> Over-Still – Reflections on Staged Photography

Greg Leach / Over-Still – Reflections on Staged Photography

November 2017


With Gregory Crewdson’s new body of work, Cathedral of the Pines, having monopolised the Photographers’ Gallery this summer, it seems opportune to reflect upon the history and status of staged photography within photographic art. To clarify my position from the outset, I remain conflicted about its renaissance over the past thirty years: grateful, on the one hand, for the part it’s played in elevating photography as fine art; rueful, on the other, that this promotion was achieved through the re-emergence of a historic practice that predates many of the medium’s aesthetic innovations.

Although aspects of staging are employed in numerous genres of photography, ‘staged photography’ has become a mode of practice in its own right. My use of the term within this essay refers to that practice, which I take to be: the creation of a photographed scene in which characters (actors or models, and sometimes the photographer him/herself) are posed in the construction of an event or moment, real or fictional, in an artificial, controlled or selected setting, with implications of narrative, and incorporating some level of conscious discourse with the traditions of image-making through history, up to the present day.

In representing human activity, painting and drawing traditionally rely on staging, on positions and poses being artificially held to allow for prolonged scrutiny by the artist (at least when working from real life). For decades after its invention, photography operated under similar constraints due to the length of exposure required to make a successful image. Although exposure times were gradually reduced over this period, it was not until the late-1870s that technological developments enabled shutter speeds comparable to those we know today. Around the same time, Eadweard Muybridge and Thomas Eakins began their explorations of motion using multiple cameras and flash. Irrefutably, the nature and limitations of any creative medium are governed by technology, from the chemical composition of paints to the innumerable incarnations of the camera. The method of expression is inseparable from the tools employed, whether mechanical or otherwise. It is commonly held that photography’s first great innovation was its indexical realism, its ‘truth to appearances’ based on the causal link between object and image, coupled with its perceived ability to capture and ‘hold’ a point in time. But because these moments had to be stilled (or were inherently still) for the purposes of the camera, and because painterly pictorial paradigms were already firmly established, there was no impetus to develop an aesthetic that was quintessentially photographic, as the early artistic history of the medium testifies – the likes of William Lake Price, Oscar Rejlander, Henry Peach Robinson and Julia Margaret Cameron. The turning point arrived with its second great innovation, which was to freeze motion, thanks to the technological advances described above. For the first time, the everyday world was revealed in ways not available to the naked eye. As Walter Benjamin was later to emphasise, photography can show us aspects of the animated world that cannot otherwise be apperceived.

My contention is that photography truly began to find an original creative voice at the point when this attribute became available. But it would be wrong – and overly literal – to deduce that the only worthwhile photographs are those that in some way freeze motion. I would argue instead that it was from this point of distinction that photography gained the confidence to re-evaluate its approach to all subject matter, generating photographs of traditionally ‘painterly’ subjects that were no longer shaped by the overbearing influence of that medium; or, indeed, by finding new subject matter that was previously thought artistically unworthy. Therefore, my ambivalence towards contemporary staged photography lies in its legitimisation as art through regression, through strategies that draw it back into the realm of painting. On some level, this has always felt like an admission of defeat. It can be argued, of course, that this reversion to the past was not mere resurrection, that it was part of a process of historical, cultural and critical re-evaluation under postmodernism. Undeniably, photographic staging played a vital role in this overhaul, as represented by pioneers like Cindy Sherman, who addressed issues of representation by making images about images; and Jo Spence, whose work drew on the psychodramatic restaging of events and experiences that were misrepresented (in a way, also staged) within the family photo-album. Echoes of these innovators then resonated through the work of Trish Morrissey, Sarah Jones and Gillian Wearing amongst many others, and can even be seen in Gregory Crewdson’s latest project, which he acknowledges is his most personal, drawing on his own upbringing and using members of his family as models.

