Constructed photography, involving scenes or objects set up for the camera, is as old as photography, but it only acquired a name for itself in the 1970s. Celebrated critic AD Coleman coined the phrase “the directorial mode” in a 1976 essay of the same name and, although he related contemporary examples to older precedents, it was clear photographers were moving in a newly self-conscious direction.
“The photographers working in the directorial mode conceived and fabricated subjects, disregarding photography’s traditional assignment of finding meaning from the look of the world,” writes Mary Warner Marien in Photography: a cultural history. “In addition, the post-modern dismantling of photographic truth indirectly encouraged the creation of photographic fictions.”
Two artists in particular became associated with the term: Cindy Sherman for her staged self-portraits, and Jeff Wall for his ongoing games with construction and observation. Wall is Canadian but he studied at London’s Courtauld Institute from 1970-1973, and constructed photography also has a distinguished, though less celebrated history here.
Contemporaries include Tom Hunter, who has arranged friends and neighbours from Hackney into tableaux from art history in an bid to evoke sympathy for them, and Hannah Starkey, who uses actors in carefully chosen shots that, like Wall’s photographs, look on the face of it like observational documentary images. Questioning assumptions of photographic “truth”, her images play with the boundaries of the medium.
Anne Hardy constructs dreamlike but convincing interiors, which walk an ambiguous line between the documentary and the theatrical. “The viewer tries to resolve them in relation to the world, because they fit with the familiar but have no fixed interpretation,” she tells BJP. “They’re meant to be ambiguous.”
It’s an approach seemingly at odds with Britain’s longstanding tradition of documentary photography, and the generation that brought the UK to worldwide attention – including Paul Graham, Chris Killip and Martin Parr. As Olivier Richon, head of photography at the RCA says, constructed photography in the UK started out as a reaction to and critique of the document. But, he adds, “That was another time, when the newspaper was a major platform for photography, not the gallery. Now it’s a bit the opposite; my students aspire towards the gallery. In the gallery you can do what you want – it’s a white page”.
That’s quite an opportunity, so what are young UK-based photographers doing with it? That’s the question BJP editor Simon Bainbridge and I decided to consider in Paper, Rock, Scissors, an exhibition of emerging British photography shown at Toronto’s Flash Forward Festival in October 2010. We picked out six photographers who work with constructed imagery – Danny Treacy, Noemie Goudal, Julia Curtin, Julie Cockburn, Victoria Jenkins and Peter Ainsworth. Two have studied at the RCA, four are female, one is originally from France, and all approach constructed photography in very different ways. It’s hard to generalise about constructed photography, warns Richon; each project should be considered on its own merits.
Danny Treacy is probably the best known of the bunch – he has already had a solo show at The Photographers’ Gallery and was one of the winners of the inaugural Jerwood Photography Prize in 2003. He graduated from the RCA in 2002 and impressed the Jerwood Judges with his Grey Area final project, in which he painted found interiors with grey emulsion. For Them, the exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery, he created weird costumes out of found clothes and photographed himself wearing them.
We are featuring images from Those, an ongoing series he started in 2008, in which he fashions discarded clothes into weirdly organic sculptural objects, then photographs them against a pitch-black background. “Those defy categorisation, blurring the boundary between the artefact and the organism,” he tells BJP. “Not informed by language, unknowing of specifics; Those take a chance on existence. They remain mute, passive – more ‘spent’ than ‘dead’, or perhaps lying dormant, waiting. I’m interested in creating something that takes a chance on reality, rather than photographing something that already exists.”
French photographer, Noemie Goudal, also studied at the RCA, and graduated earlier this year. We’re showing three images from her final project, Les Amants, which mixes artificial and organic objects, and natural and man-made materials. With both Treacy and Goudal, says Richon, transforming the object into image is key. “It’s always the question – why take the photograph, why not show the object?” he says. “But it needs to be absent. You would lose a lot from just seeing it; it would be really disappointing. It’s the act of taking the picture that really transforms the object, the objects in themselves wouldn’t signify.”
