In its early decades, photography was considered a valuable artistic tool— especially by painters who based their compositions on photographed scenes—but not necessarily an art in its own right. By the mid-19th century, photographers like Julia Margaret Cameron, eager to show photography as an artistic medium on par with painting and sculpture, began to stage scenes from literature or the Bible. Others restaged well-known historic events they were unable to capture in real time, due to the limitations of lengthy exposure times and bulky cameras.
The contemporary photographers discussed here reflect and build upon the legacy of staged photography, with a twist. Their images are elaborately constructed and meticulously photographed, but often consciously reveal their own artifice. By showing the ease with which images can be staged or manipulated, they challenge the commonly held perception of photography as a purely objective medium.
The visual or narrative focus of a work of art.
A type of photography that captures subjects in candid moments in public places.
The materials used to create a work of art, and the categorization of art based on the materials used (for example, painting [or more specifically, watercolor], drawing, sculpture).
The method by which information is included or excluded from a photograph. A photographer frames an image when he or she points a camera at a subject.
The action of exposing a photographic film to light or other radiation.
In photography, editing, typically by removing the outer edges of the image. This process may happen in the darkroom or on a computer.
The arrangement of the elements within a work of art. The composition is the interplay between the subject, foreground, background, and other elements in the photograph.
Questions & Activities
Comparing Film Stills
Look and Compare. Compare Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills to those from films by Alfred Hitchcock. Click here to see a sampling of Hitchcock images at MoMA.org.
Imagining a Character
Imagine. Develop the identity of a character in one of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills. What is the person’s name, occupation, and personal history? What happened just before the scene pictured and what happened just after?
Write. Write a brief one-page description of your character.
Using what he calls “near documentary,” Jeff Wall plays with the tradition of street photography by directing and photographing models to reenact scenes he witnessed on the street.
Observe. Look for an interesting action on the street or in another public space. Write a brief description of the moment and why it was memorable.