Photography - Set Up and Make Believe

Robert Adamson (1821-48) and David Octavius Hill (1802-70) - 'Mr Lane in Indian Dress' 1843-7

We use photographs in different ways. We use them as Memories to record our lives (as we would like to remember them), we use the cameras objective eye to Document the world as it is, we use photographs as Objects to hold and display, and today, we use them as contemporary art and display them on gallery walls. We have used them in these ways since photography's announcement in 1839 and most of these approaches rely on us believing in Photography's ability to capture the world as it is - showing us the world in all its ugly detail. However, there is another long tradition of photographs being set up, staged, put together and created. I am not referring to images not set up to con the viewer - for those images see Fakes & Hoaxes. Instead this section will look at images that have been set up in the same way that in the tradition of Western Painting the scene is set up, a tableau, like a stage and to tell a story. This is actually one of the major uses of photography - from the dream world of cinema to the aspirational images of Advertising and Fashion.
Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879), "Lancelot and Guinevere (Lancelot and Elaine)" 1873

In the early days of Photography people really did not know how it should be used. Should it be used scientifically to capture the world or should it be a new branch of art. One group believed in sharpness and faithfulness (both physically and conceptually) while another group believed that fine art and theatrical traditions were the best means to explore the new medium. This was encouraged my the fact that middle class Victorians became bored in the evening - there was no Television, Radio or internet to occupy their time. Instead it wasn't uncommon for them to dress up and act out scenes from the classics. In 1843, the painter David Octavius Hill worked with the photographer Robert Adamson to produce a range of images based on the writing of Walter Scott. Other photographers of this era who worked in this way include Oscar J.Rejlander (1813-75) 'Two ways of Life' and Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901) 'Fading Away'.
Julia Margaret Cameron 1872
Julia Margaret Cameron 'Tennyson's Idylls of the King' 1875
Julia Margaret Cameron created portraits of her famous circle of friends. She also created her own romantic images based on religion and renaissance art, and also the Arthurian legend. 
These themes were shared with the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood who were a young, radical group of artists who broke away from the Royal Academy of the Arts in 1848. The rules of art at that time were to adopt the techniques of the old masters but the Pre Raphaelites wanted to paint direct from nature, with 'objectivity' and 'truthfulness', harking back to a time pre Raphael. Their interest in nature and nostalgia for a bygone times was shared by William Morris whose ideas and work influenced Art Nouvaeu (for more information read here). This interest in nature and the past happened during the Industrial Revolution with all the horror and inequalities that came with it. These artists escaped reality - it would take other artists to tackle the inequalities full on. Photographers like Lewis W Hine used a objective documentary photography to start the process of change at the start of the 20th century. 

Julia Margaret Cameron has become famous for her prtraits. This is a photographic portrait of an Italian man, possibly an artist's model called Alessandro Colorossi. She had the ability to create simple and beautiful images, slightly out of focus with a romantic atmosphere. This image could be an advert for a fragrance - it almost looks like a modern advertisment or fashion shot.
'Seth Kinman, California hunter', 1864. Carte de visite photograph by Matthew Brady
'Contortionist, posed in studio' Thiele's Photographic Rooms Circa 1880
Maria Germanova of the Moscow Arts Theatre, costumed for her role in 'Bluebird of Happiness'

Carte de Visite photographs--small albumen prints mounted on cards 2-1/2 by 4 inches--were wildly popular and made for decades in countries around the world. The format was an international standard; for the first time, relatives and friends could exchange portraits, knowing they would find a place in the recipient's family album--whether that album was located in Manchester, Berlin or Brazil. In addition, unlike earlier photographs made with such processes as the daguerreotype and ambrotype, cartes de visite could be sent through the mail without the need for a bulky case and fragile cover-glass. Their small size also made them relatively inexpensive, and they became so widespread that by 1863 Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes would write, "Card portraits, as everybody knows, have become the social currency, the 'green-backs' of civilization."
Joe Jefferson 19th Century Stage actor

The Carte de Vista were not meant to be made up images but by their very nature they ended up being fantastic. People would visit a photographers studio which is an artificial environment with artificial backdrops and props. People would also dress for the occasion from their best cloths, to costumes, to actors publicising their current role. These images would be sent out into the world, representing the individual - it only stands to reason that what appears on the card is an idealised version of the individual. The Carte de vista was the victorian eras version of the image on your Facebook page.
George Melies - 'A Voyage to the moon' 1902
In the early days of cinema, like in the early days of photography (or the internet), people did not know what to do with the new technology. Now we are used to loosing ourselves in a good film - it takes us away from our own lives. If we see the film projected in the dark of a cinema the effect is even stronger. Cinema deals in dreams and fantasies and some of the most exciting and strange early cinema came from George Melies. His vision was truly realized in 'A Voyage to the Moon' 1902. He was the grandfather of special effects and made films entertaining. Other early film experiments took place in Hove, Sussex.

