The shoot for assignment 5 was approached in four stages.
Stage One – Trepidation
Stage 2 – Supplication
Stage 3 Sanctuary
Stage 4 The Ceiling
The shoot for assignment 5 was approached in four stages.
Stage One – Trepidation
Stage 2 – Supplication
Stage 3 Sanctuary
Stage 4 The Ceiling
This project has been influenced and inspired by staged photography, figurative art, graffiti, romantic painting, photojournalism, news media, political posters and medieval art.
As previously discussed (here) when there is an imbalance of opportunity, prosperity, security or social tolerance between the regions of the world humans will continue to migrate. Since the first humanids crossed from Africa into Asia and Europe there has been a constant ebb and flow of humanity across the globe yet each generation confronts immigration as if it is a new challenge. Politicians and their media supporters exploit the anxieties of their constituents, internalising the issue, exaggerating the impact, projecting “us” as the victim and “them” as the threat. This process of characterising the immigrant as a threat relieves the pressure on society to address its failings but more fundamentally distracts attention from the human tragedy that is unfolding on the borders of Europe.
The images montaged above are but a few of the thousands available on line that tell a story of desperation, tragedy and hopelessness on the one hand and racism, tribalism, religious intolerance, prejudice and protectionism on the other. This project is inspired by the despair of those millions of people who have left everything they value to seek a safer and better life in another place.
My ideas are influenced by the process of internalisation that is best summed up by Steven George (1) “Blame immigrants for your failings – people like this.”
I have previously discussed how the Abbey ruins are, in themselves, a rich source of symbolism and how its history and status influence this project. (here)
Over the last several weeks I have been looking at the work of a selection of tableaux and staged photographers; the degree to which this niche is filled by such a variety of different practices came as something of a surprise. On one extreme there is Gregory Crewdson with his huge hollywood-style cinematographic productions that are unmistakably staged in the most literal sense of the word and then, at the other extreme, Tom Hunter who uses local people and found locations to create zero budget tableaux which are often as engaging as Crewdson’s, perhaps because of their raw reality.
It would be wrong to suggest that every artist I researched directly influenced assignment 5 but they all contributed to opening my mind to the opportunities of this type of photography.
The ideas I have taken into assignment 5:
The most important idea I came away with is that, like late photography, staged photography offers the photographer a way to address documentary or social subjects without exploiting the victim. (as discussed here)
Gregory Crewdson (here):
Jeff Wall (here):
Sarah Pickering (here):
Mitra Tabrizan (here):
Tom Hunter (here):
Anna Fox (here):
19th Century Romantic Painting
Having chosen Waverley Abbey as my location (here) I researched oil paintings of ruins; initially I was interested in how the romantic painters dealt with the difference in scale between ruined buildings and human subjects but I quickly realised that there seemed to be an accepted aesthetic of warm light regardless of the location of the ruin.
This idea seems so closely associated with paintings of ruins that I believe it can be used as a signifier to connote that the ruin is indeed ‘romantic”. Contemporary to these paintings Waverley Abbey was a “garden feature” in the grounds of Waverley Abbey House so to use this light links the Abbey to part of its own history when it would have been seen as romantic.
Fifty years after Hubert Robert was painting his romantic ruins Louis Daguerre, perhaps best remembered for his contributions to photography, was also painting ruins. The Ruins of Holyrood Chapel is lit with the cold light of the moon but I was struck by the partially unexplained light in the left hand corner.
It is a similar idea to Gregory Crewdson’s technique of using directed light to pick out the important subjects but it goes a further than that by adding a mystery to the scene. I felt that this was an idea that could be carried forward to my photograph.
Medieval Religious Art
In medieval religious art a pillar was often used to show the division between heaven and earth or the divine and the mundane as shown in these two different interpretations of the annunciation by Robert Campin and Giusto de Menabuoi. (5)
I am appropriating this idea into my final image where the area to the left of the pillar will represent the place of danger and to the right the place of sanctuary. This uses medieval religious art as a referent and helps provide a link between the final image and the site’s origins.