But for all the psychological complexity of Crewdson’s images (and putting aside his debt to the cinema for the moment) I believe his visual lexicon is dominated by a different set of longer-term influences. As Paul Carey-Kent points out in his excellent review of Cathedral of the Pines featured on this website, the language of his latest body of work is ‘more painterly than cinematic,’ citing Edward Hopper and the Hudson River School in particular. This core inspiration, unfiltered by a desire to critique the source, reflects the extent to which the work’s ‘staginess’ derives from practices far removed from the cultural incisions of postmodern staging, finding their root in the traditional narrative staging of historical painting, even if Crewdson’s stories are shrouded in mystery. By extension, this debt must also encompass the work of founding photo-artists like Lady Clementina Hawarden, whose constructed scenes, using her daughters as models, were grounded in photography’s desire to emulate painting and ‘high art’, in the absence of its own values and aesthetic.

As a leading light in photo-staging, Crewdson’s success is due in part to the plaudits he receives from critics over the years. Indeed, the critical reception to the re-emergence of staged photography has been broadly positive, often justifiably so. At times, however, the rationale for its endorsement has aligned precisely with my misgivings. Michael Fried’s book, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before (2008), exemplifies this. In it he claims that one of the main reasons for photography’s ‘newfound’ artistic relevance lies in its reconnection with the preoccupations of 19th century French painters, who explored how facets of staging impact upon the viewer’s relationship with the scene depicted. He drew extensively on the images of Jeff Wall to illustrate this hypothesis, which placed emphasis on the painstaking control of compositional structure, as if this alone equates to ‘artistry’. The impression gained from his tract is that the locus of serious art remains in the academic, classical and elitist realms. I was alarmed by his implicit dismissal of photography’s contribution in many of its modernist and postmodernist manifestations.

Nevertheless, I am happy to concede that my broad argument is dangerously sweeping and could ultimately lead us back to the insularity of modernism; indeed, I can hear distant echoes of Clement Greenberg’s modernist dictum – that every medium should seek to distil its essential properties – in my own argument. ­In reality, of course, the heterogeneity of contemporary photography – its seemingly inexorable expansion – makes it highly resistant to limitation; any attempt to exclude a single mode of practice from its multifarious repertoire of techniques, forms, disciplines and platforms would surely be futile. Moreover, I have already acknowledged the important role staging has played in the postmodern critique of history and culture, including painting. This occurs most successfully when the reference to painting is explicit or specific; the work of Yinka Shonibare or Tom Hunter springs to mind. Shonibare in particular, in his Diary of a Victorian Dandy series from the late-1990s, satirises the artificiality of the painterly gesture in the exposition of power narratives, a ploy I remember noticing, in more gentle form, in the contemporaneous work of Frances Kearney, whose quiet pictures of rural domestic life from this period have a quality of ‘double stillness’: a moment held in both physical and photographic suspension – a strategy that seemed to drain the photograph of its energy in ways that were interesting and thought-provoking. But this very quickly became a trope of staged photography, and consequently suffered from the law of diminishing returns. Again, Paul Cary-Kent alludes to this in relation to Crewdson’s ‘give me less’ direction to his models, and their consequent reduction to ‘empty vessels’ ­– a state that relates directly to the prevalence of the deadpan in various photographic genres, from portraiture to fashion.

The quality of stillness across the spectrum of staged photography is not, however, universal. There is a spectrum, at the poles of which are what I dub dynamic staging and ennui staging. Dynamic staging is epitomised by the work of Anna Gaskell, whose imagery of girls and young women engaged in fictional, fairy-tale adventures is often loosely composed, highly energised and intimate, enhancing the sense of intervention into ongoing events. Gregory Crewdson’s modus operandi is a prime example of ennui staging, partly necessitated by his methodology: the large-format camera, with its heightened moment of exposure, augmented by post-production. Studying his pictures can draw the viewer into a state of comparable stasis, a sense that the whole world has stopped turning, if only temporarily. There is also a broadly consistent distance-from-subject in his pictures, which enhances the impression of the frame as a stage, placing emphasis on setting and mise-en-scène, traits that again have painterly antecedents. Having established these poles of practice, I would further place Hannah Starkey’s influential female-centred staged observations at a midpoint between the two, with Jeff Wall, arguably the doyen of staging, adopting a ‘pick-n-mix’ approach dependent upon the specific intentions of each of his pieces, a strategy complicated by his extensive use of composite imagery and post-production. As a result, some of his works defy easy categorization within my spectrum. His renowned A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) (1993), for example, depicts an apparently fleeting moment generally associated with photography’s motion-freezing attributes, and yet it is clearly the product of meticulous compositional deliberation, drawing it back towards the conventions of painting.

