The Problem With Photographers Who Conceive a Picture First, Then Construct It — According to Tod Papageorge

Untitled (Summer Rain), 2004
© Gregory Crewdson

Alec has declared it Tod Papageorge week over on his blog. To keep faithful to his declaration he has been quite a blogging fiend, posting about Mr. Papageorge sometimes more than once a day. I must say, I’ve really enjoyed the posts and can agree with him that Papageorge’s new book Passing Through Eden is something marvelous.

In Alec’s most recent post, he has linked to Richard Lacayo’s little piece, The Problem with Postmodernism, which was a good read. A portion of the text discusses the fact that for years, Papageorge has been the head of the graduate program in photography at the Yale School of Art and, interestingly, doesn’t like much of the photography coming from the students. He tells Richard B. Woodward of Bomb Magazine why that is:

I think now that, in general—and this includes a lot of what I see in Chelsea even more than what I see from students at Yale—there’s a failure to understand how much richer in surprise and creative possibility the world is for photographers in comparison to their imagination. This is an understanding that an earlier generation of students, and photographers, accepted as a first principle. Now ideas are paramount, and the computer and Photoshop are seen as the engines to stage and digitally coax those ideas into a physical form—typically a very large form. This process is synthetic, and the results, for me, are often emotionally synthetic too.

Sure, things have to change, but photography-as-illustration, even sublime illustration, seems to me an uninteresting direction for the medium to be tracking now, particularly at such a difficult time in the general American culture. All in all, I think that there’s as much real discovery and excitement in the digital videos that my students at Yale are making as there is in the still photography I see either there or in New York, perhaps because the video camera, like the 35 mm camera 30 years ago, can be carried everywhere, and locks onto the shifting contradictions and beauties of the world more directly and unselfconsciously than many photographers now seem to feel still photography can, or should, do.

This is ironic because at Yale, Papageorge can count “among his students quite a few — including Gregory Crewdson, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Anna Gaskell and Katy Grannan — who have gone on to become very well known as practitioners of the staged photography that Papageorge doesn’t care for…” One might also add David Hilliard, Angela Strassheim, or a number of others to that list.

I can agree with Papageorge about photography as theatre generally failing in comparison to photographs of real moments due to this “synthetic emotion” that results from making rather than taking the photograph or, what comes before that, the notion of a preconceived image. However, I have to be honest, I can’t help but have some emotional reaction to a few of the images that are staged or, in the case of some of the artists mentioned, “semi-staged” as long as they feel real (for example, DiCorcia’s photographs of male prostitutes in Los Angeles). Is it that the story behind them is real? In a comment on Christian’s blog, my friend Bryan Schutmaat wrote about the famous Robert Doisneau photograph of the couple kissing.

Le Baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville (Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville), 1950
© Robert Doisneau

“I think this is a good photo,” said Bryan, “but after I learned that these were hired models, and the scene had been constructed, I liked it a lot less.” This is obviously not the case in a Crewdson photograph, as I don’t believe he has any intent on tricking his viewers into thinking the moment is real. But, does knowing the story behind the making of an image, knowing that it’s entirely staged, devalue the work? Apparently not by the art market’s standards.

I have found myself wondering what made so much of this ‘tableau’ work rise as it did in popularity. But, that may be a discussion for another day; what I’m really curious about is not the trends of the market but what viewers — those looking at and responding to the art — think about the true value or “utility” of such photographs versus images of things that really happened. We may be able to agree that staged images are, in some way, less honest… but what about their value? Papageorge declares that the creative possibility of the world is richer in surprise than the imagination. Is it?

Oh, and Alec, here is another Papageorge article for you.


  • Interesting.

    I’ve always lumped the conceptual photography in the realm of theater. Some folks just see that way just like some folks hear whole songs in their head before they write, while others rely on the improvisation to create. The time I spent doing photoshoots for bands, I found myself barely able to create an elaborate scene and better able to capture the bands just hanging out. I can’t do the dramatic, or be a “director”, but I’ve got an eye for that “surprise”.

    Certainly reality is richer in surprise, but the concepts are set up in reality too, not some vacuum. They are just as likely to surprise the photographer. I don’t think we can discredit one, really, can we?

    What a great conversation though.

  • I don’t shoot tableau style photographs but I appreciate photographers who can shoot that way and make their photos mean something beyond, “Look, I staged this entire thing.” Jeff Wall, I like. Lorna Simpson, I like. Gregory Crewdson makes gorgeous photos but they lack emotion, for me anyway. Same with Ryan McGinley. I think he takes some great photos but the more I look at them, the less they do for me.

