Photography: If You Build It They Will Come

7 minute read
Richard Lacayo

It’s now roughly 30 years since the artist Cindy Sherman first put on makeup and a wig, arranged herself into some B-movie poses in B-movie settings and pointed her face toward her own camera to ask the questions: So what’s real here? Is this a picture of me? Or a picture of the role I’ve taken on? And when we’re talking about pictures, what exactly do we mean by real?

As it turned out, a lot of artists had begun to ask the same questions around that time. Three decades later, pictures constructed for the camera–staged photographs–have become a standard art-world practice. And we’re so accustomed now to Photoshopped realities that we’ve let go, for good, of our assumption that pictures don’t lie. Which means we’ve come to that moment when it’s time to sort seriously through the photographers who work this way and see what we think. Has all this stagecraft left behind much worth seeing?

This impulse to take stock is one reason why the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City is opening a retrospective this week devoted to Jeff Wall, a Canadian artist who started making staged pictures around the same time as Sherman. (The Wall show continues at MOMA through May 14, then travels to Chicago and San Francisco.) In 1977, when he was 31 and teaching art history and studio practice in his hometown of Vancouver, Wall took his family on a trip to Europe, where he spent a lot of time looking at the old masters in the Prado. His hours with Velázquez, Zurbarán and Goya got him thinking. Was it still possible, in the 20th century, to make representational art with anything like the same power? He happened to be traveling by bus at the time and at each terminal his attention was grabbed by those backlit light boxes that display ads. A light came on in his head.

Today Wall is famous for making large, sometimes very large, transparencies. These are mounted in steel light boxes about a foot thick that are lit from within by scores of white fluorescent tubes, so that the pictures glow like a movie screen. Although he’s also done some “straight” photography, mainly landscapes, most of Wall’s photos are staged. He’s made social commentary, deadpan domestic interiors and still-life paradoxes like Staining bench, furniture manufacturer’s, Vancouver, a dazzling shot of a densely spattered work space that’s both a genuine document of a workplace–O.K., depending on what we mean by genuine–and a fierce photographic equivalent of a Jackson Pollock drip painting.

Wall arrived at photography by way of conceptual art, and some of his work has the feel of small conceptual points inflated to large dimensions. But with the right pictures, the scale lends power and mystery. Dead Troops Talk is a fantasy of Russian soldiers massacred in Afghanistan in 1986 who have come back to life on the gray rocky roadway where they died. In an enormous tableau–the picture is 7 1/2 ft. tall and almost 14 ft. wide–they awaken to discover their own mangled flesh in shock, grief, sleepy-eyed indifference and also wild-eyed amusement.

The most surprising turn that Wall’s career has taken started in the mid-1990s, when he produced the first of three painstakingly constructed illustrations of passages from literature. Artists have been imagining scenes from books for centuries, but modernism expelled narrative from art. Storytelling was for writers. Pictures were supposed to do things only pictures could do, which meant that from about the time of Manet onward even representational painting, unless it was by Norman Rockwell, featured very ambiguous scenes. Clear anecdote got you laughed out of the art-history books.

Wall’s solution to that problem seems to be to choose the most enigmatic moment from the story, a moment when it doesn’t quite tell its story. So his picture After “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue is a bristling construction based on the opening pages of Ellison’s novel, in which the narrator, a black man, speaks to us from a room hung with hundreds of lightbulbs. He keeps those turned on as an antidote to the “invisibility” forced on him every day by the white society that is outside his door. But the man turns his back to us. We see the massive machinery of his self-disclosure, but we still do not really see him.

Wall talks freely about his debt to filmmaking, his desire to achieve the beguilements of cinema. (One day someone will have to attempt a history of cinema-envy in the arts.) Some of the photographers who make staged images have virtually become directors. The American artist Gregory Crewdson operates like a small studio. He conceives his pictures, casts them and then has complicated sets constructed and lit by large crews. Klieg lights and fog machines are involved. Like a good director, he doesn’t even always get behind the camera himself. He’s directing–somebody else can click the shutter.

Crewdson returns again and again to the same territory, a scene from the suburbs or from rural America invaded by its desires and anxieties. A man attempts to lay lawn turf across the road in front of his house. A woman kneels in a flower garden that has sprung up in her kitchen. It’s no surprise that he loves David Lynch. To get into Crewdson’s perennial frame of mind, Lynch’s Blue Velvet is recommended viewing. It’s also not surprising that his father was a psychoanalyst, because Crewdson has the good Freudian’s obsession with fetishes. Circles, birds, stains and windows figure repeatedly and mysteriously in his pictures. Fetishes were an obsession for Alfred Hitchcock too.

Crewdson has made some fascinating pictures, enigmatic scenes of puzzlement, regret and frustration. But for an artist, an infatuation with movies can be a tricky thing. He made a wrong turn with the Dream House series he worked on from 1998 to 2002, where for the first time he recruited famous faces to play his people. No doubt getting Gwyneth Paltrow and Philip Seymour Hoffman to appear in your photographs brings you enhanced market cred. Put Julianne Moore in front of your camera, and you’re practically doing a Vanity Fair shoot. Let’s assume that Crewdson also hoped that the pre-established power of movie stars over our imaginings would somehow act as a force multiplier for the private fantasies they act out in his pictures.

But that’s exactly where he got it wrong. When his photographs work they bid us into a realm of privacy, inwardness and even shame. To sustain that mood requires them to shut out the banalities of the outside world. And what’s more banal than celebrity? Yes, yes, we’ve heard, stardom is a fantasy too, but it’s the type that steamrollers every more intimate kind. Anybody who thinks that the red carpet is the royal road to the unconscious has lost his bearings. Crewdson’s pictures stop working the minute you find yourself wondering about the wrap party.

But there it is. At its weakest, staged photography succumbs to the temptation to imitate the staged worlds we see every day in movies and advertising. It adopts their shopworn postures in the hope of pushing our most familiar buttons. This happens in the work of the collective of four Russian artists who operate under the name AES&F. Their pictures of kids flourishing heavy weaponry in futuristic wastelands count too much on our response to the poses of fashion photography. Maybe you can arrive at some sleek, sexy images that way. But at that point, you’re not making conceptual art. You’re trying out for the next Prada campaign.

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