Context & Narrative

Rob Townsend

Research point: Constructed images

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I’ve been on holiday for a week and had lots of time for research, if not writing, on the subject of staged photography. The upshot is that, after an admittedly sceptical starting point, I have developed much more of an appreciation of the genre – not quite a new-found love but at least a better understanding of the what, why and how of the form.

I am indebted to Chapter 2 of Charlotte Cotton’s The Photograph as Contemporary Art (Cotton 2009: 49-79) for my foundation knowledge of the subject and will refer to various key points raised in that text.

I have approached this by looking at some of the common characteristics of constructed photography using the example photographers from the course notes, alongside a couple of others that I found during my research.

Style: references to other art and media

Among the descriptions of the genre, a few adjectives keep jumping out: painterly, theatrical, cinematic.

Sometimes the reference to other art is very specific, indeed is the central conceit of the work, as in Freddy Fabris’ The Renaissance Series. Other times it is a more subtle but deliberate reference, such as Tom Hunter and his acknowledgement of the influence of Vermeer. In some of the works of Jeff Wall and much of that of Gregory Crewdson the cinematic ‘look’ is so strong that it is in danger of overwhelming the nuances of the content.

Cotton (2009: 49) proposes that the references to other art forms are not necessarily pure imitation (with the exception of obvious homages such as Fabris mentioned above) but rather “a shared understanding of how a scene can be choreographed for the viewer so that he or she can recognise the a story is being told“. In other words, photographers may use techniques borrowed from these other art forms simply because they support their narrative intent.

In this respect the resemblance to other art performs a similar function to the ‘external mythologies’ point discussed below – it provides a mental shortcut, creating a space in the viewer’s mind in which to ‘locate’ the potential meaning of the image. A photograph, like a painting, cannot depict an actual linear narrative, but it can allude to a story – it can have a sense of narrativity. Resembling a still from a movie is one way of implying a story.

Beyond the traditional definition of ‘art’ (let’s not go there) there are also some good examples of staged photography that reference other genres of photography.

Some of Jeff Wall’s work and much of that of Philip-Lorca diCorcia appropriate the aesthetic of street photography but in a way that controls the subject matter to varying degrees. Taryn Simon does something similar with the documentary genre. One of my favourite photography projects is where Sandro Miller and John Malkovich recreate specific iconic photographs. So photography itself can be the inspiration.

Content and context: references to external mythologies

One of the evident elements of staged photography is the depiction of (or allusion to) ‘story elements’ that are already part of the collective cultural consciousness. ‘Story elements’ can include stereotypes, visual tropes, proverbs, morals and so on. Cotton includes, for example, “fables, fairy tales, apocryphal events and modern myths” (2009: 49).

Examples of this are Deborah Mesa-Pelly’s and Gerd Ludwig’s work based on fairy tales, and Hannah Starkey’s use of Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shallot as inspiration for her 2010 self-portrait series.

The reason for doing this is quite simple: it can act as a ‘pointer’ that quickly gives the viewer some context and foundational interpretation – by investing the image with prior knowledge, the viewer is unconsciously applying some parameters to their reading. This should help to align the viewer’s reading to the artist’s intent (whilst still allowing room for personal interpretation).

Adding the last two points together: the viewer can bring to the image an understanding of narrativity (from the visual style), and a more specific ‘story context’ (implied by the subject(s) within the frame) and so aid their interpretation.

Style without context: open-ended narrativity

Some constructed photography, however, will use a particular visual style to create a tableau that doesn’t rely on any ‘clues’ or external pointers. The use of the techniques (clichés?) of painting, theatre or cinema without obvious narrative context is a way of implying that the image contains an important ‘message’ without providing a roadmap to find such a message; these are the photographs “whose meaning is reliant on our investing the image with our own trains of narrative and psychological thought“. (Cotton 2009: 49).

So both types of constructed image – referenced and unreferenced – require something from the viewer. The former requires knowledge of the references and the latter requires the mental effort to ‘process’.


One identifiable trend in much contemporary constructed photography is the depersonalisation of the protagonist(s). The subjects are often facing away from the camera. Over half of Cotton’s examples featuring people with their features partially or fully obscured. This can heighten the sense of anxiety or disquiet common in the genre; not seeing a person’s face means not knowing what they’re thinking, which in turn leads to viewers needing to use their imaginations and environmental cues to fill in the gaps (Cotton 2009: 60). This could be seen as a form of projection, where the viewer is encouraged to place themselves in the shoes of the subject.

Surrealism and ‘seduction’

Some of the most interesting examples of constructed photography take advantage of the potential for creating images detached from reality, a little or a lot. There’s a ‘dreamlike’ quality to some of the works of (for example) Jeff Wall, Liza May Post and Wendy McMurdo that ‘straight photography’ cannot achieve. It’s a sense of ambiguity, of ‘otherworldliness’ that can be uneasy for the viewer, often playing to collective fears in a quite sinister way. Cotton also points out that use of young protagonists is common and again heightens the dreamlike / childlike sense of sinister surrealism (2009: 64).

The juxtaposition of unsettling content in a visually pleasing style is one of the characteristics of much successful staged photography. As Cotton puts it: “work that is, in terms of its narrative meaning, socially subversive or difficult is often carried in an aesthetic that is rich and seductive to the eye. We almost realise too late the true meaning of what we have been drawn to, enjoyed and appreciated” (2009: 65-66).

Depicting the unseen

Perhaps linked to the above but a separate enough point in my opinion, some of the best practitioners of constructed realities are those that are able to allude to intangible subjects. When I look at the work of Hannah Starkey, for example, I see someone successfully depicting daydreaming. Her characters have enigmatic, faraway looks in their eyes, and the use of mirrors and windows within her photographs suggest alternate realities being dreamt about.

Similarly, I found I had more respect for, and interest in, the work of Jeff Wall when I discovered an interview where he says his aim is often to recreate a memory. The tableaux are not necessarily complete works of creation for him but often an attempt to re-create something, and often a memory that he believes is generic enough to be shared (such as falling as a child). For some reason this endeared me to him more.

Another good example is Tom Hunter and his ability to suggest thoughts or interior responses in images such as Woman Reading a Possession Order.

Presentation matters

Many of the artists who specialise in constructed photography present their images very large, much larger than traditional prints, and some like Wall prefer to use lightboxes as the means of presenting images. Part of this is to heighten the reality by showing scenes life-size or larger. Another reason is to present a high level of detail, one of the hallmarks of constructed images – most practitioners work with large format cameras for maximum clarity. Super-sized images also allow for a depth of sustained analysis that a smaller print might not. Cotton also points out the allusion to a stage or movie set (2009: 76).


From my recent research I now find constructed photography more interesting and meaningful than I did before. The fact that the viewer needs to invest either prior knowledge or effortful thought to such imagery means that it can be more ‘difficult’ than more traditional straight photography, but such effort is more rewarding than I previously thought. I am less sceptical now!


Cotton, C (2009) The Photograph as Contemporary Art. London: Thames & Hudson (accessed 10/11/2015) (accessed 10/11/2015),-malkovich,-malkovich-homage-to-photographic-masters.html (accessed 10/11/2015) (accessed 10/11/2015) (accessed 10/11/2015) (accessed 10/11/2015) (accessed 10/11/2015) (accessed 10/11/2015) (accessed 10/11/2015)


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