Friday, December 19, 2008

Do you want new wave or do you want the truth?

Amy Stein's recent interview with Graham Miller directly addresses the issue of staged images vs. found images.
Amy Stein: Sometimes people are downright angry when they learn my Domesticated photos are staged. Do you feel any push back from people when they discover your images are constructed? Why do you think people have such a hard time allowing for the personal vision and imagination of a photographer compared to a painter, musician, or writer?

Graham Miller: I've not got the downright angry reaction...more like a kind of knowing, dismissive, sigh. I guess the reason people have such a hard time with the constructed image is that for them it somehow feels like cheating. They still believe that because the photograph so closely resembles reality that somehow it must also be "true". For me photography is much like writing -in the sense that you can approach writing about a subject or photographing it as fiction or nonfiction. Both are equally valid, and both speak of the human experience in a moving and profound way. It does puzzle me when people go on about it. It just doesn't feel the right approach for me to work in a traditional photojournalistic sense.

First of all, I think everyone is free to shoot in whatever style they see fit.

That said, I tend to find found images more interesting than staged ones and here's why. When I see an image, I am immediately curious about how that image was made. What were the circumstances of its exposure? What was happening at the scene? Most importantly, WHY did the photographer find that scene interesting and compose it in that way? If the image is a found one, all of these questions seem very dynamic. I get to imagine I'm in the photographer's shoes. I get to try to see how they saw. This is some of what I've been trying to get at with my What Was He Thinking? series, to see how different people identify photographic moments and separate them out from regular life.

With staged images, all of those circumstances are basically inside the photographer's head. There's nothing to separate out, no moment to identify. I'm basically relying on the photographer to dig around in his/her brain and then let me know somehow what was happening in there, the same way painters, musicians, and writers do. I have no problem with any of those arts but I generally don't find them as interesting as photography because photography has a relationship with reality that, to me at least, seems unique among the arts.

For me half the power of a photograph like this

Frank by Graham Miller

comes from wondering how he found it. When I learn it was constructed instead of found, I guess I become one of the dismissive sighers. I admit I had the same reaction when I realized Stein's Domesticated series was staged. I'd prefer her Stranded stuff or her Halloween portraits any day.

Then there's the fun factor. I think finding photographs is downright fun. The "Aha!" moment when a photograph comes together and you snatch an image out of reality like a rabbit from a hat, that is a buzz. Honestly it is the reason I photograph. Is constructing photographs fun? Maybe it is for some people. To see an image through from idea to final print is probably very satisfying. But not for me. It seems less "Aha!" than a series of menial steps toward illustration Again, that's just me.

Miller compares photography to writing, with its division of fiction vs. nonfiction. I have to say that even by that standard I am the same. Although I am serious bookworm, I haven't read a novel in years. I like nonfiction. I prefer documentary movies. I admit I have strange tastes but I can't do anything about that. The truth of them is stranger than anything I could invent.


Anonymous said...

Dude -- Your pointless, bush leaguer argument demeans photography and photographers. People like you hold on to a false and tired idea of what photography is, has been, and what it can be. Move on.


Anonymous said...

I agree. However I think some backlash is caused because the artist doesn't make it clear that the image is constructed. It sort of feels like you've been fooled after looking at a set that you thought was "real" but wasn't.

When the artist makes it well known that their photos are creations, you hear much less griping about it. (e.g. Jeff Wall.)

Anonymous said...

(Clarification: I agree with the original posting, not the bush leaguer comment.)

Anonymous said...

Derek -- That's foolish. What obligation does the artist have to reveal all the details of their work to the viewer? You are asking the artist to make work and then spoon feed you every explanation before you pass judgment? That's crap. What a dogmatic and unsophisticated view of photography.

If you want to talk about truth then you have to confess that there is only one truth in art. Do you like that image or not? What is your pure honest reaction to the image in front of you? That is truth. Holding judgment or changing opinion when you learn the details of it's creation is being dishonest to your taste and the vision of the artist. What a waste to limit yourself like that.

Anonymous said...

Also, every image is constructed. Winogrand shot thousands of images a week and then edited to find a winner. Cartier-Bresson would sit in a cafe for hours until the right person passed in front of his setup shot. Omission and addition are equal partners when it comes to the construction of an image.


Anonymous said...

What obligation does the artist have to reveal all the details of their work to the viewer?

None, but I appreciate it when they do.

Do you like that image or not?

