Part Five – Constructed Realities and the Fabricated Image

Project One – Setting the Scene


Watch this famous scene from Goodfellas directed by Martin Scorsese in 1990: [accessed 18/11/19]

1. What does this scene tell you about the main character?

The main character appears to be of some standing in a section of the community, apparently the underworld, but one that he has cultivated through communication, friendship and perhaps through association, but not fear. And he likes to enjoy himself.

2. How does it do this? List the ‘clues’?

  • He has ready access to the back of house areas
  • People he passes appear to take great efforts in welcoming him or in getting some recognition from him.
  • He is provided a table while others have to wait
  • He provides large tips, so continuing to cultivate the relationship
  • Those around him take a subservient stance, but not fawning
  • Nobody challenges, but nobody is obviously scared
  • He makes an effort in talking to everyone; he wants to be liked, suggesting he has grown through the ranks, but is not recognisable as someone you want to know or could be said to be friends
  • A bottle of wine is bought for him

Extract from course text: “Photography, like film and unlike painting and other art forms, relies on what’s in front of the camera for its content, so the props, clothes, location and setting have to be right for the time period and the story. Setting up a shot can be an arduous job. Many photographers working in this genre (known as tableaux) produce a single image at a time.”An example of this has been provided in the text:

Jeff Wall, After the The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue, 1999 to 2001

“Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man centres on a black man who, during a street riot, falls into a forgotten room in the cellar of a large apartment building in New York and decides to stay there, living hidden away. The novel begins with a description of the protagonist’s subterranean home, emphasising the ceiling covered with 1,369 illegally connected light bulbs. There is a parallel between the place of light in the novel and Wall’s own photographic practice. Ellison’s character declares: ‘Without light I am not only invisible, but formless as well.’ Wall’s use of a light source behind his pictures is a way of bringing his own ‘invisible’ subjects to the fore, so giving form to the overlooked in society.” [accessed 18/11/19]


Drawing on Documentary and Art

Hannah Starkey’s work is based on Tennyson’s poem, The Lady of Shalott. The point of the poem is that life wasn’t worth living when she (the Lady) could only see the shadows of reality through a reflection in the mirror. “This idea is very present within photography: a photograph becomes a kind of mirror on reality. Although photographers are no longer reliant on mirrors to create self-portraits as painters were, many still choose to include reflections and mirrors in their work to refer to the fact that we’re seeing reality via a reflection of what was real rather than the real thing itself. The inclusion of reflections and mirrors also gives the viewer an insight into what goes on behind the scenes and creates a false sense of intimacy. So as much as Starkey’s image is literally a self-portrait, it is also a comment on photography itself and its ability to create a different reality.” (extract from course text)

Tom Hunter (born 1965) is a London-based British artist working in photography and film. His photographs often reference and reimagine classical paintings. He was the first photographer to have a one-man show at the National Gallery, London. [accessed 19/11/19].

Hunter was interviewed by the Guardian in November 2009 about his picture Woman Reading a Possession Order.

Tom Hunter, Woman Reading a Possession Order, 1997

‘I was living in Hackney in London, in a whole street of squats, having spent two years travelling around Europe in a double-decker bus. Everyone got a letter addressed to “persons unknown”. The council wanted to knock down the street and build warehouses. The Tories had brought in the Criminal Justice Act, which was designed to stop parties. Every time you saw a picture of a squatter or a traveller, it was to go with a story about how antisocial they were. I just wanted to take a picture showing the dignity of squatter life – a piece of propaganda to save my neighbourhood.

I took this in 1997, for my master’s degree show at the Royal College of Art. The 17th-century golden age of Dutch painting had had a massive impact on me: the way they dealt with ordinary people, not kings, queens and generals. I thought if I could borrow their style for squatters and travellers, it would elevate their status. In this shot, inspired by Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, my next-door neighbour is reading the possession order.

Filipa had just had her first baby. We spent the whole day trying things out: we had a bowl of fruit, then we tried some curtains, then incorporated the baby. The light was perfect, a late winter sun coming through the window, really low, like the northern European light.

I used a large-format camera, which really captures that light. And I used the Supachrome process to print it – old-fashioned even then. The exposure was about a second, so it was like sitting for a painting: she had to stand still. I was waiting for the light to pour into the lens, rather than snapping at something.

