Portfolio — From the March 2016 issue

Undeceiving the World

Can a staged photograph tell the truth?

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Staging — the practice of deliberately arranging a scene — has coexisted with documentary photography from the beginning. When Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre published a seminal tract on a method for fixing images onto a shiny piece of silver-coated copper, in 1839, he also described the relatively recent art of the diorama. Photography and staging, you might say, were launched into the world as twins.

Nineteenth-century portrait photographers readily took to fakery, often posing their subjects in tableaux that were designed to evoke classical or religious motifs. From portraiture, staging spread to war photography. In the years leading up to the American Civil War, Mathew Brady rented ornate studios in New York and Washington to stage portraits. His associates, Timothy O’Sullivan and Alexander Gardner, were accustomed to posing Washington’s bon chic, bon genre amid fringed and Gothic chairs, a Corinthian column, a gold clock whose hands rarely moved, and a leather-bound tome. When they went on to photograph the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, in July 1863, the pair saw little difference between moving a dead sharpshooter from his redoubt to a better setting nearby and posing a model in the studio. During the Spanish Civil War, seven decades later, Robert Capa probably had a Republican militiaman fake his own death for a photograph. These interventions did not diminish the ability of the images to communicate the gruesomeness of war, but no one pretends that’s all there is to say on the matter.

“A Homestead on Submarginal and Overgrazed Land. Pennington County, South Dakota,” 1936, by Arthur Rothstein. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

“A Homestead on Submarginal and Overgrazed Land. Pennington County, South Dakota,” 1936, by Arthur Rothstein. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

One obvious danger is the ease with which the origins of a staged image, or an artist’s intentions, can be forgotten over time. Consider Oscar Gustav Rejlander’s portrait “Homeless” (circa 1860), which shows a boy in rags sitting on some steps with his head bowed, and John Thomson’s “The ‘Crawlers’ ” (1877), which depicts a destitute woman in a crumpled dress. The photographs were both taken in London and are similar in mood, and if you did not know anything else about them you might never guess that while the latter wasn’t, as far as we know, photographed indoors, the former was staged with a model in a studio. Time readily erases the difference.

The same elision happens even with photographs that are now widely known to have been staged. In 1936, Arthur Rothstein, a twenty-year-old photographer, visited Pennington County, South Dakota. Rothstein, who worked for Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Resettlement Administration, was looking for a way to demonstrate the seriousness of the conditions that led to the Dust Bowl. While walking along a dried-up alkali flat, he found a bleached steer’s skull. He moved it onto a patch of cracked mud, photographed it, and later used the skull as a prop in several other scenes. One of the resulting pictures, published in the Washington Post, among other places, met with much acclaim before Rothstein’s staging was discovered. Political opponents of the New Deal used the opportunity to paint Roosevelt’s efforts to ameliorate poverty as deceitful. Other photographers suffered similar controversies. Walker Evans has drawn posthumous scrutiny for adding an alarm clock to a tenant farmer’s mantelpiece, whereas Edward Curtis took flak during his lifetime for removing alarm clocks, along with every other modern device, from his portraits of Native Americans.

From left to right: “The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg,” 1863, by Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan, courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division; “Death of a Loyalist Militiaman,” 1936 © Robert Capa/International Center of Photography/Magnum Photos

From left to right: “The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg,” 1863, by Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan, courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division; “Death of a Loyalist Militiaman,” 1936 © Robert Capa/International Center of Photography/Magnum Photos

In the years after World War II, Life magazine hired Robert Doisneau to photograph a story about lovers in Paris. The apparent aim was to portray the city as quaint and romantic, to play to the nostalgia of servicemen returning from the fighting in Europe. Doisneau used actors to stage the photo essay, and while it’s unclear whether he intended to hide what he had done to set up his scenes, the decision came back to bite him forty years later when two people who claimed to be the loving couple at the center of “Le baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville” sued, unsuccessfully, for a cut of the royalties.

From left to right: “Homeless,” circa 1860, by Oscar Gustav Rejlander, courtesy George Eastman Museum; “The ‘Crawlers,’ ” 1877, by John Thomson, courtesy London School of Economics Library

From left to right: “Homeless,” circa 1860, by Oscar Gustav Rejlander, courtesy George Eastman Museum; “The ‘Crawlers,’ ” 1877, by John Thomson, courtesy London School of Economics Library

In 1999, Werner Herzog, the film director, made his so-called Minnesota Declaration, in which he explicitly embraced staging:

There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.

His view echoes that of John Ruskin, the nineteenth-century artist and critic, who defended J.M.W. Turner’s impressionist paintings as representations of “moral truth” over “material truth.” Since 1936 at least, documentary photographers have struggled to find acceptance for ecstatic or moral truth. The public, meanwhile, has simply expected truth.

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