I'm one of those oddballs who looks at a photograph holistically. Instead of just judging it based on the photons that hit my eyeballs, I start asking questions, like:
- when was the picture taken?
- who took the picture?
- how did the photographer know the subjects of the picture?
- was the photography trying to say something? If yes, what?
- etc.

You know, "who, what, why, where, how."

If the image alone is good enough for you, I suggest you see a science fiction movie sometime... the sights you will see will amaze you!

Blake Andrews said...

Sigh, I suspected I would hit a shitstorm with this one.

I am only offering my honest opinion. While I don't expect everyone to have the same point of view, I do expect a respect for all views. I know full well that my perspective is unpopular nowadays. The contemporary photo world seems to have pretty well adopted Anonymous-George's view. Voices like mine are seen as old, tired, archaic. So be it. That's even more reason to make my thoughts known.

Anonymous-George your argument about truth in art is problematic. If "pure honest reaction to the image in front of you" is the only truth, and "Holding judgment or changing opinion when you learn the details of creation is being dishonest" then what about, e.g., forged masterpieces? Some famous paintings have been skillfully recreated down to each brushstroke. The "pure honest reaction" of most viewers would be to view them as masterpieces. Yet I think most of those viewers would have a different reaction once they learned the details of the work's creation. All of which is to say, the process is not unimportant.

As for Winogrand, I think there's a large difference between staging a scene and using a camera to illustrate it and editing contact sheets. One creates the idea at the beginning of the process. The other finds the idea at the end.

Your example of HCB waiting in one spot for the right person is interesting. I suppose in some sense he was staging those shots, yet not to the extent of say Jeff Wall. He had 70% of the shot in mind but needed chance to supply the last 30%.

Anonymous said...

You're talking about forged paintings now? I thought we were talking about photography.

Staged photography is hardly a new phenomenon. You should dig a little deeper into the history of the medium.

I'm curious whether you lump portraiture into the staged pile too? Irving Penn, Julia Margaret Cameron and Avedon set up every scenario. What about still life? Do you have the same low opinion of Imogen Cunningham's work? What about landscape photographers? Half Dome was just sitting there for a million years before Ansel Adams lugged his camera up a trail and snapped a picture.

So, 70/30 is an acceptable ratio of setup to chance, eh? Doesn't chance kind of undercut your argument that a photographer is in charge of their frame. Also, Winogrand had a point of view. He went to specific places and pointed his camera at specific things that served his vision. To say that he found his idea at the end of the process is to diminish his talent as an artist.

Derek, you approach every photograph like you were interviewing it for a job? It must be exhausting to weigh every image by those criteria before you have an opinion.

George Stern

Blake Andrews said...


I think the forged painting example applies to what we're talking about, but since someone with your background in photographic history seems to require it I'll put in in photographic terms. Suppose all of Winogrand's shots had been staged. He'd thought them up and hired actors to stand in certain places. Are you saying your appreciation or understanding of his photos would be completely unaffected by that knowledge? Surely some of the power of his photos comes from knowing about his process. The fact that he found such scenes in real life is amazing.

I think it is a modern art-world conceit that any image can be completely divorced from context. Art objects are not tracks on an ipod that can shuffled and remixed, erasing their history. Any art including any photograph has a story to it.

As for portraiture and still life, I admire many of the photographers you mention, although I tend to enjoy other styles more.

I wouldn't put 70/30 setup/chance into terms of acceptable or unacceptable. As I said in the post, anyone is free to take photos however they want. In general I prefer the ones which are less constructed.

I mentioned Winogrand's contacts just in response to your comment about him editing. I agree most of his real genius was in how he shot, although which photos he selected was also very important. But in comparison to people who know what their image will look like before they begin shooting I think it's fair to say his specific images manifested themselves later in the process.

Blake Andrews said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

It must be exhausting to weigh every image by those criteria before you have an opinion.

Not really, but maybe I'm just naturally good a thinking about things :)

Overall, this is a strange conversation. Blake said, "I'm not crazy about staged pictures," then George said, "you're a fool, you should like staged pictures!"

I'm a big fan of Metallica. Does that mean I expect everyone else to love Metallica? No, it does not.

Anonymous said...

Derek, you ascribed a quote to me that was never uttered or written. It would seem you have a more elastic concept of truth than you are willing to admit.

