Museum Home Past Exhibitions In Focus: Making a Scene

June 30–October 18, 2009 at the Getty Center

Saint George and the Dragon / Carroll
Saint George and the Dragon, Lewis Carroll, June 26, 1875

Photography, although commonly associated with truthfulness, has been used to produce fiction since its introduction in 1839. The acceptance of staging, and the degree of its application, has varied greatly depending on the genre and the historical moment, but it has persisted as an artistic approach. The photographs in this exhibition, drawn exclusively from the J. Paul Getty Museum's collection, make no pretense about presenting the world as it exists; instead, they are the productions of directors and actors who rely on stagecraft and occasional darkroom trickery to tell stories.

Spanning photography's history and expressing a range of sentiments, the images in this exhibition are inspired by art history, literature, religion, and mainstream media.

Like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and his other books, Lewis Carroll's photographs are fantasies starring his friends' children. In the image above, children enact the mythological story of Saint George, the patron saint of England, slaying a child-eating dragon before it could devour a princess.

The Letter / Rey
The Letter, Guido Rey, 1908
learn_more See an image of the type of painting by Pieter de Hooch that inspired Rey's photographs.

Life Imitating Art

Well-represented in this exhibition are tableaux vivants (living pictures), inspired by the popular Victorian parlor game in which costumed participants posed to resemble famous works of art or literary scenes.

The genre paintings of 17th-century Dutch masters Johannes Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch fascinated Guido Rey. Not self-conscious about being slavish to the past, he carefully studied the paintings and then arranged similar tableaux for his camera. His photographs captured equally serene domestic scenes and mimicked the minute architectural details of 17th-century interiors, such as the leaded-glass windowpanes and the checkerboard floor.

Rrose Selavy (Marcel Duchamp) / Ray
Rrose Sélavy (Marcel Duchamp), Man Ray, 1923
© Man Ray Trust ARS-ADAGP

Playing Dress Up

The exhibition also includes costume studies of people posing as literary characters and self-portraits of artists pretending to be other people.

American painter and photographer Man Ray and the French artist Marcel Duchamp met in New York in 1915, and they began a playful, iconoclastic collaboration that resulted in the photograph at right, among others. Influenced by Dadaism, a cultural movement that rejected reason and logic in favor of anarchy and the absurd, their work embraced games of chance, performance, and wordplay. Here an irreverent Duchamp appears in women's clothing as his alter ego, Rrose Sélavy, a pun on the French pronunciation "Eros, c'est la vie" (Sex, that's life).

Untitled / Meatyard
Untitled (Michael and Christopher Meatyard), Ralph Eugene Meatyard, 1966
© Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard

Imaginary Subjects

A number of photographs in the exhibition explore the medium's capacity to visualize subjects of the imagination by using darkroom trickery to manipulate prints.

An optician and family man, Ralph Eugene Meatyard photographed his children, friends, and neighbors enacting dramas in suburban backyards and abandoned buildings near his Lexington, Kentucky, home. He often used experimental techniques, such as multiple exposures and blurred motion. Uncanny details imbue Meatyard's otherwise ordinary vernacular scenes with the qualities of a dream or supernatural vision.

Untitled (from the series Family Docudrama) / Cowin
Untitled (from the series Family Docudrama), Eileen Cowin, 1980–1983
© Eileen Cowin

Theatricality as a Critical Strategy

In recent decades there has been renewed interest in theatricality among contemporary photographers whose highly artificial scenes critique mainstream media and representation.

In her series Family Docudrama Eileen Cowin blurs the boundaries between truth and fiction, and private behavior and public performance. Drawing equally from family snapshots and soap operas, Cowin presents staged domestic scenes in which she and members of her family, including her identical twin sister, perform as actors. In these ambiguous, open-ended narratives, dramatic moments are exaggerated, and the camera's glare is ever present.