Grand Illusions: Staged Photography from the Met Collection

Though often considered an instrument of truth, photography has straddled the line between fact and fiction since its inception. Grand Illusions: Staged Photography From the Met Collection is an exhibition of 40 works from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection that showcase the important role that staging has played in photography’s history.

Cindy Sherman, Still from an Untitled Film, 1978. Photo by the author.

The exhibition makes a clear distinction between staged and manipulated photographs. While a manipulated photograph is altered after the exposure has been made, the staging of a photograph takes place during the shoot. The early years of photography necessitated staging a scene due to the slow and cumbersome technical process. Once technology improved to allow candid photographs, the act of performing for the camera became an art rather than a requirement, disputing the “reality” of the moment. While the digital revolution has led audiences to question photography’s authenticity more than ever before, the curators of this show felt that, “Leaving off at the end of the analog era, this survey brings the viewer to the precipice of a brave new world of digital manipulation that is bound to become ever more seamless to the naked eye.”

Pierre-Louis Pierson (French, 1822–1913); Aquilin Schad (Austrian, 1817–1866). La Frayeur (Fright), 1861–64. Salted paper print with gouache. Photo by the author.

The idea for the show began to take shape after the museum’s purchase of Pierre-Louis Pierson’s “La Frayeur,” a salted paper photograph embellished with gouache of Virginia Verasis, Countess of Castiglione. It is the largest piece on view and while it isn’t the earliest or the most outlandish in the exhibition, it is the only photograph that contains post-production manipulation. The heavy-handedness of this portrait, from the dramatic pose of the model to the application of paint, makes “La Frayeur” the centerpiece of the show, incorporating both types of artifice into a single image.

The exhibition space is small with low ceilings—a jarringly different viewing experience from the sweeping staircases and grand arches of some of the Met’s main galleries. The intimacy of the room compliments the small scale of the photographs, and invites viewers to get up close and engage with the works. Curated by Beth Saunders and Douglas Eklund of the museum’s photography department, the exhibition moves through photo history, beginning with “The Fruit Sellers” (1845) by William Henry Fox Talbot. Works by Julia Margaret Cameron and Lewis Carroll are beautifully illuminated behind glass cases. Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman, and Laurie Simmons are among the most contemporary photographers included in the survey. Pulled from the museum’s collection, the curators’ inclusion of this range of iconic and obscure works is commendable.

Grand Illusions: Staged Photography From the Met Collection. Photo by the author.

In contrast to works like “La Frayeur,” many of the photographs on display employ subtle deception, daring the viewer to challenge the authenticity of the scene. One of Nan Goldin’s most iconic photographs from The Ballad of Sexual Dependency shows the photographer and her lover in a post-coital repose. The candidness of the moment would not suggest a self-portrait, but in reality, Goldin had set up the camera before their sexual encounter, triggering the exposure from the bed with the shutter release in her hand. By acting as both subject and director Goldin has taken control of the scene.

Nan Goldin, Nan and Brian in Bed, NYC, 1983. Photo by the author.

Visitors without a background in photo history will be intrigued by the historical significance of staged photography highlighted in this exhibition, and those who are well versed in the medium will find an opportunity to reexamine ideas of truth and artifice. 

Grand Illusions: Staged Photography from the Met Collection is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through January 18, 2016.

Kat Kiernan is the Editor-in-Chief of Don’t Take Pictures.