    But in a way, though, all photography is staged. Straight photography isn’t 100% straight photography because there’s a reason we choose the subjects we choose, the angles we choose, why we wait for a certain type of light, a certain moment, why we highlight certain things and cut out others, why we present them the way that we do. I think photography is about showing people who you are and what you care about and that can take on many forms, whether it’s street photography or some type of constructed reality photography.

    Ugh, I’m rambling, but hopefully you get my point. Great topic to bring up.

  • sharky

    I’m sorry, I may be out of line here; however, I lost most interest after,

    “Now ideas are paramount, and the computer and Photoshop are seen as the engines to stage and digitally coax those ideas into a physical form‚Äîtypically a very large form. This process is synthetic, and the results, for me, are often emotionally synthetic too.”

    Are topics like these even up for debate anymore? Once again, I don’t mean to step on any toes here, but I just don’t understand the importance of justifying or on the contrary crucifying “the computer and Photoshop”!

  • Sharky,

    Papageorge isn’t crucifying, or even criticizing digital technologies. He’s criticizing approaches to photography that favor concept over discovery.

    Papageorge’s criticism applies equally to those (like Crewdson) that carefully construct and stage the scenes they photograph, regardless of how the images are shot & printed, as well as to those who piece their images together through Photoshop.

  • I’ve found myself completely seduced by slices of complexity cut out from ‘real world’ moments…these pictures (by people such as Papageorge or Winogrand) pack far more cerebral punch for me than any large format picture that has been meticulously planned. Although I love much large format work (some Wall, some Grannan, certainly Shore, Sternfeld)! Mostly, after a day at Chelsea (which is rare nowadays), I find myself bored by the seemingly conformist mentality of most photographers and the lack of surprise present in the work…subverting my expectations as a viewer would be nice. That’s what was so wonderful about the Papageorge show at Pace MacGill, moments so amazing they could never have been staged.

  • Very interesting debate…..
    For me, I have always been most fond of works by photographers that make tableau style images….Cindy Sherman, Duane Michals especially. My own work is also tableau style. Being a young woman in the 80s, I was heavliy influenced by movies and fashion and good or bad…it shows in my work.
    The hardest part for me is the disuccsion about photoshop that I have to have everytime I show my work. Yes, it is used as a tool… that is all.
    One of things I love about the tool is that is allows me to create ideas that I have in my head…….which is what Papageorge is complaining about….what I think is wonderful, is the opportunity to have both! When I have an idea for a shoot….it’s just a framework….and then I use people that I meet along the way as my models and together we create something…I also shoot the landscapes at specific times of day to get the light I want but I don’t manipulate them in photoshop. I too am concerned about some amount of realism. Even though I “set-up” the idea, I am never really sure what the end product is going to be. That is what I love about it.

    I admire work that appears to be straight forward and honest….but is it?They appear to be….but there is still an interaction and dialog that the photographer and subject have just to make the image…… Are portraits of individuals such Todd Hido’s “untitled” piece in the “A New American Portrait” any more honest then mine? Yes, I change the backgrounds, and I put my subjects in places that they may not belong….but the expressions on their faces are just as real and honest as Hido’s subjects are (or at least appear to be). I love the seemingly honest expression in that portrait.

    I will also ask…who cares if Robert Doisneau used models for his famous ‘kiss’ photo… evokes an emotion and people respond to it…does it matter how he got there? if it was passed of as photojournalism…..that would be a whole other discussion.

    just one little midwestern photographer’s opinion…..

  • Staged or not staged… The question is not relevant. It is not something that one can buy into or not- it is purely and simply the way things are. This seems like an old discussion.

    Postmodernism in photography has been going on since the 1970′s. Levine, Shermin, Ruscha… These were the people that defended the right to have concept weight more then the modernist beautiful photograph.

    Think of the time when Tod Papgeorge came into photography and who influenced him… This explains his style and direction.

    So staged or not staged- you have to understand that it does not matter. It is frustrating when people bring up these arguments, because they get so caught up in the surface of things and don’t experience the work the way it is supposed to.

  • Side note: I always was under the assumption that Gregory Crewdson’s work was supposed to feel detached and maybe a bit “synthetic”, just like the alienated and blank-eyed subjects in his photographs.

    It still moves me, for sure.

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  • just one more comment:

    Gregory Crewdson images imply something…..a story that might be there……but we are not really sure what the story is. I love that about his work. You know that it is set up…..what is he really trying to say?
    I can make my own conclusions based on experiences that I have had. I find this very stimulating and thought provoking.

  • Nicola, I’d agree with your argument if I walked outside and suddenly the world looked like a Crewdson set — or if I was inquiring as to which is better, a staged photograph or a photograph of a real moment. But it doesn’t am I’m not.