Pose and Gesture
As mentioned above pose and gesture is important to the creation of tableaux and I researched many paintings and photographs to help plan the shoot and to discuss with the actresses (see shoot plan here).
I was particularly influenced by the photography of Steve Curry and the paintings of Andrew Wyeth. I notice that Andrew Wyeth has also been an influence on a number of other photographers including Tom Hunter (6).
A Supplication for the Beggars
In 1529 a Protestant lawyer by the name of Simon Fish wrote and distributed a pamphlet, that today might be referred to as an open letter to Henry VIII, asking him, Our Sovereign Lord, to dissolve the monasteries and appropriate their lands and wealth.
Fish puts forward a complex and detailed argument that highlights the disparity in wealth between England’s poor and the church. He describes how much of this wealth was generated by being paid to pray for the rapid progress of souls through purgatory, a conceptual place between earth and heaven that the Protestants argued had been created as a commercial rather than religious concept.
The idea of the poor begging for alms from the rich church provides a metaphor for the immigrant supplicating themselves before the authority of the establishment to gain access to a place of wealth and prosperity. I have written a little more about how this document fits into my thought process here.
In this context the meaning of the word supplication is important;
(2) de Duve, Thierry; Pelemc, Arielle; Groys, Boris; Chevrier, Jean-François (1996) Jeff Wall (second edition 2002) London: Phaidon
(5) Farthing, Stephen (2006) 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die. London: Quintessence.
(7) Fish, Simon (1529) A Supplicacyon for the Beggars. Edited by Edward Arbor. Gutenberg eBook, Kindle Edition.
(4) Fox, Anna (2013) Loisirs (accessed at the artist’s website 14.10.15) – http://www.annafox.co.uk/work/france/
(1) George, Steven (2015) People Like This (accessed at the author’s website 15.10.15) – http://www.peoplelikethis.co.uk
(3) Crewdson, Gregory (2012) GregoryCrewdson’s Photography Capturing a Movie Frame: Art in Progress: Reserve Channel (accessed at Youtube 23.8.15) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S7CvoTtus34&feature=youtu.be
(6) Hunter, Tom (2009) Anchor and Hope (accessed at the Artist’s website 15.10.15) – http://www.tomhunter.org/unheralded-stories-series/
For perhaps the first century of photography’s history documentary photographers very directly addressed their subjects. In his speech to a conference of charities in 1909 Lewis Hine (1) beseeched his audience to get a camera and start documenting injustice because as he put it “there is an urgent need for the intelligent interpretation of the World’s workers”. Hine dedicated much of his adult life to this very thing. At no point in that speech does Hine refer to any ethical questions about photographing vulnerable people even though he was predominantly photographing children at this time.
However, as photography became increasingly popular both for professionals and amateurs the moral high ground of the engaged photographer became threatened by the criticism of eloquent philosophers like Susan Sontag (2) who accused photography of having a “chrome voyeuristic” relationship with the world that levelled the meaning of events. In 1981 Martha Rosler questioned the motives of both serious and amateur photographers who were prowling the Bowery and engaged in what she saw as victim photography. Susie Linfield writing as recently as 2010 highlights that the whole practice of direct documentary photography has become a “fraught enterprise” and many amateur photographers, including myself have needed to reevaluate their approach to street photography.
I see this as one of the most important ethical debates in contemporary photography (see note ii and here) and recognise that as a photographer taking pictures nearly exclusively for my own amusement that, if I wish to discuss social injustice, I have to, as Linfield would say, avoid the fraught enterprise. I began this course using Late Photography to explore the invisibility of the homeless (here) and there is a sense of having closed a circle by finishing the course using Staged Photography to investigate our reaction to migration and its impact on human dignity and identity.
Concept – The Stage
I discussed the socio-political background to immigration in an earlier essay (here) so I want to concentrate on the ideas behind assignment 5.
Using the setting of a medieval abbey as a “theatrical” stage assignment 5 looks at both immigration and identity. Waverley Abbey was the first Cistercian abbey in Britain and was in itself founded by thirteen French immigrants in 1128. Unlike other Cistercian Abbeys such as Fountains or Rievaulx this was never a rich house and its monks are recorded as “having endured poverty and famine” (6) as well being flooded out on several occasions. The Cistercians were described by a 10th century contemporary (iii) as the order that offered the “surest road to heaven” because of their austere and frugal lifestyle. (iv)
The original function of the site is symbolic:
Using the ruins of the West Range which was the lay brothers’ house is also symbolic.
