Theatres of the Real

Alfred Tomlins in Hunting Gear by an unknown photographer sometime pre-1914

Alfred Tomlins in Hunting Gear by an unknown photographer sometime pre-1914 (see note (ii) for its relationship to Clare Strand’s series Gone Astray Portraits)

Continuing with the theme of staged photography and having already crossed back across the Atlantic with a look at Alison Jackson (here) there are several other British photographers who have made, or are making their name, in this area.

Theatres of the Real (1) brings such a group together in one publication. This book underlines the fact that staged photography is a broad church, a genre that includes contrasting styles and practices that range from the cinematographic work of Wall (here) and Crewdson (here), the self acted film stills of Cindy Sherman (here) the tabloid mimicking exposés of Alison Jackson (here) to the more prosaic but often highly conceptual approach of British practitioners such as Pickering (here), Strand and Shafran.

Nigel Shafran

Nigel Shafran - 4th January 2000. Three bean soup, cauliflower vegetable cheese. Morbing coffee and croissants. From the series washing-up 2000

Nigel Shafran – 4th January 2000. Three bean soup, cauliflower vegetable cheese. Morning coffee and croissants. From the series Washing-up 2000

The most obvious difference lies in the varying levels of complexity in the mise-en-scéne constructed, found or appropriated by these artists. I have already looked closely at Crewdson who employs dozens of actors and technicians to construct his stages but in complete contrast we find Nigel Shafran (2) whose Washing-up series in 2000 used his own domestic sink and drainer as the theatre in which to play out his narratives.

Charlotte Cotton states that “he resists the urge to construct a scene to be photographed” (2) which suggests his work is neither still Life, which is a construct of inanimate objects (i) nor staged photography which has the intentional placing of props at its heart. This begs the question of how his work came to be included in Theatres of the Real, or for that matter in this essay, and the answer is to be found in the narrative that he creates regardless of whether he adjusted the position of these domestic objects or truly found them already organised into sculptures of the mundane.

Shafran creates what Mark Durden calls an “index of life” (4), reminiscent of those great American documentarists of the banal: Shore and Eggleston, but his images are a frozen moment pregnant with history and prescience. There are no actors here, but there is an overwhelming human presence, a found sculpture of domestic life; the scrap of tinsel left from Christmas, the washing up from last night’s evening meal still in the rack, the evidence of hot drinks just taken or being made and the breakfast items still in the sink. Without seeing or knowing the characters we can approach this scene as archeologists piecing together a fragment of this family’s life whilst simultaneously looking at their immediate past and future.

Sarah Pickering

Sarah Pickering High Street from the series Public Order 2002

Sarah Pickering High Street from the series Public Order 2002

Public Order (5) Sarah Pickering’s series based around a police training area is complimented by her 2008 series Incident (6) which, in a similar way, explores the Fire Service’s training facilities. I have previously discussed Public Order (here) but it is appropriate to revisit her work for two reasons; firstly like Shafran there is a documentary aspect to much of her work; secondly her stage is not of her own making but is more truly a theatrical set, a stage upon which a drama will unfold, than most of the landscapes in the other work discussed here.

The documentary element is of particular interest as Pickering has found ways to explore social issues without documenting actual events or the direct consequence of events; this is a subject I have discussed previously (here) and is an approach that is currently being explored by several practitioners of both late and staged photography and avoids, what Susie Linfield (7) calls the “fraught enterprise” of depicting “powerless (and) vulnerable people”

In the context of staged photography one of the exciting elements of Pickering’s work is the use of environments that have been constructed to mimic our streets, homes, pubs and shops but that she shows to be so obviously false. Many of her photographs evoke pictures of Hollywood sets and there is a relationship here to Gregory Crewdson’s Sanctuary series (8). Unlike a film set where the backdrop is fronted by fictional drama, the falsehood of these theatrical stages is indirectly juxtaposed to the reality of the activity that occurs here, setting in motion a chain of thought that, like fictional drama, suggests that these events could be played out for real in our own towns and villages.