    Rather, I ask:

    Of what utility are the resulting photographs of each of these approaches to image-making (staged and non-staged), how do they differ and, ultimately, if there is a emotional response to staged photographs, what is that response based on?

    That seems a perfectly relevant question to me… and a topic that does matter.

    And by quoting what Papageorge has to say, I hope nobody thinks I agree entirely. There are plenty of conceptual photographers that I admire.

  • Shane- I do not think that the world looks like a Crewdson photograph.

    I am merely saying that the tug of war between staged vs. non-staged photographs is one that has been fought 30 years ago.

    It is the nature of photography (its ability to reproduce exactly a fraction of the world) that makes one think the image is true. The notion of truth within a photography is always debatable- and in the end everything is biased- even documentary photography.

  • I must say Ms. Kast that I disagree with you when you say the question of something being staged or not isn’t relevant….
    I feel it is relevant when a photographer does one or the other for effect and fails. The question posed by Mr. Lavalette is essentially subjective, there is no right or wrong way to respond to a picture, but I feel the response greatly depends on our suspension of disbelief, and if we’re not buying into the fiction, then it fails on some level….no?
    And when you say, “…because they get so caught up in the surface of things and don‚Äôt experience the work the way it is supposed to.”
    What do you mean? Are we not allowed to interpret the work for ourselves? Nicola!

  • Jason!

    This is a problem that I encounter very much with my own work. I would never think that one should not be able to experience the work for oneself… that is very much a part of the process of looking at images.

    I am saying that (for example) if someone can’t get over the fact that one person is taking self portraits (as you can tell this is a personal example), then you don’t realize that the greater meaning might be about national identity/social identity blah blah.

    But I am not basing this on myself… Rusha’s photographs for example are not visually “pretty” but very meaningful.

    Of course there are some staged photographs that I don’t like. But might also be that the photographers are bad photographers with a bad concept! So maybe the question is not weather the photograph is staged, but how good the photographer is…

  • I can’t write because I have to go pick up some film (unstaged) but I have one quick observation. I like to think of photography along the lines of Movie making and weather or not it is a documentary or “unstaged or it is fiction – staged doesn’t matter it weather or not it is good. I look me a good documentary film but sometimes that is not enough to tell a good story and I long for something else. People would think we are crazy if we all bashed Fiction films like some photographers seem to bash staged photography. yes the staging or not is relevant but I think there is vastly more room in the photography landscape for fiction still images – they are just more costly to make (like Credson makes them at least).

    ok time to get the film….

  • i would agree with that…how good the photographer is….but I think what you’re really getting at is when people fixate on one detail and it prevents them from further examination…self-portraiture is tricky business!

  • Shane, raised fist to you at the moment!
    I jkid, this is great post.
    A lot of good points being brought up.

    My point of view is this…

    First, “utility”, really? Are we talking about artwork here or are we talking about mechanics and business and propaganda? Such a cold word that I think you should definitely stray away from in such discussion.

    Second, Papageorge must have been out of touch with reality when he said that “there‚Äôs a failure to understand how much richer in surprise and creative possibility the world is for photographers in comparison to their imagination” What does he think creates imagination?
    Discovery and surprise give you the ability to imagine. Reality defines imagination. How can one start forming ideas without falling into them?

    “This process is synthetic, and the results, for me, are often emotionally synthetic too.”
    I bet you the more he said this line to himself over in his head, the more he believed what he was saying.

    The person viewing the photograph constructs their emotions just as much as the photograph helps to construct them for you.

  • Also. I feel that it is crucial to mention the idea that “staged” photography is not “controlled” photography. Most of the time, the best parts of the work are the things within the environment that can not be controlled. Ie: the way a tv glows when exposed over on long period of time, the way paper blows in the wind, the way grass sprouts in every direction and stays in constant motion… I could go on and on but I think you get the idea.

  • This whole reality v staged argument can trace its origins right back to the Pictorialism debate. Not gonna go into which is “better,” but there are some forms that are more suited to still photography. Duane Michals argued vehemently against the constraints of street photography back in the 70′s, and his sequences are, I think, viable, original options that lend themselves nicely to the medium. On the other hand, Crewdson’s movie imitations are, well, just that. If you really want to see what staged tableaux can achieve in an original and highly imaginative context that complements photography rather than imitate film, check out Les Krims…

  • “I have no real argument against so-called set-up photography, at least as a process. The fact that I‚Äôve had many successful students doing it in different ways I think makes my case. I also think that the reason they‚Äôve felt free enough to work in this way at Yale is because I profoundly believe in‚Äîand teach‚Äîthe proposition that photography is inherently a fiction-making process. Don‚Äôt speak to me of the document; I don‚Äôt really believe in it, particularly now. A picture‚Äôs not the world, but a new thing.