The small area of roof that still exists is supported by two central pillars.
In medieval religious art a pillar was often used to show the division between heaven and earth or the divine and the mundane as shown in these two different interpretations of the annunciation by Robert Campin and Giusto de Menabuoi. (10)
I am appropriating this idea into my final image where the area to the left of the pillar will represent the place of danger and to the right the place of sanctuary. This uses medieval religious art as a referent and helps provide a link between the final image and the site’s origins.
Act 1 – Entry
The narrative is intended to flow from the left hand corner where two characters gain access to the stage. They are entering through a window, an apparent act of illegal entry that an obvious metaphor for the illegal immigrant.
In act 1 the women will be dressed modestly, long dresses or trousers and a head scarf to represent a hijab. The overall ensemble will suggest middle eastern origins and therefore suggest their faith as Muslims. This is designed to be a symbolic representation rather than an attempt to place the modes “in costume” as their faith and origins should ultimatley be ambiguous. My models are in fact neither from the middle east nor followers of any organised religion which adds another layer to the question of actual as opposed to connotated identity and origin.
The concept is to connote outsiders, foreigners, a sense of otherness. This symbolises the disparity between attitudes towards immigrates who look and act like “us” such as Irish, Australian or South African immigrants and those who look “foreign” and therefore carry some undefined but feared threat to our national identity or security. I have chosen young women models to emphasise the imbalance between this assumed threat and any real threat that they could offer.
Because the photograph is known to the audience to be staged it is intended to ask the viewer to consider whether the models are foreign or not, are they “one of us” and merely acting a role or are they foreign and therefore “them”?
Act 2 – Supplication
The narrative flows forward to the centre of the frame and to the left of the pillar where the subjects are asking for entry.
I have used the word supplication for three reasons:
In practice the payment for prayers to reduce the soul’s stay in purgatory meant that the rich, contrary to the teachings of Christianity, could buy a more rapid progress to heaven .
This inbuilt prejudice towards the rich and against the poor even in the afterlife is a potential metaphor for the ease with which a rich migrant can enter Britain in contrast to the need for a poor asylum seeker to beg for entry.
The painting above is a modern recreation by Ernest William Tristram of a medieval mural but it is intriguing that, in mimicking the medieval style, he uses an ornate frame to signify a building and distorts the proportions of the body so even when kneeling the women are tall and upright. I suspect that this style was adopted to maintain the dignity and authority of royal or religious subjects in medieval art.
In my image the supplicants are grouped to the left of the central pillar with a monk-like figure to the right. As mentioned above this symbolises the mundane world to the left and a divine place to the right. This could also be seen as a division between the natural and supernatural or outside and inside.
I intend to direct their poses to emphasise the loss of dignity and identity that is suggested by praying to, or begging a favour from, a figure of authority. This questions whether the act of granting asylum or sanctuary is in fact an act of subjugation and suppression that emphasises the power of the giver over the receiver rather than an act of charity between two equals.
Act 3 – Sanctuary
The final group features the two women engaged in cheerful conversation having arrived in a place of safety or having entered the sanctuary of the Abbey. This is a reference to medieval right of the church to offer protection to a criminal for a period of time while the Bishop interceded on his behalf. (ix)
The dress and poses of the women become important at this point. They retain a head scarf which symbolises rather than directly representing a hijab and which reminds us of their previous identity and status but the rest of their dress and pose is young Western woman in style. This combination intends to show that they are in a state of transition between two identities and suggests that their journey is not yet over.
Notes on Text
(i) From 1905 until his death in 1940 Lewis Hine worked with various organisations including the National Child labour Commission to collect photographic evidence of the state of the working man, women and child in America. His earliest work focussed on immigrants but probably quite naturally led to the more general exploitation of the working class American. His overriding concern was to advertise the “problems and activities of the life itself” and to “launch them (the photographs) into every possible channel of publicity”. For Hine and the Farm Security Administration photographers who followed him and who were highly influenced by his approach there was never any doubt that the end justified the means.