I phoned her up last week and she’s still happy with the picture. It’s a record of her, her child and her home at the time. The great thing is, the picture got a dialogue going with the council – and we managed to save the houses.’ [accessed 19/11/19].

‘The Innocents (2002) documents the stories of individuals who served time in prison for violent crimes they did not commit. At issue is the question of photography’s function as a credible eyewitness and arbiter of justice. The primary cause of wrongful conviction is mistaken identification. A victim or eyewitness identifies a suspected perpetrator through law enforcement’s use of photographs and lineups. This procedure relies on the assumption of precise visual memory. But, through exposure to composite sketches, mugshots, Polaroids, and lineups, eyewitness memory can change. In the history of these cases, photography offered the criminal justice system a tool that transformed innocent citizens into criminals. Photographs assisted officers in obtaining eyewitness identifications and aided prosecutors in securing convictions. Simon photographed these men at sites that had particular significance to their illegitimate conviction: the scene of misidentification, the scene of arrest, the scene of the crime, or the scene of the alibi. All of these locations hold contradictory meanings for the subjects. The scene of arrest marks the starting point of a reality based in fiction. The scene of the crime is at once arbitrary and crucial: this place, to which they have never been, changed their lives forever. In these photographs Simon confronts photography’s ability to blur truth and fiction—an ambiguity that can have severe, even lethal consequences.’ [accessed 20/11/19]

Taryn Simon, The Innocents, Charles Irvin Finn, 2002

‘Scene of the crime, the Snake River, Melba, Idaho

Served 18 years of a Death sentence for Murder, Rape and Kidnapping’

Taryn Simon says of her project: ‘The high stakes of the criminal justice system underscore the importance of a photographic image’s history and context. The photographs rely upon supporting materials, captions, case profiles and interviews, in an effort to construct a more adequate account of these cases. This project stresses the cost of ignoring the limitations of photography and minimizing the context in which photographic images are presented. Nowhere are the material effects of ignoring a photograph’s context as profound as in the misidentification that leads to the imprisonment or execution of an innocent person.’

[accessed 20/11/19]

‘Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s photographs straddle truth and fiction by combining real people and places—but not necessarily people and places that naturally go together. The theatricality of his images is carefully constructed: he arranges the objects of each scene and devises precise lighting and framing for every project. His work is often described as cinematic, a description that diCorcia deplores. He insists that his pictures suggest rather than elucidate a full narrative. His brand of storytelling results in unstable, unfixed images that point in certain directions but never provide a definitive map.’

[accessed 20/11/19]

‘Between 1990 and 1992, photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia made five trips to Los Angeles to take photos of male prostitutes in Hollywood. DiCorcia first approached his subjects in LA’s “Boystown”, located in West Hollywood. Instead of having sexual activities, diCorcia offered to pay after getting photographs of them.

The best spots for ‘Hustlers’

Before making an agreement with the hustlers, diCorcia had already looked for perfect locations that would bring mystery to his works. He set up the spots in cheap hotel rooms, parking lots, street corners and even the places where the trade of the hustlers is happening. He was focused on the angles where the lights would emphasize the story of the man he wanted to show, in order to share the emotions of his protagonists.

The price of the hustlers

DiCorcia shows what some people may call a harsh reality. Each photo has a name of the subject with his corresponding price. The prices of these hustlers are real.

First time exhibited in 1993

In 1993, the photos were exhibited in diCorcia’s first ever museum show, called Strangers, at the Museum of Modern art in New York. The exhibition showed not only the beauty of the photographs but the strategies and styles diCorcia used in his pieces. Later on, it is been entitled ‘Hustlers’ since it is the best description for the service hustlers rendered.

Impact on Society

The viewer can see how appealing the shots are but know that behind those photos is the sad truth about life. No matter how nice the pose of the boys in the Boystown is, some of the hustlers might have no choice to escape and are forced to live a life that they can’t get out. It has been two decades now since the photos were taken, but still, its impact is there.’ [accessed 20/11/19].

Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Todd M Brooks, 22 years old, Denver, Colorado, $40, 1990, 1992

‘Gregory Crewdson is an American photographer best known for staging cinematic scenes of suburbia to dramatic effect. His surreal images are often melancholic, offering ambiguous narrative suggestions and blurring the boundaries between fiction and reality. Working with large production teams to scout and shoot his images, his photographs have become increasingly complex as if it were for a motion picture production, including its painstaking preparation of elaborate sets, lighting, and cast, as seen in his seminal series Beneath the Roses (2003–2008) and Twilight (1998–2001). “My pictures are about a search for a moment—a perfect moment,” Crewdson has explained.’ http://www [accessed 22/11/19].

Gregory Crewdson, Blind Reflection ftom Beneath the Roses, 2007

“I’m interested in the question of narrative, how photography is distinct from, but connected to, other narrative forms like writing and film. This idea of creating a moment that’s frozen and mute, that perhaps ultimately asks more questions than it answers, proposes an open-ended and ambiguous narrative that allows the viewer to, in a sense, complete it. Ultimately, I’m interested in this ambiguous moment that draws the viewer in through photographic beauty, through repulsion, through some kind of tension.” – Gregory Crewsdon, quoted in [accessed 22/11/19].

From the quote above, it is obvious that Crewdson uses aesthetic beauty to draw the viewer in, but beauty appears not to be the objective, just the vehicle. I do think that Crewdson succeeds in making his work “psychological”, if what we mean by that is that the image is ambiguous and each us create our own narrative from our own imagination. I don’t have a single goal for all photographs, but I do think that beauty is a valid objective for many types of genre, such as landscapes.

Extract from course text: ‘Crewdson’s work is deliberately cinematic in style and as a result is often very popular in commercial settings. The dark nights, the heavy lights and the perfectly styled locations and actors aren’t meant to fool us into believing those moments are real, but rather they seduce us into entering the world of fiction. This visual strategy of elaborate direction, as in film, makes us lose our sense of reality and become absorbed with the alternative reality we’re faced with. Some commentators regard this is an effective method of image-making, but for others it lacks the subtlety and nuance of Wall and DiCorcia’s work.’I agree that it is an effective method of image-making. The approach to creating scenes carried out by Crewdson and Wall may be different, but the results are very similar. Consider the two images below:

Could one consider one of these subtle and the other not; I’m not convinced. Each could have been taken the other. However, I would say on balance that Crewdson’s portfolio is generally more dramatic, more cinematic.

‘In 1981 Cindy Sherman took off on men’s magazine centerfolds in a series of photographic double spreads initially commissioned — but not used by — the magazine Artforum. Close-cropped and close up, they portray this multi-self-portraitist in various roles, from a sultry seductress to a frightened, vulnerable victim who might have just been raped.

The mood of each of these life-size storytelling pictures is charged, not only by Ms. Sherman’s poses, expressions, clothes and wigs but also by the use of gels that cast the images in colors appropriate to their narratives. A sort of kitschy orange suffuses ”Untitled No. 96,” in which Ms. Sherman lies dreamily on a linoleum floor in a sweater and skirt, a thirty-something single clutching a ”Personals” ad torn from a newspaper.

In ”Untitled No. 90” she is bathed in a pink glow as she sleepily eyes a telephone placed next to her bed. In ”Untitled No. 94,” an eerie greenish cast pervades a shot in which she half reposes in tomboy chino clothes, fixing the viewer with a challenging, rebellious gaze.

More than simple spoofs of the sterotypes promulgated by various magazines, these photographs manage to convey the ambiguities of women playing gender cliché roles and even Ms. Sherman’s own unease at casting herself in them.’ [accessed 23/11/19]

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #92, 1981

Project 2 – The Archive

People in trouble laughing pushed to the ground. Soldiers leaning, pointing, reaching. Woman sweeping. Balloons escaping. Coffin descending. Boys standing. Grieving. Chair balancing. Children smoking. Embracing. Creatures barking. Cars burning. Helicopters hovering. Faces. Human figures. Shapes. Birds. Structures left standing and falling…

The Belfast Exposed Archive occupies a small room on the first floor at 23 Donegal Street and contains over 14,000 black-and-white contact sheets, documenting the Troubles in Northern Ireland. These are photographs taken by professional photo-journalists and ‘civilian’ photographers, chronicling protests, funerals and acts of terrorism as well as the more ordinary stuff of life: drinking tea; kissing girls; watching trains.