This transformative quality isn’t necessarily complete. Goudal’s images don’t create a complete illusion – the plastic sheeting she uses to emulate water isn’t supposed to be realistic. But in photographing it, she questions the idea that photography records the outside world in an unproblematic, evidentiary way. Both she and Treacy point out that the camera can be fooled and cannot register the “truth”, only a kind of optical truth about what’s put in front of the lens. This is true for all photography, they suggest, including documentary photography – a genre traditionally defined as “resenting facts objectively without editorialising or inserting fictional matter”.
Peter Ainsworth agrees, stating “the photographic image is always mediated, be that through editing, context or manipulation in front of the camera”. We are presenting his 2007 project, Art Handling Re-creations, which pokes fun at both the idea of photograph as document and the technical uses of photography in galleries, by presenting “art pieces” salvaged from the shores of the Thames. “As an art handler, one often uses a camera in the gallery space and there is a plethora of photographs of blue-gloved technicians pointing at what appear to be random details,” says Ainsworth, who works as an art handler at the Tate. “These incidental gestures have a practical application and distinct intentionality, but removed from their context become strange, comic and surreal.”
Ainsworth recreates classic works of contemporary art such as Carl Andre’s Equivalence VIII, but humour is an essential element in his project because, like the Medieval figure of the Fool, he engages with the absurd to suggest new readings of widely held assumptions. He cites Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s 1977 series Evidence as a key influence and, although this project is far from constructed, you can see exactly what he means. Comprised of 50 images taken from educational, medical and technical institutions, it shows how bewildering and arcane such shots become when they’re taken out of context. “Art Handling is essentially a comment on the way that we view art (specifically the photograph) in its historical context,” says Ainsworth. “I suppose it stems from an engagement with notions of photographic reality.”
Victoria Jenkins’ project, Images from the Institute of Esoteric Research, covers similar ground, with a like-minded pinch of humour. Ostensibly recording scientific experiments, her images actually show ridiculous, made-up investigations into “Acutomancy… the reading of the patterns in dropped pins”, and “Oomancy… a setup for measuring the volume of an egg”. “I have an interest in theories of knowledge, its methodologies and limitations, and photography’s relationship to this,” she explains. “But there is also a bit of humour. I think they’re pretty funny.”
The last two photographers in the exhibition, Julia Curtin and Julie Cockburn, also lay bare our assumptions about photography, representation and reality, and both do it by re-appropriating found images. Curtin, for example, samples photographs from the Farm Security Administration archive, a vast collection featuring work by the likes of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. She constructs 3D models using elements of images from the collection, then collapses the constructions back into 2D by photographing them. “I was interested in investigating the inherent structure of the photographic and looked to documentary photography as it is so essentially rooted in the medium,” she explains. “And specifically the FSA images, as they became central in defining the documentary.”
At first sight Cockburn’s images look like the joker in the pack – one-off objects in themselves, they’re not photographs of constructed things or scenes. But by working with found portraits Cockburn intervenes in an area in which the idea of the photograph as document is strongest of all. Photographic portraits have to point towards the person they depict, we believe – and yet, as Cockburn shows, they are also shaped by convention. She’s used school photographs of children from the 1960s, for example, and retouched portraits of 1950s glamour queens, cutting, stitching or painting on top of them to add extra layers of representation to the partial view in the frame. “Each is an archetypal form of representation of ‘portrait’ within our cultural collective consciousness, which have become embedded, invisible almost.”
“The idea is to re-visit these old discarded images and to breathe a new life into them, to redefine the history of both the physical picture and the person in the photograph. The portrait is such a flat, single viewpoint of the complex character that goes into making us human. I destroy something inherent in the image with my interventions, but at the same time I give them dreams and fears and fantasies.
“I imagine the images I work with have been chosen by the photographer or the sitter because they are the most flattering, the best from a chinagraphed contact sheet, and it doesn’t show the ugly, sad, confused or neglected side. Take Belle, the 1950s beauty queen. I couldn’t help but look at this image and think, ‘Where is your shadow, your anger, jealousy, your need to scream and swear?’ So I tattooed her and smudged her, for her own release really. I felt like I was setting something free.”