Still from 'Pan's Labyrinth' Guillermo Del Toro's 2006
Modern cinema has continued to create fantasy worlds for us to loose ourselves in. 'Pan's Labyrinth' is a fanciful and chilling story set against the backdrop of a fascist regime in 1944 rural Spain. It is a bold juxtaposition of real and unreal worlds - mixing visually inventive fantasy with the menace of Franco-ite Spain. The film centers on Ofelia, a lonely and dreamy child living with her mother and adoptive father; a military officer tasked with ridding the area of rebels. In her loneliness, Ofelia creates a world filled with fantastical creatures and secret destinies. With post-war repression at its height, Ofelia must come to terms with her world through a fable of her own creation.”. Del Toro's has cited Goya as an influence on the visual elements of his films.
Saturn Devouring His Son is the name given to a painting by Spanish artist Francisco Goya. It depicts the Greek myth of the Titan Cronus (in the title Romanised to Saturn), who, fearing that his children would overthrow him, ate each one upon their birth. It is one of the series of Black Paintings that Goya painted directly onto the walls of his house sometime between 1819 and 1823.

The work was transferred to canvas after Goya's death and now resides in the Museo del Prado in Madrid. The grainy warm colours are similar to the tones in 'Pan's Labyrinth'. In the film Del Toro jumps between warm orangy hues and cool blue monochromes. Goya also created 'The Disasters of War' 1810-1820 showing what people are capable of in times of war.
Madame Yevonde circa 1930's

Madame Yevonde was a Portrait photographer who was a pioneer in photographic techniques, experimenting with solarisation and associated particularly with the development of the now-defunct Vivex process. Madame Yevonde, like Julia Margaret Cameron, used her high society connections to photograph key figures of her time often in elaborate set up photo-shoots. Yevonde's intention was to promote the artistic element in portraiture. British socialites loved to dress up and to play charades, and Yevonde combined this tendency with her knowledge of the new Parisian portrait style of Man Ray.
Cindy Sherman 'Untitled 96' 1981
By turning the camera on herself, Cindy Sherman has built a name as one of the most respected photographers of the late twentieth century. The majority of her photographs are pictures of herself, however, these photographs are most definitely not self-portraits. Rather, Sherman uses herself as a vehicle for commentary on a variety of issues of the modern world: the role of the woman, the role of the artist and many more. It is through these ambiguous and eclectic photographs that Sherman has developed a distinct signature style. Through a number of different series of works, Sherman has raised challenging and important questions about the role and representation of women in society, the media and the nature of the creation of art.
Sherman came to prominence during the 1970's when performance art was at its height. There is an element of performance to Sherman's images and the photograph is partly a recording of an act. Sherman's early work was black and white film stills from imaginary films. Interestingly as she has got older she has exaggerated the aging process and make up -the characters seem to become more ridiculous and grotesque. Her work as a whole makes you consider mortality and how we age in our own lives.
Sandy Skolund 'Radioactive Cats' 1980
Sandy Skoglund 'Fox Games' 1989

Sandy Skoglund was another artist who came from the 1970's art scene. Initially she was an installation artist who used photography to document her work. Photography has always been used to document and to the conceptual artists of the 1970's the photograph was a perfect objective medium to record their work. However, the look of these images and the idea of photography as a document of performance/conceptual art has influenced the look of contemporary photography and become a way to use the medium. Many artists including Cindy Sherman, Duane Michals and Andy Goldsworthy are artist who use photography to document their work. They blur the edges between performance artists, sculptors and photographers.

Skoglund's original installations were made from everyday items but with her later work (for example 'Radioactive Cats') she began making the objects that appeared in her installations. Her work became more about making, and in many ways, less conceptual. The installations would take months to create and the photograph became the main way people saw her work. Whole monochrome sets would be contrasted with brightly painted clay figures (cats, foxes etc) creating a surreal scene.
Gregory Crewdson
Gregory Crewdson uses Hollywood techniques to create glossy Edward Hopper-esque portraits of American life. He works like a Film Director with an enormous crew and artificial lighting. But where Hopper stripped life bare, Credson's images offer an overabundance of detail.

Red Saunders creates photographic tableaux vivants. The images recreate significant but overlooked moments from British history - specifically ones that contributed to the struggle for democracy and equality (Saunders founded 'Rock against Racism'). The photographs are lavishly lit and, like Crewdson, Saunders is more like a director than a traditional photographer.
At first Thomas Demands images seem dull and everyday - a messy office, a kitchen table or a sink full of pots. All of his images are constructed and based on images he fines in text books, magazines and periodicals (usually buildings and interiors). Using these images as his basis he constructs meticulous models of the chosen scenarios in his studio. Look again at his photographs and you can just about tell that the material he has used is paper and card - like elaborate origami. He then carefully lights the models and photographs them using a large format camera. There always seems to be something 'wrong' with Demand's images and it is this tension between the real and the fake which exists in all photographs.

jeff wall


di corcia

An example of a green screen being used to create a false location

Cristina De Middel - 'The Afronauts'
Cristina De Middel's Photo book 'The Afronauts' was inspired by Edward Makuka's failed Zambian space program (which aimed to put the first African man on the moon in the 1960's). De Middle presented this series of images as a Photo book - intended to be seen, and only making sense, in book form. The forgotten space program has been re-imagined and only exists in these surreal images.