In the broad landscape of art, photography holds a wide range of roles. More often than not, it ends up being a means to an end – a vehicle providing the viewer with information. The technology of the photographic image has inherent qualities that make it a curious medium. In photography, the film or sensor reacts to whatever light falls on it. One can control how the camera sees the scene and manipulate the image to an extent, but in order to take an image, the camera has to have the object in front of it. It was always there to see the subject, unlike painting. This presents the possibility for a certain inherent duality to the photographic image – it can both show mimetically what was in front of the camera and cover up the fact that the real subject in the frame has been completely constructed and contrived. A comparison of three individual works by artists Jeff Wall, Andreas Gursky and Gregory Crewdson will show different approaches to this ‘constructed reality’ as well as assess their similarities.
From its genesis, photography stood in the shadow of painting. Henry Fox Talbot’s first book was even titled, “The Pencil of Nature”, a nod to his hopes for the medium. What photographs offered that paintings did not was the ability to take a snapshot -– a completely spontaneous capture of a given moment and place from a given vantage point. In its early stages, this type of photography was not valued and such images were generally looked down upon as non-art, but over the last several decades, artists have used certain salient traits of the photograph and a knowledge of the way viewers have a familiarity to photography to exploit and create a new genre of photography. Artists denote it with different names and titles, some term it cinematic, tableau, theatrical, and near-documentary (Barrett-Lennard, 30), but no matter the nomenclature, the overarching method and idea remain consistent. The general traits of this form (which will be referred to as tableau for our purposes) are fairly consistent: large format cameras are used almost exclusively (generally 8×10 or 4×5 view cameras) and a very wide depth of field renders hyper-details, color is preferred and computer-aided postproduction and editing of images is frequent. The real hallmark of many of these prints, especially among the artists being compared, is the scale at which they are displayed. Frequently no less than a meter tall and much wider, the works demand attention and overwhelm the viewer with more detail than can be processed at once.
Many artists subscribe to this trend, but three in particular lend themselves to comparative analysis. Jeff Wall, Andreas Gursky and Gregory Crewdson are all well- known, living and practicing artists with decades of work and experience under their belts. They have all been formally educated and the formal qualities of their work, along with the scale and subject matter, make them ideal for just such a comparison.
In looking at works by each, we will see that, though very different in some aspects, their endeavors have succeeded to create artworks that function and utilize key functions of tableau paintings while remaining entirely in the photographic realm.
The Storyteller, 1986 is a work by Canadian artist Jeff Wall. The image is a very large (229 x 437 cm) transparency, backlit by a wall-mounted fluorescent light box. The image itself depicts three main groupings of people under and near an overpass in Vancouver (Wall’s hometown). A power line interrupts the frame near the horizontal centerline and frames all three groups underneath it. The people in the groups are in varying postures and positions, but they carry Native American features while dressed in contemporary clothes. The leftmost group consists of three people around a long-extinguished campfire, the leftmost figure of that group engaged in the telling of a story, reminiscent of Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe by Manet (Wall, 28-29). The image is bound dialectically – a duality drives the image. To the right and higher on the hill than the first group are two figures, reclined and facing away from the camera on a blanket. All the way across the frame on the far right side and under the overpass sits a lone male figure, his arms resting on his knees and his gaze toward the first group. The image itself consists of many strong lines of trees, soil, grass, stones and pavement acting as layers of time and representative of the rapid urbanization and subsequent decay of culture. The image reads left to right as a timeline, but the figure on the far right jostles the viewer as he looks back nostalgically at the group of figures on the far left.
Untitled (Shane), 2006 (144.78 x 223.52cm) is a more recent work by Gregory Crewdson. In the photograph, a young boy in a green shirt stands under a railroad overpass on a wide dirt path in the woods. The image is painterly, with a strong atmospheric quality and lit very much like a movie or stage set. The boy (presumably Shane), stands low in the frame, slightly right of center and looks up at the light coming through the tracks. The source of the light is not visible. Untitled (Shane) includes many tropes that Crewdson has explored since 2000 (Shapiro); adolescence, overgrowth, roads and subjects looking at direct, out-of-frame light sources all coalesce to give a sense to familiarity while unsettling the viewer. It is as if there is something the viewer is supposed to understand in order to unlock the scene. Without the information, it is not clear if the outcome will be positive or negative, but it is evident that something out of the ordinary will happen. The image is part of twenty images in the series, Beneath the Roses.
