Photography takes center stage

Victorians, Surrealists, and beyond: the rich tradition of the artificial image.

With a click of the camera, a moment so fleeting that the human eye cannot fully process all that is being captured, an image is recorded for posterity. With some luck and talent, the imagemaker, the subject of the image, and their surroundings conspire to create that perfect balance that we think of as the "decisive moment."

In the past several decades, one aspect of photography has been valued over any other: photography as reality, a concept that dictates that such "decisive moments" must always be spontaneous and unstaged.

However, this has not always been the case. There have been eras when society has placed great value on staged images. In Acting the Part: Photography as Theatre (Merrell; $49.95), four essays and a large collection of images take us on a photographic tour of the "made up."

In the first essay, Lori Pauli states that staged images have always been part of photographic practices. She defines three currents that run through the history of photo-graphy: the actor, the artist, and the storyteller, practices that allow photographers to impersonate works of art, re-create them, and tell stories through their work.

In the second essay, Marta Weiss writes about staged photography during the Victorian age. The dramatic pursuits of the Victorians and their interest in the allegorical were fertile grounds for the creation of made-up images. Tableaux vivants – the practice of dressing individuals or groups in costume and then posing them silently in dramatic scenes – were a popular pastime just as photography was emerging as an art form, and offered particularly ripe pickings.

A third essay by Ann Thomas examines the impact of modernism. Modernism, which was all about pushing the limits of art through innovation and experimentation, was generally not compatible with the staged image – except when it came to some avant-garde artists. Surrealists like Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp discarded the pictorialist pursuits of their Victorian predecessors and created a new visual language that suited their more outrageous agenda. Here the made-up image found its most successful artistic outlet.

On the commercial side, however, staged images also received a boost from the era's burgeoning advertising industry. Many iconic images of the time – such as Robert Doisneau's "The Kiss" (1950) and Ruth Orkin's "American Girl in Italy" (1951) – were actually staged for commercial purposes and set up in ways that were not obvious to the audience.

In the last essay, Karen Henry deals with contemporary photographic practices. Postmodernism defines the self as a social construct, thus vulnerable to "theatrical" representations. Such a view makes photography a great outlet for artists to perform, redefine, and reinvent social norms. Contemporary photographers like Yinka Shonibare are today bringing theatricality to levels not seen since the Victorian times.

"Acting the Part" is a great collection of images that help to expand understanding of the history of the made-up image. The essays place the works in context and make it clear that artists have always felt an attraction toward role-playing and allegory – whether society has been ready to accept such creations or not.

Alfredo Sosa is the Monitor's photo director.

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