If this was a conversation about what we like and dislike I would not have chimed in. No, your pal Blakey chose to soil the good name of St. D Boon in his post title by suggesting there is a style of photography that represents truth and a style of photography that does not. He also said that tableau vivant was the new kid on the block in the art photography world.

Staged photography is the oldest and most consistent form of art photography in the history of the medium.

Documentary photography is still considered an outsider in the fine art world. It often struggles to find gallery space and rarely sells when it is given a showing.

The documentary style, large format photographers that have broken through (Shore, Soth, etc.) pose their subjects and stage their frames. Sorry to break the news.

I have never met a documentary photographer that claimed their genre has a patent on truth telling. Not even close. It's simply a naive understanding of the medium that still finds home in Flickr groups and on the blogs of confused dogmatists.

Truth is truly in the eye of the beholder. And, denying beauty by filtering it through some weird romantic canon that chooses to limit artistic appreciation based solely on the artist's choice of tool is probably the saddest truth of all.

Best to you both in your pursuit of a cold and rational joy.

George Stern

Anonymous said...

I don't get the staged versus found argument. Amy found stories, found locations, found citizens to put in the shot, found the frame she wanted to shoot, found the right light to shoot in, and found the right moment to press her shutter.

Blake Andrews said...

Cindy, to me Amy Stein's methodology seems quite different from strictly documentary practice. The fact that many folks would like to blur the lines and say "it's all photography - it's the image that matters" is disturbing to me. It's like saying poetry, nonfiction, fiction, and technical tracts are indistinguishable. They're all writing so let's forget about their differences.

It's my heartfelt opinion that there ARE differences in photographic methods and that these differences can effect our understanding of the photos they produce. I hope my post and these comments spur others to weigh this issue carefully for themselves rather than adopting George's rather mainstream view.

George, I'd appreciate an answer to my hypothetical questions posed above, if you can muster one without slurs or personal attacks. Thanks.

Derek, you're right that this has become a strange conversation but I have found it interesting.

Anonymous said...

In my mind your hypothetical does not make sense in this conversation. Regardless of medium, I do not see the point of comparing knock-off work to the original renderings. It takes us down the simulacrum rabbit hole and starts a conversation about Girl With A Pearl Earring coffee mugs and Starry Night mousepads. Let's keep the discussion to our reactions to the original output by the original artist.

You are correct that there are differences between methods, but I don't think we are discussing whether or not those differences exist. How a photographer came to capture an image is a nice side story, but I feel it is akin to the director's commentary on a DVD. Is it necessary for you to form an opinion of the movie?

If you feel my views are mainstream, you need to get outside of Eugene a bit. I would argue that the dominate contemporary worldview puts more emphasis on an artist's statement than the product. Art is required to have a social, political or historically referential commentary attached to it before it is taken seriously. Artists spend more time working on their statement than they do their work. That, my friend, is the modern mainstream reality of the art world. The rationalization of taste is what rules the galleries and art fairs. My call for pure reaction in this climate actually seems quite revolutionary.

Anonymous said...

Further to what Cindy B says, even in staged photos there is a reliance on chance because the mechanical process does not edit the way the eye and brain do (a “generous medium” as Friedlander said) and much of the process can not controlled by the photographer. There is still a found image within the staged image. For example, the most interesting part of the Miller photo in Blake’s post for me is the way the tail of the shirt is arranged. It gives an ambiguous look to the body and legs –- exactly what I look for in my more random documentary style shots -- the friction between apparent reality and reality (or fiction and non-fiction!). Was that arranged or was it selected from a number of shots? Documentary vs. tableau, film vs. digital, all fun to talk about, but at the end of the day, not as germane as the formal qualities of the image -- IMHO of course. We all work by our own rules. I will read the Stein interview.

Blake Andrews said...

I'm not sure how the folded shirt in the Miller shot came about. My guess is that as he was staging the set the shirt found its own special way of sitting and Miller was alert enough to include it in the photo. As this example points out along with many of the other photos referred to in these comments, the staged/found dynamic is less of a sharp dichotomy than a gradation. Some photographs (e.g. Crewdson) are completely fabricated, some are completely found (e.g. Winogrand), most fall somewhere in the grey area between (HCB's 70/30 shot). I have a tendency to like photographs toward one end of that gradation.

When I referred to the "Mainstream" view of the art world it wasn't in reference to supporting material but to the tendency to lump all styles along this gradation together as photography without concern for their construction. I don't mean to put words in your mouth, but George wouldn't you say you hold this view?