Subsections of staging can also be identified through the relative camera-consciousness of the subjects depicted, an area where staging begins to merge with portraiture or fashion photography, or both. Levels of direction can sometimes be surmised when viewing a photographer’s oeuvre; Bill Henson, for example, appears to allow a degree of improvisation from his nocturnal teenage subjects. While his work can be categorized as staged photography, it also overlaps portraiture and fashion, and as such is indicative of a shift towards genre-defying, hybrid practices in photographic culture. One question that remains (deliberately) unresolved in many staged images is: To what extent are the people depicted being themselves, performing as themselves, or performing as another person, real or imaginary? – a question that can be extended to all orchestrated photographs of people, as well as speaking to the age-old debate about the medium’s capacity to reveal beyond its surface, particularly in relation to psychological explication in portraiture. If anything, Crewdson’s ploy of using recognisable actors in his pictures brings greater ambiguity – or intrigue ­– to the problem. One of the conundrums of the actor is working out where to place the division between self and assumed identity.

Staged photography undoubtedly owes a significant debt to the cinema. Increasingly, however, this influence has been reversed, with static, ‘Crewdson-esque’ (or ‘Hopper-esque’) shots – meticulously designed and compositionally withdrawn – being incorporated into film narratives. Their inclusion brings a quality of repose and poetic reflection to a time-and-motion based medium, film-making being rooted in the techniques of editing, specifically montage. Although relatively fleeting by nature, I often find such images more effective and enduring than their photographic counterparts, perhaps because they are less conspicuously freighted with meaning, contributing to the wider themes of the film – our understanding of a character’s predicament, for example – without having to carry all the signifying baggage. Perhaps I have simply seen too many staged photographs.

Despite this cross-fertilization, a basic distinction should be drawn between photographic staging and cinematic ­– or indeed theatrical – staging, both of which incorporate motion and occur through time. On the face of it, photographic staging appears to equate more to the tableau vivant tradition, in which painterly and/or historic scenes were presented live for a paying audience. It might be assumed that the emergence of photography rendered this practice superfluous; in fact, the two were concurrent, with tableau vivant enjoying its peak of popularity during the decades of photography’s emergence and consolidation in the first part of the 20th century. This suggests that the physical presence of the players – the frisson of their palpability – continued, despite the frozen postures, to offer something to the spectator that the photograph was incapable of supplying, for all its miraculous realism. This speaks to my earlier point. In freezing the flux of human actions, photography repeatedly proves that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to simulate a transient moment of human gesture or expression as a pose held in real time, because some facet of its suspension or artificiality always infiltrates the being of the performer. In this context, what photographs reveal to us about the physical operation of our bodies cannot be faked or recreated. Inevitably, then, the staged photograph is unlikely to describe the world in ways that only the camera can – an accusation that could, admittedly, be levelled at both portrait and landscape photography in their traditional modes, once again exposing a dangerously censorious side to this argument.

Nevertheless, my reservations about the popularity of staged photography persevere. This may be due to my reluctance to accept the medium’s assimilation into a wider category of pictorial representation, for so long dominated by painting. I like to think of photography as special, even though, with the shift from analogue to digital, clear distinctions between media are rapidly collapsing. Educationally, I am the product of a bygone era, having originally studied photography way back in the early-to-mid 1980s, when the medium was grappling with the seismic shift from modernism to postmodernism. Perhaps I never fully outgrew the more antiquated values that informed my understanding, even as they were being dismantled in front of me. One thing is for certain: pictorial staging, in all its forms, will always have a part to play in art practice. It has, after all, survived the vicissitudes of critical reception over centuries.

© Greg Leach


Yinka Shonibare’s photographs can be found at:

Anna Gaskell’s photographs can be found at:

Thanks to Frances Kearney for image rights permission