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Staged photography

On the back of EYV assignment 5, I was encouraged to look more deeply into ‘staged photography’; in particular the work of Jeff Wall and Duane Michals.

At the outset of this course, I confess that I didn’t really understand the purpose of staged photography and its apparently popularity. It somehow seemed to fly in the face of the decisive moment, which seemed to me fundamental to the purpose of photography; even if contemporary technology has made that decisive moment far less elusive. Now, I see it simply as a different working practice and aesthetic. As long as it is not passed off as candid, which makes it fake and unethical.

In Wall’s revealing interview with O’hagan, his work is explained:

Wall describes his work as “cinematographic” re-creations of everyday moments he has witnessed, but did not photograph at the time. “To not photograph,” he says, “gives a certain freedom to then re-create or reshape what I saw.” He takes months to stage and direct each of his “occurrences”.

So, it is an extension of aftermath photography, but with an artificial recreation of the witnessed scene as remembered by Wall. Also, with the potential to add an artistic interpretation or vision perhaps not originally present in the scene. The approach is akin to painting, where the different elements are brought together in the artist’s construction. Some examples of Wall’s work are in the ‘checklist’ or pdf catalogue from MoMa exhibition attached as pdf: checklist. Or, on the websites referenced below.

Duane Michals’ work and approach is discussed at length in his interview with Resnik. From a very different background to Wall, Michals was discouraged from a career in art by his parents, but nonetheless pursued it. He considers not having formal training in photography as a benefit to his style – ‘he didn’t need to unlearn the rules’. He discusses his experience of his work not being accepted by the established photographers (Winogrand et al) as there was no decisive moment. However he considers freedom from the principal of the decisive moment as liberating for his art. Unusually, Michals often adds text to his images as context for the narrative.

Interestingly, neither Wall nor Michals uses digital photography (Michals does paint on his pictures) despite the obvious potential for digital recreation of the stage. I’m not sure why they choose not to; it could be a generational thing with digital technology, or perhaps a fake of a fake stage is a step too far for them?


Lipsky-Karasz E (2015). Wall Street Journal [online]. Jeff Wall’s Unique Photographic Vision. Available from: http://www.wsj.com/articles/jeff-walls-unique-photographic-vision-1441375796 [accessed 28.11.15]

MoMa [online]. Jeff Wall in his own words. Available from: http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2007/jeffwall/ [accessed 28.11.15]

O’Hagan S (2015). Guardian [online]. Jeff Wall: ‘I’m haunted by the idea that my photography was all a big mistake’. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/nov/03/jeff-wall-photography-marian-goodman-gallery-show [accessed 28.11.15]

Resnik R (2014). American Photo [website]. Interview: Duane Michals on 50 years of sequencing and staging photos. Available from: http://www.americanphotomag.com/interview-duane-michals-50-years-sequences-and-staging-photos?image=1 [accessed 28.11.15]

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