When Staged Photography Becomes Art
Throughout the 20th century, photography was mainly about catching the decisive moment. Yet, this “decisive moment” can also be created by artificially constructing scenes for the purpose of photography only. Although staged photography has emerged as a genre in the 1980s, staged compositions or “tableau photographs” have been made since the invention of the medium. Staging a photograph is similar to painting a canvas. Rather than capturing the moment, artists make specific choices when staging their images. By consciously placing elements and arranging compositions, they create the events, environments or emotions. The respective artist, in addition to his role as a photographer, also becomes a director, stage and costume designer, make-up artist and from time to time a performer as well.
The Early Staged Photography
Apart from specific genres which have always belonged to the domain of staging, the history of photography may be viewed as a swinging back and forth between capturing the perfect moment and constructing one. The mid-Victorian photographic practices combined this seemingly truthful medium of photography with an imaginary subject matter in a variety of ways. Dubbed the father of art photography, Oscar Gustave Rejlander was specialized in the tableau vivant, photographs based on carefully staged, costumed and posed scenes to convey a specific message. His most famous piece Two Ways of Life from 1857 is an allegory depicting youth torn between the staid rewards of the virtuous life and more obvious temptations of sensual abandon. Perfecting the idea of combination printing, Henry Peach Robinson combined several negatives to construct the desired image. His most famous photograph is Fading Away from 1858 where he combined five separate negatives to produce the intimate narrative of a dying girl surrounded by her family. Until recently, photographic historians dismissed the theatrically arranged salon and tableau photography of the 1850s as a misguided use of an inherently realistic medium.
Photography as a Realistic Medium
The stylization and impressionistic transfiguration manifested by an amateur-dominated “photography in accordance with nature” that emerged in the end of the 19th century gave rise to a countermovement of objective, unembellished photography that reached its peak in the 1920s. Ever since the emergence of the medium, photographers have tried to get photography accepted as fine art on an equal footing as painting. Since the technology-based starting point had always been regarded as the key obstacle for this, the historian of photography and photographer Beaumont Newhall realized that, within modernism, this could be turned into an advantage. He emphasized that photographers should not mimic painting, but instead find their way to “the specifically photographic”. Building his thesis on formalistic qualities, Newhall declared that the straight, pure and non-staged photography was the only type possible. This idea came to define photography for many decades to come.
The Directorial Mode
For almost the entire 20th century, photography was guided by notions of authenticity and objectivity. In the 1960s, the French philosopher Roland Barthes had criticized what he called the naturalization effect of photography, which worked to mask the ideological manipulation behind every apparently realistic image. Referring to the assumed facticity of the medium – what you see is what you see – he described it as a “reality effect” that is not necessarily consciously deployed. Under the influence of the conceptualists‘ analytical investigation of media and various postmodern theoretical approaches such as feminism and post-structuralism, notions of authenticity and objectivity were subjected to the mass criticism and many artists started using the medium in a way that radically deviated from Newhall’s idea. Initially described as tasteless work, naïve or passé, staged photography started having its moment again. Enriched by the external influences of film, theater, performance and sculpture, this photography played on the ambiguity of photographic realism. Yet, it wasn’t until the late 1970s that artists seriously began to question this reality effect of photography that Barthes wrote about.
Duane Michaels, one of the pioneers of staged photography, is famous for creating narratives within a series, blending an image with text in a format similar to cinematic sequences. Additionally, he often worked in his studio with staged models. He believed that what he cannot see is infinitely more important than what he can see. As he explained, he did not have to walk around looking for something to take a picture of since it was already in his head. The staged scenes of Cindy Sherman were something of an innovation. Emerging just before the term “staged photography” was coined in the 1980s, she posed herself as a variety of characters to comment on the female roles defined by the society and reveal gender as an unstable and constructed position. “I think of myself as an artist, not a real photographer. In a way I am a performance artist. I was influenced more by performance art than photography or painting. The image is my own performance, and I am documenting myself”, explained Sherman. Another pioneer of the genre, Jeff Wall makes large-scale color images that seem to capture people engaged in everyday life, but are in fact largely staged. He described his work as cinematography, boiling it down to preparation, doing things in advance before taking the picture, and collaboration, having contact with people being photographed. On the other hand, the American photographer Gregory Crewdson stages haunting, cinematic photos of alienation and eerie quietude. As he explained, his idea is to construct the world with photography. Many other photographers such as Joel-Peter Witkin, Thomas Demand, Arthur Tress, or Laurie Simmons contributed to this expansion of the means of photography.
Photography and Meaning
At the cusp of the emergence of digital photography in 1985, German artist and photography critic Andreas Müller-Pohle wrote that soon “it will be possible to generate and regenerate literally every conceivable – or inconceivable – picture through a computer terminal”. He also critiqued conventional photography, describing it as a redundant apparatus that reconstructs the world as technical information. For him, the strategies of staged photography were the picture strategies of the future. When the idea of photography’s realism was put aside in favor of staged photography, many wondered if it would result in an ethical as well as an aesthetic crisis in which photography’s loss of credibility and its increasing redundancy will go hand in hand. But how realistic is photography as a medium? The realism lies in a coincidence between a representation and that which a particular society proposes and assumes as its reality. Thus, we read photographs as we read the world around us – a world full of uses, values and meanings.
- Maynard, P. The Engine of Visualization: Thinking Through Photography, Cornell University Press, 2005
- Sandbye, M. Staged Photography, History of Graphic Design [November 24, 2016]
- Hoban, P. (2012) The Cindy Sherman Effect, Art News
- Wall, J. On Staged Photography, SFMOMA [November 24, 2016]
- Müller-Pohle, A. Information strategies in European Photography 21, Göttingen 1985
- Müller-Pohle, A. Photography as Staging in European Photography 34, German Stagings, 1988
Featured images: Gregory Crewdson – Beneath the Roses, via americansuburbx.com; Jeff Wall – After Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, 1999; Cindy Sherman – Untitled Film Still #53, 1980, via tate.org.uk. All images used for illustrative purposes.