Belfast Exposed was founded in 1983 as a response to concern over the careful control of images depicting British military activity during the Troubles. Whenever an image in this archive was chosen, approved or selected, a blue, red or yellow dot was placed on the surface of the contact sheet as a marker. The position of the dots provided us with a code; a set of instructions for how to frame the photographs in this book. Each of the circular photographs shown on the previous pages reveals the area beneath these circular stickers; the part of each image that has been obscured from view the moment it was selected. Each of these fragments – composed by the random gesture of the archivist – offers up a self-contained universe all of its own; a small moment of desire or frustration or thwarted communication that is re-animated here after many years in darkness.

The marks on the surface of the contact strips – across the image itself – allude to the presence of many visitors. These include successive archivists, who have ordered, catalogued and re-catalogued this jumble of images. For many years the archive was also made available to members of the public, and sometimes they would deface their own image with a marker pen, ink or scissors. So, in addition to the marks made by generations of archivists, photo editors, legal aides and activists, the traces of these very personal obliterations are also visible. They are the gestures of those who wished to remain anonymous.’ [accessed 25/11/19]

Extract from the course text: ‘By using the ‘straight’ photography of the archive to tell new stories, Broomberg and Chanarin question the role of documentary photography as a trustworthy record of events and offer a different use for photography in such times.’

Broomberg and Chanarin, from People in Trouble (Dots), 2011

Where Broomberg and Chanarin have extracted elements from existing archives, to change the narrative, Nicky Bird uses unwanted photos (in Question for Seller) to create a ‘false narrative’ or alternatively create a new meaning.

‘Nicky’s work investigates the contemporary relevance of ‘found’ artefacts, their archives and specific sites through collaborative art processes with people who have significant connections to a latent history. She is interested in how such artefacts, archives and sites carry both social and personal histories. This leads to a key question: what is our relationship to the past, and what is the value we ascribe to it? … Photographs are often the starting point for a project, and their relationship to a present-day landscape. Therefore, living memory – before it becomes ‘history’ – is an important link to all Nicky Bird’s projects, which is why the recent past is of special interest.’ [accessed 26/11/19].

Nicky Bird, Questions for Seller, 2004-2006


Question for Seller re-situates images in a different context and in so doing allows for a new dialogue to take place. Reflect on the following in your learning log:

  • Does their presence on a gallery wall give these images an elevated status?
    • The act of placing them on a gallery wall makes the statement that this is photographic art and that there is something worth gazing at. However, there is a two-way contract in that the observer must concur. Ultimately the observer has to accept the elevated status.
  • Where does their meaning derive from?
    • Their meaning derives from the living history of the image provided by the seller of the pictures, or in the case of a lost history, from the observation that the history is lost.
  • When they are sold (again on eBay, via auction direct from the gallery) is their value increased by the fact that they’re now ‘art’?
    • The value in monetary terms may have increased marginally from the evidence provided in the project and the video, but the value of each batch of prints and the main album remained small. However, the value as art, was probably more about the experiment than the sale values.
Zoe Leonard and Cheryl Dunye, The Fae Richards Photo Archive, 1993-1996

‘The Fae Richards Photo Archive is the collaborative outcome of artist Zoe Leonard and film maker Cheryl Dunye. The photographic narrative charts the life of the fictional character Fae Richards,  better known as ‘The Watermelon Woman’, an African-American actress born in the early 20th century through to her old age and involvement in the civil rights movement.

Leonard staged photographs of Richards throughout her childhood and adult life. These then act as props that form the basis of Cheryl Dunye’s film ‘The Watermelon Woman’ In which Dunye takes the leading role as a young African-American lesbian video store employee who is researching the life of the 1930s starlet Fae Richards.

Dunye attributes her photographic falsification of a life history to the lack of information recorded in real life

“The Watermelon Woman came from the real lack of any information about the lesbian and film history of African-American women. Since it wasn’t happening, I invented it.”

Through the use of photographic and archival conventions Leonard and Dunye successfully borrow from the lives of historical figures to create a believable narrative that opens up questions as to what is left out of the historical record.’ [accessed 26/11/19]


Short, M, (2011). Creative Photography: Context and Narrative. Lausanne: AVA