I agree there is too much emphasis on artist statements and on conceptual constructs in most photography today. That said, I almost always find it helpful to look at the artist statement after I've seen a photo show. That way you can have it both ways. You can react purely to the images with no supporting info, and then afterward reconsider the work after you've learned more about it.

I get the sense this discussion is going in circles and that no real shift of opinion is likely. It seems reasonable to let it drop off unless some new views are added.

Anonymous said...

I went to a concert. Had a good time. Until the drummer lost his drumstick - and the sound of the drums continued. It was all playback. The music was unaltered, but my experience was ruined.

Met a girl with large breast. Though, my fascination declined when I found out they were a product of fine surgery.

I don't know how many examples are needed to establish the fact that knowledge of origin does influence perception.

Still, as the saying goes: Even gynocologists falls in love...

- Soren.

J. Karanka said...

"Artists spend more time working on their statement than they do their work."

That does explain why often the artist statement is the only bit worth looking at :o)

I often think that the whole thing about having very rational art is in order for people to be able to have an easy discussion to follow it. To play smartass, bang more chicks and all that.

Anonymous said...

I just find it sad that someone would say I loved that image until I found out that the artist was completely in charge of the content. Photography is the only artistic medium where people say that.

Anonymous said...

Photography is the only artistic medium where people say that.

I wouldn't say that... do you remember Milli Vanilli?

Anonymous said...

Milli Vanilli was not in charge of their content. Somebody else wrote and sang and they just moved their lips. That comparison makes no sense.

Anonymous said...

If you are going there the more appropriate music analogy would be, I loved the Rolling Stones until I found out they wrote their own music, played their own instruments, sang their own songs and produced their own records.

Diarmait Grogan said...

I think this is an interesting discussion for contemporary art photography. Certainly, photographic mises-en-scene are very fashionable at the moment.

Personally, I find subjective photography far more engaging than any attempt at objectivity but when this subjectivity is grounded in some sort of a reality it compounds its mystery for me (and thereby my interest). Something that could be called 'subjective documentary' is the photography that I find the most satisfying (photographers like Nan Goldin, Anders Petersen, Tillmans etc. come to mind.)

The issue that I would have with 'constructed' photography is that it somehow seems like a rejection of one of the innate characteristics of the medium - its ability to feeze a real moment from a continuum and by doing so to fictionalise it. Staged photography reverses the process, beginning with a fiction and rendering it real. I have to admit that when I realised that Amy Stein's beautiful 'Domesticated' series was staged my natural reaction was disappointment.

To me it seems that this debate has echoes of the problems surrounding pictorialism in the early 1900s. In an effort to prove that photography was an artform, the pictorialists adopted painterly strategies in order to assert their artistic agency. But in doing so they were denying photography's own unique characteristics.

While staged photography is ultimately no less subjective than documentary photography, it somehow seems a shame to resort to fantasy when the 'real' world has so much to offer in terms of visual splendour. What I adore about photography is that with it I can somehow appropriate everyday life and use it for subjective self-expression. To me, that constitutes a magical experiential dialectic.

All of this being said, the tension between reality and fiction, objectivity and subjectivity, is what makes photography such a fascinating medium in the first place. I think that there has to be room in the artworld for work made at both ends of the spectrum.

Anonymous said...

A camera is unique because it captures an image. So what? Does that mean that for all time the limits of artistic vision for this instrument must be reduced to documenting what is immediately in front of the lens? That because of the simple mechanics of the apparatus there should be constraints on its application? This seems like snobbery not about staged photography, but about the camera itself. It's almost as if there is a cult of the camera that is so mystified by the science of the medium that they cry heresy when anyone dare push the medium beyond its simplest function.

But capturing images is not the camera's raison d’ĂȘtre, it is what it can do. So, why not use it capture anything and everything in the world and anything and everything in one's imagination?

Anonymous said...

Do folks feel the same way about the motion picture camera? Do you feel that Citizen Kane is somehow less of a work of art because it is not a documentary (or subjective documentary) about Howard Hughes? I suspect not. Perhaps people should explore the discordance between their expectations for the still camera versus the moving image camera and report out on that.

Anonymous said...

Milli Vanilli was not in charge of their content. Somebody else wrote and sang and they just moved their lips. That comparison makes no sense.

No, the producer, Frank Farian, was the artist. He hired a writer, hired a singer, hired a couple of guys to mouth the words, and he made a pile of cash... how different is that from what Jeff Wall or Gregory Crewdson does?