As Cockburn suggests, her work is more than formal experimentation, it’s a comment on photography’s incomplete representation of reality. Her fictions can speak another kind of truth, she intimates, as valid (or perhaps even more valid) than documentary photography. This is an important point, because documentary photography is sometimes considered more engaged with reality, and therefore more truthful, than constructed imagery. In fact, constructed imagery suggests another kind of truth, or at the very least the constructed nature of everyday reality.
“Especially in relation to urban space, we’ve constructed whole worlds and that then has an impact on how we live in them,” says Anne Hardy, adding that her smaller-scale constructions therefore aren’t so very different. As Jeanette Wilson put it in her book The Passion: “I’m telling you stories, trust me.”
Treacy’s images also suggest a political reading, representing the eerie return of the unsavoury parts of life we’d generally rather forget. Like a horror film or B-movie, they express unvoiced fears and transgressions usually swept under the carpet (almost literally in his case). “The actions and transactions that led to the clothing being abandoned remains unseen, unknown, but present and resonant nonetheless, like germs, like dreams,” he says. “Those recall a remembrance, their surfaces and their forms suggest the encounters, many brief and fleeting that led to their being left in the fertile grounds; all sharing a common bond; transgression and the furtive.”
Works of art
So is there a renaissance in constructed image-making in the UK right now? Camilla Brown, senior curator at The Photographers’ Gallery, believes so, and argues that formal education has helped drive the trend. “Increasingly, there is a generation which is not coming to photography through the photography world and its specific history, but through studying fine art and theory,” she says. “Those who may call themselves ‘artists’ over ‘photographers’ are thinking of different precursors – Jeff Wall not Robert Capa. And it may be that now is the time for a re-evaluation of this kind of work – if you see this as starting in the work of Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall, it has been going on since the late 1960s.”
If that’s true, you could argue the RCA has been instrumental – key British photographers in the field studied there, such as Tom Hunter, Anne Hardy, Hannah Starkey and Clare Strand, and Danny Treacy and Noemie Goudal recently graduated from it. Richon rejects the suggestion that there is an RCA school of constructed photography, but concedes that the college will encourage students who want to do it, adding: “I used to teach at the University of Westminster and that’s clearly a part of media communication, but at the RCA students have to measure up their work alongside people doing painting, sculpture and so on. That opens up different perspectives, which is very good, and very powerful.”
Like Brown, he believes photography’s acceptance into contemporary art has played a key role in opening up the possibilities. Peter Kennard, who also teaches at the RCA, has a more cynical take, pointing out that constructed images can be taken slowly and at very high quality, allowing them to be blown up large. Warner Marien makes the same point, writing: “As image-makers began to ‘make’ and then ‘take’ their pictures, they also increased the size and intensity of their pictures… Not only did photographs come to emulate the size of large paintings in museums and galleries; they also acquired deeply saturated, tropically hot colours, more obviously associated with paint than with photographic materials.”
You can see what she means – not only did constructed imagery become the size and colour of Old Masters, some of it directly referenced these artworks, most notably Tom Hunter’s photography. Even documentary photographers have got in on the act as their work has moved into the art world – Simon Norfolk, for example, evoked French painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot in his 2003 image The North Gate of Baghdad.
But the photographers we’re featuring in Paper, Rock, Scissors feel no such compulsion. Curtin references the history of photography; Ainsworth references contemporary art; the others reference an eccentric ragbag of imagery, from scientific experiments to beauty queens. Confident of their place in the art world and the value of their work, these photographers are free to play.
“Play is important in the process of making work,” says Treacy. “Serious play of course.”
Most Popular Articles
Updating your subscription status
We have a vacancy for a Key Account Manager working on The British Journal of Photography
Magnet Harlequin, one of the UK's leading Creative Production Agencies is seeking a new Head of Photography.
We have opportunities for two experienced photographic, audio or video technicians.