Photo Essay

The Backdrop as a Facade


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.

16 responses

  • Lynn H

    Lynn H (Deleted) gave props (17 Nov 2008):

    Cool photos and essay!! My vote!

  • Photography Seven

    Photography Seven said (18 Nov 2008):


  • tony maher

    tony maher said (18 Nov 2008):

    great work, and excellent quotes

  • Denman

    Denman (Deleted) gave props (19 Nov 2008):

    excellent work! and great to see something unique

  • Danny Sanchez

    Danny Sanchez said (20 Nov 2008):

    Awesome work!! Gets me inspired

  • Katy Baxter

    Katy Baxter gave props (20 Nov 2008):

    Not only well-composed photographs, but an insightful and challenging essay as well. Ever considered using a photograph as a backdrop, if they are, as you question, part of facade??

  • Andrew Crooks

    Andrew Crooks said (21 Nov 2008):

    Right now I'm interested less in photography, in general, and more about what these questions and revelations mean in my own life. Last Fall it all seemed to make sense to me. I realized that my photographs that I put so much work into might just be a facade for my own self-doubt and fear of failure. For my thesis exhibition I decided to work in performance, video and installations in an attempt to strip the facade away and explore how it functions in my work. The two week performances left me very vulnerable. It was a very intense experience. From here on, I'm not sure where my work will go, but everything has changed.

  • Brian Daigle

    Brian Daigle said (24 Nov 2008):

    Interesting ideas. Perhaps a bit overanalyzed, but I've got some thoughts. I think that the idea of a fascade within your photographs (or anyone's) help elevate the ideas presented to the viewer from the documentation of a specific time and place to a more abstract yet focused concept. It becomes less about what is contained in the photo and more about the ideas behind and driving the creation of it. Because the whole world has been created for the photograph, the viewer knows for sure that everything contained in the photo is there for a reason (and nothing just happened to make it in). Additionally, in a world of slick and polished photo manipulating, it is refreshing to see photos that don't try to hide, and in fact embrace the fact, that they are not taken from the real world. All in all, it's got my vote.

  • Andrew Crooks

    Andrew Crooks said (25 Nov 2008):

    yes, exactly. but my the driving force behind the photos isn't a concept or idea (it turns out) but what i feel i need to do to make my images interesting. people do the same thing with photoshop. overanalyzed, for sure. too much for my own comfort. when i first started the series i thought that maybe i'm a good artist, but now i've come back to my first hypothesis-that i'm not. maybe this work just came from the pressure of eight years of school.

  • ! Mario Scattoloni ¡

    ! Mario Scattoloni ¡ said (26 Nov 2008):

    This is a fantastic thesis on a theme about ¨simulacrum¨ that many art school trained professional´s come out into the world with. Once out into the professional world of art or any other visually related (impaired, as I like to call it the manipulation of impressionable minds of art school studies) or in the realm of the senses. You can go ahead & just throw those damn books out the window & start all over from the beginning. Its great to know your art history but its also important that you remember who U R in all of this. We have a wonderful history & language as artists & photographers, yet we also have our own histories. I think your work is quite interesting conceptually yet you seem unconvinced by your on talents & skills as a visual artist. Now, one must ask themselves why do I feel this way or that about what it is I do. Perhaps, herein lies the truth to your own perception as to the way you feel said so eloquently by Hines, that "Photographs may not lie, but liars may photograph." SO, do U perhaps feel as if your thesis was a sham to please your peers in university ? I could go own trying too analyse U but I am my own mess to take care of in the realm of artistic illusions.

  • Brian Daigle

    Brian Daigle said (28 Nov 2008):

    I think I know how you feel. After all that school, there is no doubt a pressure to create something that everyone can appreciate as being well done, even if that means compromising your own self fulfillment in the project. This series clearly demonstrates your technical, creative, and aesthetic abilities as a photographer (to say otherwise would come across as fishing for praise), and just because you don't feel you've accomplished what you wanted to express doesn't change that. It just means your journey as an artist isn't over. School can't teach you what drives you as an artist, it can only teach you general principles, history, and technical skills. This series demonstrates that your education was successful, now it's up to you to figure out where to go from here.

  • Sean-Michael Gettys

    Sean-Michael Gettys gave props (20 Oct 2009):

    definitely got my vote!

  • J.L. Sofka

    J.L. Sofka (Deleted) said (17 May 2010):

    What a playful essay and I like your documentation, very professional. I assume that a lot of time went into creating the backdrops. Overall, a fine body of work.

  • elena fava emerson

    elena fava emerson said (6 Jun 2010):

    great photos and great humor, thanks!


  • Michele Wambaugh

    Michele Wambaugh (Deleted) said (29 Mar 2012):

    What a wonderful story & images, thanks for sharing.

  • Cheyne Gallarde

    Cheyne Gallarde gave props (30 Jul 2012):


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