Lights, Action, Camera!

Taking its cue from movie directors, a generation of photographers is creating staged pictures to depict suburban nightmares, adolescent fantasies, and futuristic daydreams.

High above the small-town streets of Lee, Massachusetts, Gregory Crewdson surveys the view from his position on an elevated crane. Below him, a team of electricians, stagehands, and actors is working hard to get every detail right. The lighting director, Rick Sands, has moved 15 high-powered Xenon lights into position, and the local police have cleared the street of traffic. After eight hours of preparation, Crewdson moves his camera into place.

An untitled 1999 photograph from Gregory Crewdson’s “Twilight” series.

Below, on the edge of a little picnic area, a park maintenance man encounters a strange situation. A portable toilet is emitting a glowing cloud of smoke. The family holding a barbecue nearby doesn’t seem to notice.

Is Crewdson making a movie? No, he is making an untitled photograph for his “Twilight” series, works that depict surreal occurrences in small-town and suburban settings. With the aid of special effects and the cooperation of the towns’ citizens, Crewdson tweaks reality, setting up suggestive narratives more reminiscent of the “Twilight Zone” television series than the candid scenes associated with photography.

Crewdson is not alone in choosing this approach. In the 1990s, an international array of photographers, including Jeff Wall, Tina Barney, Tracey Moffatt, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Mariko Mori, Inez van Lamsweerde, and Sam Taylor-Wood, have embraced this new direction in photography, taking postmodern theory into the realm of constructed narratives and fabricated realities. Unlike Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince, who have used similar techniques to examine identity as a construct of the mass media and photography as a tool of advertising, these photographers are more concerned with suburban nightmares, adolescent fantasies, and futuristic daydreams. Like painters and filmmakers, all of them feel free to take liberties with facts to achieve their highly individualistic results. “Right now, we have this very interesting phenomenon where photographers are combining observation with intervention,” says Darsie Alexander, assistant curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “It has to do with wanting to control the image, not relying on chance, and this approach produces a heightened sense of drama. It’s got a real intensity to it.”

As Crewdson explains, “It is probably as close as you can get to making a movie without making a movie. The only reason I go through this enormous production is that I have an idea about how I want the picture to look.”

The degree of control exercised by these photographers results in exceptionally well crafted photographs, more akin to the careful compositions of oil paintings than to the spontaneous perspectives we associate with snapshots. Formal concerns, such as composition, lighting, and framing, are evident in the work of Canadian artist Jeff Wall, who draws on history painting as a model for his elaborately staged pictures. His photograph A Sudden Gust of Wind (After Hokusai)(1993), an image of businessmen trying to gather scattered papers in a field, appears spontaneous but was in fact meticulously planned. Wall often displays his pictures on large light boxes, up to 16 feet long, that add another layer of grandeur to the works. In an entirely different vein, Tina Barney’s mannered portrayals of her immediate family members, taken over the past 20 years in their upper-crust homes, have been compared to paintings by Manet and Sargent. Barney had to exercise inordinate control over her subjects because of her use of a large-format camera, which demands long exposures, requiring that her sitters be posed. “In the early work, I would be screaming out, ‘One second, two seconds,’ yelling for everyone to stay still,” says Barney. Now, the family is accustomed to posing and needs less direction. “This fine line between truth and fiction,” she says, “comes from half what I want and half what they, my subjects, are, despite my wishes.”

This generation of photographers is in part reacting to docudramas, infomercials, talk shows, and tabloid journalism, which regularly take liberties with the facts to make their points. “In the past, we would see a caption such as ‘Birch Tree at Windsor Castle,’ and we would expect to see a tree in front of a castle,” says Robert Sobieszek, deputy director of strategic and artistic initiatives and curator of photography at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “Today, artists dealing with irony and ambiguity simply call their works ‘Untitled’ and then play with the viewer’s expectations of a photograph.” In some of these pictures, it is relatively easy to spot the fiction. Mariko Mori’s sci-fi futuristic settings, for example, are recognizable as digital creations. Despite the traditional title of Tea Ceremony III, technology clearly had a hand in Mori’s depiction of herself as a cyborg-geisha greeting visitors at the Osaka airport. On the other hand, diCorcia’s early interiors recall movie sets but could just as easily be well-composed snapshots. Now diCorcia creates street scenes that are spontaneous, though viewers sometimes assume they are staged.

Filmmaking has exerted the strongest influence on much of this work. Crewdson offers Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kindas an inspiration for his photographs. He humorously compares his own set-ups to Richard Dreyfuss’s maniacal pursuit of aliens in the film. Barney cites Martin Scorsese and the director’s consummate attention to period costume and gesture as having had an influence on her work. Some other photographers, such as Taylor-Wood, Moffatt, and Mori, have even branched out into filmmaking while continuing to produce still images. With their photographs, “they are interested in suggesting a narrative in a single frame,” says Sylvia Wolf, Sondra Gilman Curator of Photography at the Whitney Museum of American Art. “A dramatic moment is set up by the photographic work as a point of departure. The viewer then carries on for himself or herself.”