Clare Strand

Clare Strand From the series Gone Astray Portraits 2001/2

Clare Strand From the series Gone Astray Portraits 2001/2

The next artist, Clare Strand, and her series Gone Astray Portraits  continues with the theme of theatrical sets. In this series Strand has appropriated a piece of theatre with stage-like settings and a piece of photographic history with her 19th century photographer’s studio-like painted backdrops. Joanna Lowry refers to these settings as “the studio tradition” of “bourgeois  fantasy” referencing the Victorian middle and lower classes’ desire to be photographed in costumes and sets that suggested a higher or more exciting station in life. (ii)

David Chandler (10) tells us that Strand dislikes “photography’s ordering tendency” so I have no wish to suggest that her work exclusively fits within the genre of staged photography; in fact, of the series on her website only Gone Astray Portraits, Gone Astray Details and Signs of a Struggle contain this aspect. However, for Gone Astray, Strand has created Victorian or Edwardian studio settings in which she has placed subjects who appear to be an eclectic selection of contemporary street characters. This is ambiguous series with no confirmation of whether we are looking at actors in costume playing a part or passers-by that Strand has brought into her studio. However, as Chandler points out, the subjects are perhaps too typical, too stereo-typed and too posed to be real so the series is both whimsical and humorous as well as questioning how identity is communicated via costume in the 21st century using a 19th century stage that was commonly used to distort our reading of identity in much the same way.

In Signs of a Struggle Strand appropriates forensic photography to, again rather amusingly, create possible crime scenes using props and photographs marked with the forensic investigators’ indicators. The monochrome photographs, mostly taken with harsh un-difused flash, are artificially  aged and presented on tattered and dog-eared cards that give the set an archival, 50s feel. The crimes, if that is what they are, are ambigious; the bark missing from a tree marked with a bold white cross, dark stains looking very unlike blood splatters on a white wall, and a parody of Richard Long’s A Line Made Walking now marked with two numbered evidence markers. A brief foray into Strand’s website suggests that she is steadily working her way through photographic styles whose original partitioners took very seriously but that Strand twists and distorts in a seemingly playful way.

Mitra Tabrizian

Mitra Tabrizian Marked Stranger from the series The Perfect Crime 2003/4

Mitra Tabrizian Marked Stranger from the series The Perfect Crime 2003/4

The tableaux photographs by Mitra Tabrizian included in Theatres of the Real are the most cinematographic in the collection. In The Perfect Crime (11) in particular there are many similarities to Jeff Wall and even Gregory Crewdson with clear references to TV crime dramas and cinema, a carefully created mise-en-scene, brightly lit, strong colours and the use of actors.

Tabrizian is also known as a film-maker so it comes as no surprise that much of her work includes these cinematic attributes but there is also a strong narrative, a still film (as opposed to a film still) that suggests the next frame or the ending of the story. However, whereas Crewdson’s work to some degree begins and ends with his narratives, Tabrizian weaves into her plots questions about violence, identity, race, sexuality, crime, authority and the way in which the modern working environment creates grey stereotypical workers in a Orwellian-like world. Stuart Hall (12) points that she “un-frames” her images from their “Pulp-Fiction-like locations and re-stages them within wider contexts of racial and sexual violence”; this gives her photographs an edge that is not present in Crewdson’s work and is perhaps more deeply hidden in Jeff Wall’s; Tabrizian’s images often retain Tarantino’s ability to shock and unsettle the audience, we can predict what happens next but suspect that it doesn’t include a happy ending.

Unlike the quite gentle domesticity of Shafran’s visual inventory of his life and the playful questioning of identity by Strand, Tabrizian confronts the headline issues of contemporary life. By appropriating the popular narrative form of violent cinema and TV crime drama with all its polished lack of subtlety and visual allure she is able to ask complex questions in a  form that is readily understood and thereby hugely effective.

Tom Hunter

Tom Hunter Murder Two Men Wanted

Tom Hunter Murder Two Men Wanted from the series Living in Hell and Other Stories

Tom Hunter’s contribution to this book is probably the work that most closely matches the title of Theatres of the Real. In Living in Hell and Other Stories Hunter took stories from his local paper, The Hackney Gazette, and weaves them into his own fictions. He chooses locations near to the actual event further blurring the line between truth and fiction and uses friends and acquaintances as his actors. Hunter is from Dorset and took inspiration from another Dorset man, Thomas Hardy, who used local newspaper stories as inspiration for his novels.

Hunter uses Hackney in the same way that Jeff Wall uses Vancouver, it is has the faceless, mundane, normality of any inner city area, featureless and generic so whilst his stories might resonate with locals who could match his fiction to the lurid front page stories they represent they also speak to the fears of most town and city residents. The body found in the park by a dog walker, the sexual assault at twilight by the old bandstand, or the violence of road rage.

A further twist which links Hunter to Wall is his use of classical paintings as a second referent so the suicide victim is based not just on the Hackney Gazette headline but on Sebastiano del Piombo’s Death of Adonis. Like Wall’s use of classical paintings the relationship is more “in the style of” than any form of copy or even a homage but the colours and lighting in his work have a distinct classical style.

