The Backdrop as a Facade
16 Nov 2008
The photographic backdrop has been widely used throughout the history of photography. A popular prop in portrait photography, the backdrop can transform a drab studio setting into a fantastic stage, in front of which a unique portrait can be made. The backdrop is nothing more than an illusion: a contrived space.
Many art theorists have written on simulated reality and point out that this contrived space gets its power to deceive, not only by what it reveals, but what it hides. In photography, the camera's frame does an excellent job at masking out what the artist doesn't want to include in the final image. In my backdrop photographs, this cropping usually masks out the mess in my studio; paint cans, dirty rags and piles of strange props from other photo shoots. Amusement parks, movies, television programs etc. use the same convention of cropping to make the experience of fantasy more compelling and complete for viewers.
The problem of reality and believability presents itself in photography to a higher degree than in other media. In painting or other hand-crafted renderings of space and objects, the illusion created through marks on a page are rarely questioned as truthful representations of a subject. Aside from perhaps photo realist painters, paintings and drawings are usually distinguishable as an impression of space; the artist's marks make that clear. Photography does not instantly allude to the artist's hand in crafting the image. The process is mechanical and, to an extent, conceals the hand of the photographer. Lewis Hine once wrote:
"Photographs may not lie, but liars may photograph."
Richard Avedon also said:
"All photographs are accurate; none of them is the truth."
At their most basic level, my backdrop photographs are about lying. The vividly colored, almost cartoon-like backdrops are stylistically only one step away from crude coloring book drawings. By painting my backdrops with an unnatural, almost gaudy palette, the images are immediately read as fictional; they are a false reality. The fantasy of my images is extremely important. In "Farm Scene," an idealized version of a farm with a red barn, cartoon pig and white picket fence act as the façade, or imagined space. Mixed within the scene is a real farmer, pitchfork and real straw covers the ground. As a background to this image you should know that I grew up in a small town in Iowa and have done many days of hard work on a farm. The reality of farm life is much different than the colorful childhood books that portray life on the farm. It is hot, dirty, backbreaking work. In "Farm Scene" I mix the real with the artificial to show a contrast between reality and fiction.
Critic Clement Greenberg believed that each medium should be self-critical and not overstep the bounds of a particular artistic medium. He advocated the belief that representation of space in painting was merely an illusion and concealed the fundamental qualities of the painting. On Modernist painting he wrote:
"It is not in principle that Modernist painting...has abandoned the representation of recognizable objects. What it has abandoned in principle is the representation of the kind of space that recognizable, three-dimensional objects can inhabit."
I am adopting Greenberg's idea of illusion in painting to reveal the inherent fictional nature of the photograph. My photography has not abandoned the representation of actual events. Rather, it uses obviously fabricated scenarios to illustrate that photographs are not only able to show much more than reality, but are also able to deceive. It is not my intention to subvert the photograph, but merely point out my role in fabricating the image. In fact, by using the ideas that Greenberg discussed, I am using painting to point out the problem of contrivance in photography. Therefore my work could be viewed as more subversive toward painting. My images stand in contrast to the notion that each medium should remain pure. I integrate illusionary painted backdrops into my work to clearly show my hand in creating my images.
Through overtly exposing my hand-crafting, viewers are able to suspend belief in the reality of the photograph. This permits immersion in the fantasy of the contrived image. I want my photographs to be so compelling, so seductive in the fiction that the desire to return to the real world diminishes. Yet, my photographs are of a real world; a real place that I create.
Lately I've been thinking a lot about the role of the façade, not only as a tool for amusement, but in my own life. I go to such great lengths to make my images interesting that I often wonder if it's not only a mundane reality that I'm try to mask, but also my own fear of failure: my own fear of being mundane. Maybe the façade is much more deeply entrenched in all of us than we ever imagined. Strangely, if people find my images compelling, are they are saying that the façade is more interesting than reality or more interesting than if the backdrop wasn't there? This is where the tension lies in my images. I am finding more and more that the mix of fabricated and real-life objects are only a visual tension, or maybe not a tension at all. The façade is there for people to enjoy. However, the response of joy or pleasure from viewing the fictional realities has become my main interest in art, life and how the façade is mixed into everything that I (we) do.
Baudrillard, Jean. 'The Precession of Simulacra.' Art After Modernism, Rethinking Representation, Ed. Brian Wallis and Marcia Tucker. Boston, Mass.: David R. Godine, Publisher, 1984. p. 256. 253-281
Hine, Lewis. 'Social Photography' in Alan Trachtenburg, Classic Essays on Photography. New Haven, CT: Leete's Island Books, 1980, p.111.
Avedon, Richard. "Forward," in Avedon, In the American West, n.p.
Greenberg, Clement. 'Modernist Painting.' In Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, Art in Theory 1900-2000; An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003, p.774-775.