Anonymous said...

Do folks feel the same way about the motion picture camera? Do you feel that Citizen Kane is somehow less of a work of art because it is not a documentary

Although, you have to admit, if Citizen Cane was an actual documentary, it would be mind-boggling. You'd wonder how the director got such lengthy and intimate access to the character's lives, including the moment of death of the main character.

Anonymous said...

It's a terrible comparison because Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewdson's names are on the product. There is no ruse. And, because Frank Farian's product sucked balls. Surely, you aren't suggesting that A Sudden Gust of Wind is in the same league as Blame It On The Rain.

Phil Spector, Timbaland, etc. might be a better comparison for your arguement.

Anonymous said...

Answer the Citizen Kane question, Derek.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...
Answer the Citizen Kane question, Derek.

Why should I bother responding to "Anonymous?"

Anyways, since I'm such a nice guy, I will. I liked Citizen Kane, I thought it was a work of art, I don't have any problem with people admiring it. It was fiction, it never pretended to be a documentary.

I also liked Star Wars. Does that invalidate my position?

Blake Andrews said...

I think John gets to the root of the issue with his comment "A camera is unique because it captures an image. So what? Does that mean that for all time the limits of artistic vision for this instrument must be reduced to documenting what is immediately in front of the lens? That because of the simple mechanics of the apparatus there should be constraints on its application?"

The obvious answer is no. There are no limitations on what a camera can capture. But there is no burden on the audience to value all captured things equally.

Consider the word processor. It can be used to create all sorts off different writing. The mechanics of the apparatus have no bearing on its application. That said, you might find some things written with that word processor more enjoyable to read than other things. That is the essence of my post.

The musical metaphor might be better thought of in terms of improvised music and scored music. Suppose you really like a jazz record because the interplay between instruments is wonderful. Later you discover that all of the notes were actually pre-arranged beforehand. Does that knowledge effect your understanding of the music? I say it does.

Anonymous said...

I think you need to go back and finish your GED, Derek. You missed the point of that guys question by a mile. a mile!

Anonymous said...

By popular demand, I'll parse the Kane question and answer specific elements individually.

Do folks feel the same way about the motion picture camera?

Yes, if a movie pretends to be a documentary but it isn't, I have little interest in it. For example, any of those bogus viral videos that look real but turn out to be staged. Also I remember watching a documentary about prostitutes in Thailand, and I felt tricked when it was revealed in then ending credits that it was a "fiction documentary." (Title was "The Good Woman of Bangkok")

Do you feel that Citizen Kane is somehow less of a work of art because it is not a documentary (or subjective documentary) about Howard Hughes? I suspect not.

Randolph Hearst, and no.

Perhaps people should explore the discordance between their expectations for the still camera versus the moving image camera and report out on that.

There is no discordance for me, if a movie pretends to be real but is fake, I'm not interested.

vedran perse said...

This is probably completely insane, leaving a comment on blog post from almost seven years ago ( or maybe better as further proof that things on Internet never die). Anyway I during the blog's summer lull I started to read blogposts from the start and here I am mid October 2015 reading December 2008 posts.
Anyway here is my point : I think that landscape, still life ( end even ) portrait argument ( being main staple of photography's history ) is not the right one because those genres don't fall into staged /found discourse. Why, because one cannot photograph staged landscape or find still life ( with portraits is different but gulf between candid and staged is so wide that viewer cannot be "cheated" ). Also the argument that XIX century photographers were staging scenarios is irrelevant for this subject as they didn't have any other choices with cameras that were available then. Candid photography was possible only from the 1920's when small cameras were invented. So the whole history argument doesn't apply here.
Now why am I firmly in found and not staged camp ? Because found photography is something that is specific for photography and not for other visual arts. Or putting is simply Crewdson can be painted but Winogrand not. Stephen Shore was succinct when he said "
What I meant was that photography in itself is analytical. In a synthetic process like painting, you start with a blank canvas, and any mark you make on the canvas makes it more complex. With photography, you start with the multitudinous forces of the whole world and anything you do, to put a frame on it for example, organizes it and, in a certain way, simplifies "
Now I'm not saying that there are no great photographers in stage camp e.g. Thomas Demand and Jeff Wall but their importance is more in their conversation with the medium than what they are photographing. And talking about Jeff Wall when asked once why doesn't he take candid photographs he answered that he would if he could.