    That said‚Äîtoo briefly‚Äîmy argument against the set-up picture is that it leaves the matter of content to the IMAGINATION of the photographer, a faculty that, in my experience, is generally deficient compared to the mad swirling possibilities that our dear common world kicks up at us on a regular basis. That‚Äôs all. Remember, T. S. Eliot made the clear, brutal distinction between the art that floods us with the ‚Äúaura‚Äù of experience, and the art that ‚Äòpresents‚Äô the experience itself. ANY artist, I feel, must contend seriously with the question of which side of that distinction he or she is going to bet on in their work. Obviously, I‚Äôm with Eliot‚Äîand Homer‚Äîin this, believing that the mind-constructed photograph almost necessarily leads to a form of illustration, the very epitome of aura-art.”

    – Papageorge, via Alec Soth’s recent interview.

  • “…there‚Äôs a failure to understand how much richer in surprise and creative possibility the world is for photographers in comparison to their imagination.”


  • Svein-Frode

    Interestingly I am just writing an essay about documentary vs. fictional photography (to use only two terms to separate the two). It was sparked by the death of John Szarkowski the other day, which we all know was so influential in elevating photography from a technical form of documenting the real world to works of art.

    I think by no means it is insignificant to separate photography into two camps. The one that is documenting reality (to the degree that such a thing is possible) and the other that is creating works of fiction (depicting a mental reality), rather than a physical one. Staged photography is fiction, or a performance if you will.

    Photography is a technology that can be applied both to art and science. While on a conceptual level everything might be claimed to be real or unreal, any meaningful way of communication has to go beyond playing with words.

    Photography is what photography does. Of course we change our view and understanding of images once we know how they were made. That is the whole thing isn’t it? Knowledge of photography is the key to crating and understanding photography.

  • Horton

    It’s funny that this debate is always raging in photography. Would anybody be so vehement about the documentary film being exponentially more moving then a fiction film? I doubt it.

  • Svein-Frode

    Horton, I think your observation is right on the money! Watching “War Photographer” and “Harrison’s Flowers” is and should be two copletely different experiences. That isn’t to say that the documentary “War Photographer” is more moving just beacuse we know it is “for real”, but it does have a profound impact on how we experience the film.

    Just as you have to work very hard to impress certain people with creating works of fictional photography, you have to take very careful steps when making documentary photography. If you are caught “faking reality” it will always devaluate the photograph – no matter the aesthetical qualities.

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  • Svein-Frode

    While I agree with Colberg that authenticity alone is a bad criterion for evaluating photography, it is and should be part of the equation. I find it impossible to find good arguments why capturing a scene at the “decisive moment” isn’t adding a sense of uniqueness to a photograph. To use an analogy: What would one value higher? Encountering a tiger in the wild, or seeing it in a cage in some zoo? But then again, all moments might be decisive but not interesting to photograph. Staged photography will often have the upper hand in terms of aesthetical qualities since it to a larger degree is under the control of the photographer. What portrait photographer would leave the studio to run around his subject for a day with his Leica, hoping to capture a nice portrait?

  • Boo to zoos.

  • Great discussion. To me it’s just silly to try to put value judgments on someone’s working methods. Like everyone eIse I have my opinions & preferences but I would never say staged or found is truer,better, more authentic, worth more, etc. I do however find it troubling that critical or curatorial fashion seems to feel the need to choose between the styles & to do so more or less en masse. The Papageorge show & some others recently (plus all this blogging) may signal the beginning of a change, but for some time now the main current has been large format, heavily produced, staged and/or extensively photoshopped pictures displayed as very large prints.The kind of pictures Papageorge makes have somehow acquired the whiff of “old fashioned” or somehow passe, although plenty of photographers of all ages are still working in that style. It’s not necessary to attack set up photographs to say that a lot of fine work is being overlooked.

    The other thing: Shane, I noticed you subtitled your post “the night of the hunter.” I don’t think you were referring to the great James Agee film with Robert Mitchum, but maybe you were. Anyway, I was thinking about that word hunter & the whole idea of going out alone into the crazy & largely uncooperative world & trying to bring back something poetic & marvelous. Some people are suited to that — the solitude, the uncertainty, the trying to capture a mini-second of control or maybe just luck in an uncontrollable world. They are not — or don’t feel they are — suited to collaboration, planning, making a big deal. Then too they might not have the time or money. Again, it’s not necessary to attack Crewsdon or any of the others to say that the more improvisational found-moment form calls for great discipline & skill & can embody the very highest aspirations. I think the photography establishment tends to ignore it because it’s so seemingly easy to do & now everybody has a point & shoot. It’s like haiku. Everybody writes it. But go & take a look at the haiku of Basho.

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