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Explore the many different ways photography has been used to document and examine the modern world.


Some photographers pose their subjects, others capture candid images of people. Sometimes, it can be hard to tell the difference.

Photography and Public Image

Today, the identity of a notable figure or celebrity may be largely crafted through photographic images.

Photography as Witness

Photographs of major historic events often help define collective memory or provide indisputable evidence of moments in history.

Sets, Stories, and Situations

Throughout the history of the medium, photographers have staged images to evoke or reference literature, films, or real events.

The Photographic Record

Since its inception, photography has helped build a collective archive of human experience.

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.

One who uses a camera or other means to produce photographs.

Deception or trickery.

One who applies paint to canvas, wood, paper, or another support to produce a picture.

A three-dimensional work of art made by a variety of means, including carving wood, chiseling stone, casting or welding metal, molding clay or wax, or assembling materials.

A setting for or a part of a story or narrative.

A work of art made from paint applied to canvas, wood, paper, or another support (noun).

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 individual elements within a work of art so as to form a unified whole; also used to refer to a work of art, music, or literature, or its structure or organization.

Questions & Activities

  1. 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

    Reflect. What is similar about the images and what is different? Consider framing, cropping, lighting, and subject matter. Make a list of some of your observations.

  2. 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.

  3. Street Seen

    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.