(ii) I see this as one of the most important ethical debates in contemporary photography and have previously discussed the debate and the views of Rosler and others (here and here). I have also discussed how various practioners have found ways to continue to address documentary subjects without committing what Abigail Solomon-Godeau (5) called the “double act of subjugation” by exploiting people who are already suppressed by society.
(iii) William de Malmesbury was an English Benedictine monk who, writing shortly before 1124 drew attention to austerity of their lifestyle. Their preferred clothing of a white habit led to them being also known as the “White Monks.” (7)
(iv) The Cistercians are best known for being devoted to the Rule of St. Benedict that required a monk’s day to be divided into three occupations; the performance of the liturgy (the Opus Dei), manual labour and reading. Unlike many other orders the Cistercians reduced the length of the daily service to ensure enough time was allowed for manual labour. They were essentially farmers who established their monasteries in remote areas where they developed their expertise in sheep farming and the production of wool. The medieval monastery was a rural industrial centre that would have been nearly or completely self sufficient as well as generating revenue to support the Abbey. (7)
(v) A precinct is a place set aside for a special purpose – “
(vi) Janina Ramirez in her recent TV documentary Saints and Sinnerswhich charts the rise and fall of the British monasteries presents recently discovered evidence that whilst the life expectancy of an “ordinary” medieval male peasant was between 25 and 30 years the skeletons of monks indicate that many, if not most, lived into their 50s, 60s and beyond. Scientists have also found that diabetes was not uncommon in monastic populations. (9)
(vii) Henry VIII is best remembered for his desperate search for a male heir that led to Britain’s break with the church of Rome after the Pope refused to dissolve his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. However the later part of his reign was a time of great change in Britain with the rise of Protestantism, the growing demands for an English language bible and the complex religious arguments regarding the existence of purgatory, Heaven and Hell’s waiting room. This argument may appear philosophical to the modern mind but if the world at large came to doubt purgatory’s existence the economic consequences for the church were enormous as all their establishments from the local monastery to the Vatican offered a service to pray for the soul’s rapid progression through purgatory. The number of prayers and the period over which they would be offered was based on the value of an individual’s contribution to the church. It is no wonder that the church saw arguments against purgatory as heresy.
(viii) Waverley Abbey was suppressed in 1536 and its wealth and land handed to Sir William Fitzwilliam the treasurer of the King’s household.
(ix) According to Karl Shoemaker the church jealously guarded a right to protect a criminal within the walls of a consecrated church for over a thousand years. He argues that this practice had its roots in Roman law where an aristocrat could intercede on behalf of their followers, an ideas that merged with the Christian teachings of clemency and the pardon of repentant sinners. The practice remained part of English comma law until its abolition in the 16th century.
(1) Hine, Lewis (1909) Social Photography: How the Camera May Help in the Social Uplift. Published in Classic Essays on Photography, edited by Alan Trachtenberg and published in 1980 by Leete’s Island Books.
(2) Sontag, Susan (1977) On Photography. London: Penguin Books
(4) Linfield, Susie (2010) The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press
(5) le Grange, Ashley. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Kindle edition. Oxford: Focal Press
(10) Farthing, Stephen (2006) 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die. London: Quintessence.
(12) Fish, Simon (1529) A Supplicacyon for the Beggars. Edited by Edward Arbor. Gutenberg eBook, Kindle Edition.