The staging of photographs represents a far cry from Berenice Abbott’s impassioned plea for the medium “to reveal and celebrate reality”—the raison d’íªtre for mid-20th-century modernist photographers engaged in what was then called straight photography. As Barney explains, “I came from the school of street photographers who did not alter reality. So when I first directed, I felt it was a sacrilegious thing to do.”

In the past two decades, however, the belief among photographers that the camera captures reality in an unaltered fashion has seriously eroded. Photography has lost what leading photo theorist John Tagg calls “its privileged status as witness to actuality.” Curators such as Sobieszek think that this recognition is late in coming. “Photography has been undermining its own authenticity since its inception—by adding color to daguerreotypes or restaging the flag-raising at Iwo Jima to get a better angle,” he says by way of example. Artists, photographers, and historians are familiar with this legacy.

Theatrical scenes “have been a part of photography since day one,” says Darsie Alexander of the Modern, pointing to the tableaux vivants of 19th-century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron or the famous images by F. Holland Day in which he posed as Christ. Wolf, who recently curated an exhibition of portraits by Cameron, agrees. But she also points out that “Cameron was trying to illustrate. Today’s photographers are not illustrating, they are fabricating.” According to both curators, fabrication was an important theme in photography throughout the 20th century and can be seen in works by French Surrealists and Russian Constructivists (such as Man Ray and Aleksandr Rodchenko) as well a
s 1970s Conceptual artists (Sandy Skoglund, William Wegman, Eileen Cowin, and Nic Nicosia). The “Untitled Film Stills” series, which Cindy Sherman started making in the late 1970s, remains a key influence on this new generation of photographers. In fact, as early as 1979, photography critic A. D. Coleman coined the phrase “directorial mode” to describe this approach.

However, Alexander sees something playful and free-spirited in the photography that emerged in the 1990s, especially among younger women photographers such as Anna Gaskell, Kate Belton, Julie Becker, and Dana Hoey. Gaskell, for example, has staged a modern version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in her series “wonder,” turning the rites of adolescence into a children’s story. More recently, in the series “by proxy,” Gaskell created dreamlike scenes of girls in nurse’s uniforms, loosely referring to the female protagonist of the film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and to Genene Jones, a pediatric nurse convicted of killing several patients. Hoey poses teenage girls in seemingly simple scenes that suggest an undercurrent of tension and danger—for instance, two girls swapping secrets on the lawn, in After School, or a young woman guiding four other women on a hike, in Hikers. The pictures appear to hold clues to a larger secret.

Hoey says that her images reflect personal experience but are not strictly autobiographical. While making her pictures, she says, “I envision thick realities—moments that are more often felt than seen. I have to make them visible, just as a painter does.” Gaskell, when asked why she stages photographs, explains, “Instead of walking around and trying to use the world to match my interests, it is easier for me to use a character I am familiar with and have an actress play out the narrative. The way I work, I can take full responsibility for what’s in the picture. I would feel guiltier placing my agendas on the world.” Noting that Sherman laid the groundwork for these new photographers, Alexander observes, “It is really about fantasy and the interior life of girls” rather than about the media and sexual stereotypes.

Despite the abundance of these fabricated visual narratives, photography critic Andy Grundberg, author of Crisis of the Real(Aperture), focusing on critical debates in photography over the last 35 years, maintains that viewers can detect constructed images. “In this media-saturated world, people are still able to draw distinctions between what is real and what is not,” he says. “They can still sort this out.”

Or maybe not, as photographer Peter Garfield found out when he fooled the public—as well as reviewers—during his recent exhibitions at Feigen Contemporary and the Queens Museum of Art in New York. Garfield’s photographs portray suburban tract homes flying or falling through the sky. In fact, the artist produced the work by flinging tiny models into the air. But the accompanying catalogue—a pure work of fiction—described the photographer as being engaged in a complex production with a crew of engineers and construction workers dropping full-scale houses over residential neighborhoods. “People were always very focused on how I made the photographs, which I never really wanted to talk about,” says Garfield. “So I decided to clarify by adding a whole new layer of deception.”

“If anything has happened in the last 25 years, it is that we have freed the photographer from being a slave to reportage,” says Grundberg. Indeed, with the advent of digital technology, the manipulation of images is an experience available to anyone owning a computer and Photoshop software. No longer do so many people believe that the photographer merely lies in wait for the “perfect moment” to snap the picture.

But as fabrications receive greater critical acceptance and public exposure, people will no longer be surprised by manufactured pictures. Who knows? Maybe, in the not so distant future, the unaltered image will be a shock, and artists will revisit the once cherished straight photograph.

Barbara Pollack is an ARTnews contributing editor.


© 2019 ARTnews Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved. ARTnews® is registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.