Art Review by Claudia Berlinski
This new exhibition of photographs entitled STAGED, pulled mostly from the Akron Art Museum permanent collection, addresses two ideas: what a photograph represents, and what the role of the photographer is. As Terry Barrett (art educator, photographer, writer on the subjects of art and photo criticism) states in an article from 35 years ago, that still holds true today: “Photographs are too often confused with what they depict. Distinctions between subject matter and a picture of subject matter frequently are not made, with the photograph being accepted as reality rather than a photographer’s point of view.” This statement very often holds true for the general public, when considering photographic work. We believe it is a depiction of what is true and real. But, how can an image be completely objective? Even photos that are journalistic images, street photos and portraits tend to bear the influence of the one shooting, whether it is simply achieved through cropping, exposure or point of view. While we spend so little time actually looking at photographs (some say 10-15 seconds), these particular images cause us to do a double take, and look deeper. Of course, in looking deeper, we recognize that we should question the reality of the images in front of us – and maybe all of photography.
My first impression of this exhibition is this, as expressed exactly by Terry Barrett in the same article: “… there is no problem in seeing the artist’s input, control, and unique sensibility. Their pictures have the look and feel of art.” These images made me wonder if, in general, people consider this type of photography to be more like art than others types. And, this made me wonder if anyone ever asks these questions of other media – certainly not painting or sculpture, which have been the two main powerhouses of the art world for centuries. Other media have their own stigma to overcome: printmaking as a graphic art, ceramics as a craft, etc. However, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard about the assumption of reality, or the question of the artist’s hand come into play with other media.
Control is a word that comes to mind when viewing Staged, as well as narrative, dramatic, theatrical and surreal. Each photographer exhibits a great deal of command over the orchestration of the scene. The famous image of Salvador Dali with water and cats flying through the air titled Dali Atomicus, by Philippe Halsman, took over six hours and twenty-eight attempts to get just right. And, it is not difficult to imagine every photo in this exhibition taking that long (or longer) to assemble and capture perfectly. Each image tells a story – one that is more fiction than non. The scenarios and the models are gorgeous and visceral and enchanting. The exhibition includes some of my absolute favorites – all masters at staging: Cindy Sherman, Sandy Skoglund, Carrie Mae Weems, and Joel-Peter Witkin – each well known and highly respected.
In some cases the artist is also the model, in some cases the artist works collaboratively with others as models, and a few times the artist is really just manipulating environments. In each photo, though, our perception of gender, age, space and time are all being challenged. Every image in this show makes the viewer feel like they’re being invited into the artist’s alternative reality – which makes them so enticing. Looking at such well planned and executed photographs, for me, is like reading a great novel – I do not want the story to end yet I cannot put the book down. And so, I could sit and look at these images for a very long time, and come back to them over and over.
Are the answers, then, that a photograph represents the photographer’s point of view regardless of the subject, and that viewers need to be aware that even reality is manipulated to an extent? And, that the role of the photographer is the same as that for other artists – to inform, to enlighten, to share – to make us feel something? You will be able to see this show alongside the larger photo exhibit Proof: Photographs from the Collection and make your own comparisons and decisions. I highly recommend spending more than 10-15 seconds per piece, and going back to revisit your favorites several times.
Reference: Barrett, Terry. “Thinking About Photographs.” In the Arts, 1 Nov. 1980: Pages 17-20. Print.
Claudia Berlinski is an Assistant Professor of Art at Youngstown State University, a working artist and curator. She previously wrote art reviews for Dialogue magazine which was a vital and vibrant print media source for the visual arts in the Midwest. You can contact Claudia at firstname.lastname@example.org.