(3) Rosler, Martha (1981) In, Around and Afterthoughs (on documentary photography) (accessed 2014 at the Everyday Archive) – http://everydayarchive.org/awt/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/rosler-martha_in-around-afterthoughts.pdf
(6) History of Waverley Abbey (accessed at genie.com 8.10.15) – http://www.geni.com/projects/Waverley-Abbey-Surrey-England/25944
(7) Burton, Janet. Who Were the Cistercians? (accessed at monastic Wales 8.10.15) – http://www.monasticwales.org/article/3
(8) Precinct (accessed at dictionary reference 8.10.15) – http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/precincts
(9) Ramirez, Janina (2015) Saints and Sinners: Britain’s Millennium of Monastries (accessed at the BBC 8.10.15) – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b052zxhm
(11) The Oxford Dictionary (accessed at OED 9.10.15) – www.oed.com
(13) Roach, Levi (2011) Review of Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages by Karl Shoemaker. (Accessed at History Today 9.10.15) – http://www.historytoday.com/blog/2011/08/sanctuary-and-crime-middle-ages
Sometime around 800,000 years ago early humanids migrated out of Africa and into Southern Europe, it took another 300,000 years for them to reach what we now think of as the British Isles. According to Francis Pryor the slow pace of this drift to the north was probably determined by the weather being then, as now, less hospitable the further north they travelled. By the time these hunter gatherers reached Southern England they were capable of making a variety of sophisticated stone tools so we might argue that they were the first people to import “foreign” ideas and technology. These Palaeolithic hunters can now be shown, through DNA testing, to be the genetic pool from which the historical core of our population is descended. Pryor presents the argument that for the next many thousands of years the culture, technology and population of these islands evolves as new people and, more importantly, new ideas arrive and as “we” absorb and develop these ideas and the people who bring them.
Pryor argues that if we take the long view the subsequent waves of migrants never significantly displaced the first inhabitants as he, like many other archeologists, considers the idea of the Celts being pushed to the west as a myth. Newcomers and their ideas were absorbed with each group adding something to what we might call our national character, our language, technology and culture. The Roman invasion brutally imposed a new socio-political order but their strategy was to Romanise the exiting ruling classes rather than replace them so it is unlikely that the day-to-day life of the average peasant changed to any great degree or that an “Italian” family moved in next door but many of the ideas imported by the Romans lingered long after the last legionnaire departed and were to form the foundation of our religious and education system for the next 2,000 years.
The political and military vacuum left by the collapse of the Roman Empire is potentially an exaggerated concept. It is possible that national administration was replaced by local tax collection as evidenced by soldiers still being based on Hadrian’s Wall in the 5th Century so it is more likely that the Celtic population carried on farming the same land in much the same way that they had whilst the Romans were here, the landowners after all were Romanised Celts so they were unlikely to have left. However, continuos and regular contact with the Continent for the purposes of trade also facilitated the exchange of new ideas, a process that might have been accelerated by the arrival of Angles, Jutes and Saxons who settled in the East. These processes eventually established a new language, socio-political order and religious infrastructure that spread across much of Britain and, in time, supposedly through Alfred, established the concept of Englishness for the first time.
Between the Romans’ leaving and Alfred’s victory over the Danes all of the British Isles were first aggressively raided then partly settled by Scandinavians and whilst historians suggest that the number of these immigrants was comparatively small their’s and the Saxon’s influence is well remembered in our language and place names. It is reasonable to assume that in the long period between the original Palaeolithic hunters drifting into these islands and the Norman elite taking over our government the majority of visitors, both settlers and invaders, were male. Whether these men were legionnaires from the furthest edges of the Roman empire, Viking raiders or Saxon settlers we can also reasonably assume that they freely contributed their genes to an already heady genetic cocktail.
So long before the rise and fall of the British Empire created the modern migratory routes from Asia, Africa and Africa via the Caribbean we were already a mongrel race who had evolved a national identity, language and way of life based partly on the ideas brought by each wave of visitors and migrants and the frequent exchange of ideas with an ever widening world.
There are no simple answers to immigration, no silver bullet that stops economic migrants seeking a better life in more prosperous places or that establishes peaceful prosperity in the war torn regions of the middle east and the horn of Africa. But, we could pause just long enough to recognise that the immigration of the immediate post war period was in large part a consequence of our ancestor’s policies of invasion and colonisation; a policy that made Britain one of the richest countries of modern times, and that the Syrian crisis might also have some of its roots in the ill-thought-through Anglo-American destabilisation of one of the most volatile regions on the planet.
