongside the hand/mouth images.

Right now this idea is actually my frontrunner for an Assignment 2 theme, so I will keep working on this concept in the background while continuing on the coursework for this section.

What I’ve learned

The research into the photographic styles was interesting, although I didn’t particularly enjoy the exercises to work in the given styles – they came across as being a little bit ‘sixth -form art student’ for my liking. I guess both styles are hard to pull off well if they’re not your natural way of working. Whilst I was pleased with the ideas behind each image, both involved a level of image manipulation that I’m not that keen on.

Interestingly, one could argue that all three responses (the two I produced and the one I just made notes on) are in a sense ‘conceptual’ in as much as I am trying to get across an idea – it’s just that in the Constructivist one I looked at the idea from the societal point of view while in the Surreal one I looked at it from an internalised, ‘how it made me feel’ point of view. The challenge on the Conceptual one (if I do choose to take it through to the assignment) is to place the idea itself centre stage.

So maybe the best thing that came out of this exercise was an assignment idea!


Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wells, L. (ed.) (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction. 4th edn. New York, NY: Routledge. Taylor & Francis Group.

http://www.imf.org (accessed 16/03/2016)

https://www.trusselltrust.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2015/06/Foodbank-use-remains-at-record-levels.pdf (accessed 16/03/2016)


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