Tableau Photography

Storytelling in contemporary art photography

I read The Photograph as Contemporary Art by Charlotte Cotton. Her book helped me understand the art of photography on a much deeper level. The chapter on Tableau Photography resonated with me the most, I feel extremely inspired and moved by this type of photography. Here it write what I learned about Tableau Photography and the photographers and photographs featured in her book.

Tableau photography is about creating narratives in photography that reference paintings, literature, and the lives of people from the past. In this way, it shows how contemporary life parallels with other times in history. How those narratives are created vary widely by photographer.

Jeff Wall Insomnia, 1994.
Jeff Wall, Insomnia, 1994.

This photograph by Jeff Wall is stylized enough for us see that it’s intentionally choreographed to function as an allegory of psychological distress, it calls into question the idea of the photographer working alone, it redefines the role of the photographer as an orchestrator of cast and crew.

Philip-Lorca diCorcia Eddie Anderson; 21 years old; Houston, Texas; $20
Philip-Lorca diCorcia Eddie Anderson; 21 years old; Houston, Texas; $20

Philip-Lorca diCorcia took portraits of men he asked to pose for him around Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. His image titles say name, age, from location, amount paid to pose for him.

These titles make the viewer wonder about the story and aspiration of the individual. The use of their bodies along the amount paid is clear reference to sex industry, this could be a statement about the realities of the pursuit of fame.

His Dramatic lighting is often considered cinematic, but tableau photography is not a still version of cinema. It uses cinema, novels, art, etc. as reference points to help the viewer accept it as a merging of fact and fiction

One of the great uses of tableau photography as a format, is that it can carry intense but ambiguous drama that’s shaped by the viewer’s own train of thought. It can cause anxiety or uncertainty about the meaning of an image.

Sarah Dobai, Red Room, 2001
Sarah Dobai, Red Room, 2001

Sarah Dobai used tableau photography for ambiguous and unreferenced narratives. Her images have a dreamlike quality that is created by not referencing a time and place. The psychological drama is apparent in her photographs but intentionally left open ended. This photo was taken in Dobai’s living space which allowed signs of her life to become a part of the piece.

Hannah Starkey - Untitled, March 2002
Hannah Starkey – Untitled, March 2002

With Hannah Starkey, she used tableau photography to depict figures with faces turned away from us, leaving character unexplained. Their thoughts are not revealed, leaving it to our imagination to make potential explanations. The staging around the characters don’t really tell us their identities but rather give us clues to who they might be.

Gregory Crewdson - Untitled (Ophelia), 2001
Gregory Crewdson – Untitled (Ophelia), 2001

Gregory Crewdson’s photograph references Ophelia from Hamlet but in a modern and suburban setting. Here is another example how tableau photography references literature. In Gregory’s case, as the creator, he shifts into director mode, directing how the image will be created with entire crew of people without actually taking the image himself. He said in a documentary that he doesn’t do any thing hands on, he doesn’t even like clicking the shutter.

Thomas Demand - Tunnel, 1999
Thomas Demand – Tunnel, 1999

Thomas Demand starts with a photograph of an architectural place, sometimes a specific place then carefully reconstructs a simplified model of it using styrofoam, paper and card. He then photographs the scene. This image is of a model of the interior of the tunnel where princess Diana had her tragic car accident. This is an example of how tableau photography tells story by referencing a famous historical event.

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