Apart from recognising that we reap what we sow we can also remember that before we were us, we were them. Beyond finding some level of compassion we need to change the paradigm to recognise that since time immemorial the tribe could not be insular, it had to be open to new ideas and new genes if it wanted to survive and prosper. Our national identity will neither be weakened, nor the Treasury emptied by the arrival of even 100,000 Syrians any more than it was by the 250,000 Irish Navvies who came here seeking employment in the 19th century or the similar number of South Africans who have arrived in Britain in the very recent past.
This essay is a background piece to support assignment 5 which has the question of immigration and identity at its heart. It is, in part, inspired by the ideas and writings of the archaeologist Francis Pryor whose common sense views on the ancient history of Britain reveal a far more exciting and complex story of these islands and our national identity than the Victorian perspective that my generation was taught at school. However, the “political” views expressed here are mine not Dr. Pryor’s and any errors of fact are defiantly mine not his.
Pryor, Francis ( 2003) Britain BC: Life in Britain and Ireland before the Romans. London: Harper Collins
Pryor, Francis (2004) Britain AD: A Quest for Arthur, England and the Ango-Saxons. London: Harper Collins
Pryor, Francis (2010) The Making of the British Landscape: How we Have Transformed the Land, from Prehistory to Today. London: Penguin Books
I will discuss the ideas and influences behind assignment 5 elsewhere but with the shoot only a week away it is time to collect the shoot plan together in one place. I have already discussed the selection of the shoot location (here) settling on using the ruins of Waverley Abbey, the first Cistercian Abbey in Britain and the inspiration for Walter Scott’s novel of the same name.
The intent is to create a single tableaux image using models, costumes, props and a staged location. The narrative will be highly dependent on pose and gesture but to allow a narrative to flow through the image I intend to use the same models or actresses three times and to create the final picture by combining at least three original photographs.
As shown in fig. 01 the stage will be the interior of the most complete structure left on the site. This has the very practical advantage of being one of only two surviving roofed spaces in the Abbey which will allow us to work regardless of weather conditions.
Quite simple flow from back left to front right crossing the dividing line created by the pillar:
Both actress / models will wear a simple scarf to cover most of their hair for all of the three groupings.
This is intended to give a sense of “otherness” without becoming a racial or religious stereotype. (see fig 03)
There needs to be a change in costume between group 1 and group 3.
Fig 02 – the left hand women shows the ideal type of costume for stage 1 and 2 – simple head scarf, long dress and some sort of long shawl. This should not be exaggerated as especially middle Eastern or muslim.
By the time we reach stage 4 there will be a distinct shift in clothing style to being more obviously “Western”. The head scarf is retained as a symbol of inherited identity but the rest of the dress needs to be be more generically young British women. (see fig. 08)
Stage 1 – the women climbing in through / outside the window
Fig.03 shows the general pose, there must be a sense of “breaking in”, entering a prohibited space, the facial expression must be worried, questioning; the body language tense.
For the second women in this group there are two options.
My preferred choice is a face at the second window in the mode of the Steve McCurry photograph at fig. 04 above but I am concerned this might be lost in the scale on the photograph.
The alternative would be for the second woman to be already through the window and on the floor – a cat like pose is an option (as long as it is in no way sexy) or to be crouched in fear as per fig. 05.
The actress / model will be wearing a long dress at this stage so it night be possible to adopt a cat like pose without any cat women connotations.
Moving on to Stage 2 – one actress / model standing and one kneeling as per fig. 06.
The standing women needs to be looking at the hooded man. Two hands outstretched will probably be too much but one hand outstretched might work.
The kneeling women should be looking down – I want a sense of her eyes being averted – a position of submission to symbolise the need for a migrant to demean themselves to gain entry.
The hooded person must be faceless. there must be no light falling on the face – a black void under the hood.
They must represent a “faceless” authority figure. A monk like bureaucrat.
In stage 4 there must be a distant change in gesture and costume. Throughout the research I have had Fig 08 in mind. Nearly everything is right about this painting. the type of dresses, demure but modern and shapely, the shoes open toed but without over-high heels, the dress low cut but not revealing and in bright pastel colours.
