Fictional settings evoke authentic emotions in Akron Art Museum’s “Staged”
By Jacqueline Mitchell
Giant fluorescent goldfish fill a bright blue bedroom, flopping on the dresser and floor and swimming through the air in Sandy Skoglund’s 1981 “Revenge of the Goldfish.” What makes this surreal work of art remarkable? It’s an unaltered photograph. No digital media or Photoshop was used to create or enhance the highly saturated image. Instead, everything seen in the Cibachrome print has been handcrafted and carefully created in front of a camera lens by the artist – from the 120 terracotta fish, the dresser, nightstands and bed to the posed models – and captured in great detail by a large-format film camera,
Skoglund’s photo served as the inspiration for “Staged,” a collection of theatrical, dramatic, intentionally staged photographs, which opened May 2 and runs through Sept. 27 in the Akron Art Museum’s Fred and Laura Ruth Bidwell Gallery.
“All the work in this exhibit has been specifically staged for the camera. In some cases, the photographers have arranged every little detail,” says Elizabeth Carney, assistant curator at the Akron Art Museum. “‘Staged’ refers to the idea of staged photography, but also to the idea of the theatrical stage. There’s an element of storytelling in every image, as well as the drama of the stage.”
While some elements of staging are involved in all photography, such as subject matter and components included within the camera’s frame, the photographs in “Staged” take this idea to the extreme.
“A photographer is not just finding something and taking a picture,” says Carney. “They are tailoring that image to exactly what they want. In this exhibit are photographers who construct everything you see in the image – it’s all fake.”
Some of the works are humorous, some are calming, and some are a bit disturbing or dark.
“A lot of them really ask the question, ‘What is going on here?’ and maybe evoke a little bit of confusion,” says Carney. “They’re all relatively open-ended and offer the viewer the opportunity to figure out what’s happening and figure out the story.”
The exhibit features two works by photographer Samuel Fosso – one from 1977, and one from 20 years later. Both are self-portraits, in a sense. Fosso was born in Cameroon and moved to Central African Republic as a teen.
“When he moved there, he encountered people who were taking photographs and had their own portrait studios and decided that’s what he wanted to do,” says Carney.
“All the work in this exhibit has been specifically staged for the camera. In some cases, the photographers have arranged every little detail.”
Elizabeth Carney, Akron Art Museum assistant curator
Fosso’s uncle helped him open a photography studio when he was still a teen, and he began shooting commercial portraits. He would often take up nearly an entire roll of film for a client. Instead of wasting the film remaining at the end of the rolls, he would take photos of himself, such as in his 1977 work, “Self-Portrait.”
Donning a muscle tank, fringed Bermuda shorts and disco boots, Fosso poses dramatically for the camera, studio lights and a curtain still visible in the background.
“It’s pretty dramatically staged as a self portrait,” says Carney. “When you think of the history of the Central African Republic in the ’70s, this is when culture was starting to change and the younger generation was becoming more aware of things in America and Europe.”
Local artist Barry Underwood, an assistant professor at the Cleveland Institute of Art, is also featured in the exhibit. Underwood creates elaborate installations made of lights, glow sticks, LEDS and anything else that glows or emits light, then photographs them in landscape settings at a low shutter speed, often at night.
“The result is an eerie but very beautiful quality,” says Carney, who describes Underwood’s photos as “very theatrical in nature.”
Another landscape photographer featured in the exhibit, Spencer Tunick – who was commissioned by Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland in 2004 for a photograph in front of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum – fills public spaces with hundreds or even thousands of nude volunteers for his photographs.
His work “Angel Meadow” depicts a nude crowd in a park in Manchester, England. Tunick gathered volunteers at 6 a.m. in order to capture the light of dawn.
“They look like they’re milling around, but they are very much posed,” says Carney. “(Tunick) directs everyone with verbal cues. He says his work illustrates the battle of nature against culture.”
Another staged work from photographer Carrie Mae Weems’ Kitchen Table series, “Untitled,” consists of three images that tell a story.
“In the first photo, you see a central figure, a woman who seems to be upset and two other women listening,” says Carney. “In the second, they are sitting around thinking or wallowing, and in the third, they are laughing. … (Weems’ photos) are archetypes, distilled types of experiences that a lot of people share. This shows a woman who’s telling her friends something pretty awful, and then they’re laughing it off. It’s the idea of friendship or platonic love.”
Carney says that though the works in “Staged” may be dramatized and fictional, they evoke authentic human emotion.
“Some people want to ignore things that aren’t real, but these photographs have not been made in deception,” says Carney. “The artists are using the medium of photography to express or tell a story that they want to, even though the facts aren’t real. Like in fictional literature or theater or fairy tales, the feelings that are expressed by the artist or evoked in the viewer of the work are real and can really speak to broader truths about human experience.” CV
*Lead image: Barry Underwood, Norquay (Yellow), 2007, archival pigment print, 28 x 28 in., Collection of the Akron Art Museum, Museum Acquisition Fund 2014.20