Tom Hunter’s website is a rich source of tableaux and stage photography. For over twenty-five years he has explored his adopted home of Hackney becoming intimate with its landscape, history and evolving culture. This concentration of attention on a single place  has met one of the basic principles of documentary, he has a depth of understanding and sensitivity to his environment that is only achieved by a long term and observant resident and this is communicated in his work. He is strongly influenced by Vermeer and recognised that the Dutch painter’s focus on a single small place, Delft, allowed him to , as it were, put it “under a microscope” (14) Hunter echoes Stephen Shore’s early motivations to make ordinary people important by his photographic representation of middle America and argues that Vermeer also “lifted the ordinary people to a higher status within their time and forever more” and that this has been part of his aim in Hackney.

Hunter’s work is too varied and complex for to only discuss within the context of this book review so I suspect I will return to him at a later date.

Summary in The Context of Assignment 5

The most important lesson to be drawn from looking at these British based artists is that the usual suspects of Sherman, Wall and Crewdson are only the tip of iceberg. Both tableaux and staged photography is thriving as an art form and in approaching the final assignment of this course I hope to go some way to understanding why that is the case.

There is a wealth of inspiration in Theatres of the Real; the weaving of narrative in many different forms and the varied aesthetic approaches by artists who are engaged in using staged photography to pursue documentary in a manner that would resonate with the best known concerned photographers of previous generations.

Notes on Text

(i) The Tate Museum Glossary describes still life as subject matter “that does not move or is dead” (3) but this seems a rather all encompassing definition that would include the depiction of any inanimate object in any setting. Whilst finding a clear definition is not my main mission here I take still life to infer a placed selection of the said immobile or dead objects.

(ii) This idea reminded me of some of the photographs in my own family’s archive; the first photograph included at the top of this essay is of my Grandfather and was probably taken sometime before he went to war in 1914. It has always struck me as odd depiction of Alfred who was the son of a builder, a trooper in the Horse Guards and whose only known connection to hunting was to use ferrets to catch rabbits in the 1940s. This photograph is part fantasy and part aspirational but it begs the question of who the lower classes thought they were fooling when they dressed up and were photographed as gentry.



(1) Chandler, David and Henneman, Inge (2009) Theatres of the Real. Published to coincide with the exhibition Theatres of the Real devised and curated by Joanna Lowry and David Green and first exhibited at the FotoMusuem Provincie Antwerpen. Co-published by London: Photoworks, Antwerpen: FotoMusuem.

(2) Cotton, Charlotte. (2004) The Photograph as Contemporary Art. New edition 2009. London: Thames and Hudson.

(4) Durden, Mark ( 2014) Photography Today. London: Phaidon Press.

(7) Linfield, Susie (2010) The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

(8) Crewdson, Gregory (201o) Sanctuary. New York: Abrams


(2) Shafran, Nigel (2000) Washing-up (accessed at the artist’s website 28.5.15) –

(3) The Tate Glossary (accessed at the National Archive 28.5.15) –

(5) Pickering, Sarah (2008) Public Order (accessed at the artist’s website 29.9.15) –

(6) Pickering, Sarah (2002 to 2004) Public Order (accessed at the artist’s website 29.9.15) –

(9) Strand, Clare (2002/3) Gone Astray Portraits (accessed at the artist’s website 30.9.15) –

(10) Chandler, David (?) – Clare Strand from vanity fair (accessed at Clare Strand’s website 25/9/15) –

(11) Tabrizian, Mitra (2003-4) The Perfect Crime (accessed at the artist’s website 30.9.15) –

(12) Hall, Stuart (2004) The Way we Live Now (accessed at the artist’s website 30.9.15) –

(13) Hunter, Tom Living in Hell and Other Stories (accessed at the artist’s website 1.10.15) –

(14) Hunter, Tom (2012) Introduction to The Way Home (accessed at the artists website 1.10.15) –


This entry was posted in Assignment 5 - Making It Up, Books & Exhibitions, Research and Reflection and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Theatres of the Real

  1. Catherine says:

    You’ve made the book sound so interesting and useful that I’ve ordered one Steve. Did you see the Simon Shama film the other night on portraiture – fascinating on staging a public persona.

    • It is a good book and Ive since acquired Nigel Shafran’s monograph which is excellent and would like to get something by Tom Hunter. Are you a member of Photoworks? – you get discount on their publications which (i think) mostly focus on British photographers which makes a nice change. I didn’t see the Shama programme – I’ll look for it on catch up.

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