There needs to be a sense of the women having changed their outward appearance but not rejected their original identity. The pose is close to right – I am looking for sad / happy – they have left a life behind, maybe left relatives and friends but now they feel safe.
This is going to include a lot of trial and error ! My opening thoughts are:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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) – http://nigelshafran.com/category/washing-up-2000-2000/
(3) The Tate Glossary (accessed at the National Archive 28.5.15) – http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20120203144956/http://www.tate.org.uk/collections/glossary/definition.jsp%3FentryId%3D286
(5) Pickering, Sarah (2008) Public Order (accessed at the artist’s website 29.9.15) – http://www.sarahpickering.co.uk/Works/Pulic-Order/workpg-01.html
(6) Pickering, Sarah (2002 to 2004) Public Order (accessed at the artist’s website 29.9.15) – http://www.sarahpickering.co.uk/Works/Incident/workpg-01.html
(9) Strand, Clare (2002/3) Gone Astray Portraits (accessed at the artist’s website 30.9.15) – http://www.clarestrand.co.uk/works/?id=100
(10) Chandler, David (?) – Clare Strand from vanity fair (accessed at Clare Strand’s website 25/9/15) – http://www.clarestrand.co.uk/file_uploads/fck-files/file/Clare%20Strand%20essay.pdf
(11) Tabrizian, Mitra (2003-4) The Perfect Crime (accessed at the artist’s website 30.9.15) – http://www.mitratabrizian.com/perfect.php
(12) Hall, Stuart (2004) The Way we Live Now (accessed at the artist’s website 30.9.15) – http://www.mitratabrizian.com/txt_files/Stuart_Hall_the_way_we_live_now.pdf
(13) Hunter, Tom Living in Hell and Other Stories (accessed at the artist’s website 1.10.15) – http://www.tomhunter.org/living-in-hell-and-other-stories/
(14) Hunter, Tom (2012) Introduction to The Way Home (accessed at the artists website 1.10.15) – http://www.tomhunter.org/the-way-home-book-introduction-essay-by-tom-hunter/#comment-2075
Staged photography takes many forms but most of the work that might be loosely classified under this heading has an narrow audience. Jeff Wall’s Dead Troops Talk was sold at auction in 2012 for $3.6 million, slightly less than Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still #96 which sold for nearly $3.9 million (1) the previous year; Christies described the Wall print as “one of the most recognised works by the award winning Vancouver artist” which is no doubt true but in reality few outside of the art world or academia would recognise either of these constructed realities. Art photography has rarely escaped from the museum, gallery or the photo book. However, in Alison Jackson, staged photography has one practitioner who whilst not a household name is someone whose photographs are instantly recognisable having featured in the UK tabloid press, on magazine covers world-wide and as the art work behind three Schweppes advertising campaigns (i). Her practice is to photograph celebrity lookalikes in staged private moments, usually topical but fictional re-creations of moments we like to think occurred.
Jackson’s work straddles the art world, she has collections at the SF MOMA, The Royal College of Art and the Musée de las Photographie, yet is published by the tabloid press of several countries. Her web presence reflects this dichotomy; alisonjackson.com is modelled on the Mail Online site and has a distinct tabloid aesthetic whereas alison-jackson.co.uk is a more typical photographic artist’s site. She seems to inhabit both worlds with equal ease, able to explain her motivations for the art critics and buyers yet comfortable in her work having become part of popular culture.
Private (3), the earliest of her four books, contains a broad collection of her earlier work, mostly in black and white but with several colour plates. The first reaction to many of her photographs is to laugh, they are humorous, satirical and ironic; on face value she lampoons celebrities from The Queen to the Beckhams, showing us the moments we want to see but that the paparazzi never captured; Tony Blair frolicking in the pool with Cherie, Sven-Goran Ericksson posing in his Union flag underpants, David Beckham dripping blood in the aftermath of the famous boot incident or Osama Bin-Laden reading the FT. At this level they are satirical cartoons, accessible, often titivating and voyeuristic, perfect for the front cover of Stern Magazine or The Daily Mail; in fact her website lists nearly 150 publications who have used her images and they have become so well known that when genuine pictures of Prince Harry in the nude were published, the press, thinking they were her constructed realties, contacted her for copies (4).
