A strange vibe


General Photography

Time and again I’ve come across someone saying that there was something wrong if a photographer was spending a lot of time and effort on a single, staged photo. I’m sure you’ve seen this kind of criticism, it’s typically brought up when people talk about Gregory Crewdson’s work, and it’s bound to come up again now that there’s a big Jeff Wall show at MoMA (see this most recent article to get some background about Jeff Wall).

I don’t know what it is that bothers me about this kind of criticism, but for me I feel very uncomfortable about it. After all, what’s wrong with Gregory Crewdson hiring a huge crew of people and then staging photos, Hollywood-production style? It can’t really be that the photos are staged and, thus, artificial. Or maybe it is? But then how much sense would this make given that your average magazine basically contains only artificial people (at a bookstore yesterday, I found a magazine “for men”, whose cover model was so heavily airbrushed that she looked like an android)? So it can’t be the “artificial” bit - especially since (as is well known) combining several exposures into one has long been a staple of photography.

It must be the staged bit then. Why is it wrong to elaborately stage photos, especially if the goal is to create a piece of art that references or or follows tradition? Why is that bad? And why should those photos then not have the same scales as traditional paintings? (The light box thing is an entirely different matter; after I saw Jeff Wall’s big retrospective at the Tate a while ago, I thought that those light boxes were ruining quite a bit of the effect of the photos…)

How is hiring twenty people and making them wait in some location until the light is right bad? And how would it be different from waiting for days in a spot to take some landscape photo? Why leave the staging of sets and scenes to the people with movie cameras?

Is it the belief that photography is somehow more “real” or “authentic” when it’s just a snapshot? Wouldn’t that mean that we’d permanently confine photography to the art world’s cat table?