Ruhrtal (Ruhr Valley),1989 (174 x 223 cm) is an early work by Andreas Gursky. It doesn’t feature all of the hallmarks of Gursky’s current work, but it is very pregnant with some of the same ideas. The image is of an overpass near the Ruhr River in Witten, Germany, northeast of Dusseldorf, where Gursky studied under Bernd and Hilla Becher (Gronert). The sky is a flat grey (likely the influence of the Bechers) and is a strong negative space. Two supporting columns of the overpass frame in the center of the image where a lone figure, who is understood to be a watercolor painter based on the easel and materials he carries, is dwarfed by the massive structure. The painter is standing still, looking down and out to the right of the frame, possibly in thought. Because of the size of the figure to the scale of the overpass, the painter seems to be contemplating the overpass as a monument, evaluating his place in a new landscape.
The three images were chosen for comparison because they shared so many elements. The images are all horizontally oriented and very large in scale; no less than 144cm on the shortest side of the smallest image. Due to their size, they immediately call to mind tableau paintings. They are mounted on the walls of museums and galleries, where viewers standing within 10ft. of the frame are forced to move their heads to take in the entirety of the photograph. The images further push this correlation based on their formal elements. First figures are posed rigidly and with purpose, seeming to be in movement but appearing almost as wax figures. All seem literally and figuratively distant, aware of the camera but unaffected by its presence. All elements within the frames seem to be place perfectly and deliberately, but none of them boast a sense of Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment. The pictures also all share the theme of an overpass, of a road going over the heads of their subjects and passing them by. The overpasses serve to act as a frame within a frame in all of the images and allow the viewer to really focus in on the figures. The three images all also share elements of natural growth and plant life butting right up against man’s constructed nature in the form of roadways, which makes the viewer feel as if the figures do not know where they belong.
The contrasts of the images are by far the most rewarding. Each image stands in its own right as its own picture. While they share a broad idea, each image wrestles with its own themes – Crewdson’s work deals with the psychosomatic state of the figures (Anderson; Crewdson), Wall’s photograph opens up a dialogue on the state of Native Americans in British Columbia, and Gursky’s work plays with the role of the old in an ever-growing and modernizing society. Each artist deals with their figures and their scenes differently, but all find a way to merge the two in order to create a contrast between them. In Ruhrtal, the figure is almost microscopic and Lilliputian next to the concrete highline, yet the figure stands taller than the repetitive roadside shoulder markers he walks along. Untitled (Shane) shares the subject of a single lone figure, but unlike Ruhrtal, we have an unresolved sense of hope and simultaneous fear for the young boy. Ruhrtal is very bright and graphic; Untitled (Shane) is dark and soft-edged. The Storyteller is a little bit of both, showing the dialectic nature of Wall’s work in that it holds opposing ideas and visual elements in a single frame (Newman). In The Storyteller, the group of people on the left seem to fit within the darker trees as if they are part of nature. However, the lone man on the left seems to be sitting alone in front of the prow of a bright and large ship (actually an overpass), stark and certainly not part of it.
All three of these images resonate with me personally and I have selected them for analysis because I wanted to study them in-depth. After spending time with the photographs, I have come to a deeper appreciation for individual artworks and the genre of photography that they have helped to form and bolster. It is interesting to see how each artist uses similar methods for very different results, some relying on heavy post-production after the fact, some creating larger volumes of work than others, but all engaging in a dialog current to the age we inhabit by drawing on methods and modes of understanding from the past.
Tableau photography is interesting, engaging and has held its place within the art world.
Alongside other artists like Joel Sternfield, Hiroshi Sugimoto, George Tice, Alec Soth, and Philip-Lorca diCorcia, they have created constructed work to be analyzed in-depth on a highly conceptual level without compromising the formal elements of their form.
Anderson, Paul Allen. “About the Light : The Uncomfortable Worlds of Gregory Crewdson and Raymond Pettibon.” Art Papers JULY/AUGUST 2003 (2002): 12–13. Print.
Barrett-Lennard, John. “Jeff Wall : Looking at the Unseen.” Art Monthly Australia 2013: 29–31. Print.
Crewdson, Gregory. Gregory Crewdson, 1985-2005. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2007. Print.
Gronert, Stefan. The Düsseldorf School of Photography. New York NY: Aperture, 2010. Print.
Newman, Michael. Jeff Wall : Works and Collected Writings. Barcelona: Polı́grafa, 2008. Print.
Shapiro, Ben. Gregory Crewdson Brief Encounters. New York, NY : Zeitgeist Films, 2012. Film.
Wall, Jeff. Jeff Wall : The Complete Edition. London: Phaidon, 2009. Print.
Advisor: Judith Barry
Independent Study: Academic
 Digital manipulation has increasingly played a role in this process
 Wall has a series of large, black-and-white images