Her ‘subjects’ are mostly individuals who use agents and image consultants to promote and manipulate their image as exceptional and special beings, contemporary demigods. Subsequently it seems possible that the celebrities are the target and Jackson explains that many have expressed their irritation with her work but her exploration of the media construction of celebrity is really aimed at us, the audience. We appear to crave a view behind the scenes, around the fence constructed by media managers and when we gain that access we want the celebrities to be shown as mundane, ordinary, flawed, imperfect and human, brought down-to-earth. Jackson recognises that we are not in love with the celebrities but with their image, more precisely with the photographs of them, millions mourned Diana but of those millions a tiny proportion had ever met her and even fewer knew her; Jackson argues that “we” loved the image not the person so to change the subject for a look-a-like is equally real.
As William Ewing points out “ironically her photographs can claim objective, documentary status, there is no trickery” (5), they are truthful in the way that theatre exists as a reality even when communicating a fiction and she has played on this sense of reality by choosing different photographic approaches that underline the reality of the shots. A grainy long-lens paparazzi view of the Blairs in a swimming pool connotes its candid nature and heightens the sense of voyeurism as Cherie’s bra is pulled aside by Tony. But not all Jackson’s work is as playful, the Snowden-like studio shot of Diane and Dodi Fayed (ii) with their newborn baby, is formal in both composition and quality, a typical Royal publicity release, thereby questioning whether the British public would have accepted an Egyptian as step brother to the heir to the throne. The photographs of Marlyn Monroe are complex at a different level, they do not pretend to pry into the life of a contemporary celebrity, a star who pre-dates but possibly foretells the cult of celebrity, but suggest both the cause and results of her confused mental state whilst offering an alternative and happier end to her story.
Her photographs are less about lampooning the Royals or the talent-less stars of reality TV and more about the culture of celebrity exposé which sells millions of publications and fuels social media. But, Jackson only asks asks one question, albeit very effectively and phrased it in several different ways. It is a pertinent question that goes to the heart of contemporary popular culture where it is possible to be famous for being famous. She asks us to question how we react to her imaginary revelations, would we feel any less comfortable to view a real photograph of Prince Philip paying a little too much attention to a picture of Marlyn Monroe masturabating? Are we horrified, amused, aroused or indignant and did we turn the page to find the next secret exposed? Does it matter that the celebrity has been replaced by a lookalike, where is the division between truth and reality?
However, as important as this question is, it is just one question so both the joke and the thinking behind it wears a little thin with repetition. Jackson has found a niche and however much she discusses the ills of the mediated society, her work has increasingly become part of the cult of celebrity rather than a comment upon it.
Notes on Text
(i) Schweppes ran three advertising campaigns in 2001, 2002 and 2007 that were created by the Mother London agency and shot by Alison Jackson. The campaigns featured look-a-likes in unlikely but somehow believable scenarios. Cherie Blair pinching Tony’s bottom, Margret Thatcher visiting Jeffrey Archer in prison and Tony Blair pulling a Christmas cracker with Gordon Brown. (2)
(ii) Emad El-Din Mohamed Abdel Moneim Fayed
(3) Jackson, Alison (2004) Private. London: Penguin.
(1) CBC News (2012) Jeff Wall photograph sells for record $3.6M US (accessed at CBC News 27.9.15) – http://www.cbc.ca/news/arts/jeff-wall-photograph-sells-for-record-3-6m-us-1.1205822
(2) Sweeney, Mark (2007) Blair and Brown in Schweppes Ads (accessed at The Guardian 27.9.15) – http://www.theguardian.com/media/2007/nov/27/advertising
(4) Silver, Leight (2014) Interview: Alison Jackson, the Artist Behind the Fake Photo of Kanye and North West, Talks the Cult of Celebrity (accessed at Complex 27.9.15) – http://uk.complex.com/style/2014/01/alison-jackson-interview?_ga=1.230224860.1593271351.1381660386
(5) Jackson, Alison. Essays (accessed at the Artist’s website 27.9.15) – http://www.alison-jackson.co.uk/essays/