– The Real and Reality in Constructed Photography

Working on my project the ‘The Cage’s Keeper’ and having studied photography I always feel a bit insecure about creating the staged photographic images that this project entails. The reason may be that I feel I am betraying the index of the photographic image by producing constructed photography, even though the project is influenced and driven by many facts. While it is fair to say that a photograph is an index of reality, I feel that it is not always possible to use straight photography to document facts. So how ‘real’ is the ‘reality’ of constructed photography?

As Michael Köhler stated “[w]ith the invention of photography the illusion of realism reached its pinnacle. Indeed, the photograph, as a result of the particular way in which it is produced, is more than incomparably precise depiction or reproduction of reality.”[1] Thus from its point of inception photography has largely been used to exploit the realism quality. It wasn’t until the 1920s and 1930s that the surrealists “managed to undermine the ‘realism’ and ‘objectivity’ of photography so successfully that the sense of viewing an authentic reproduction of a certain segment of reality was fully suspended.”[2] Nearly 100 years later and there is now more than ever a sense that we are losing touch of what is real and what is reality.

Many artists working in the area of constructed photography have denied the importance that the photograph plays in their art, stating that it merely exists to document it. This point has also been supported by art critics such as Clement Greenberg and Lucy Lippard. Lippard advocates that within conceptual photography “[t]ext and photographs participate in the production of the work’s meaning, but the existence of that form is repeatedly repressed or denied.”[3] I would argue though that it is the very properties of the photograph that allow the conceptual artists’ ideas to perpetuate beyond the moment of staging. Why would painters such as Jan Dibbets and John Baldessari choose to use photography over painting in order to record their ideas? It is photography’s indexical attributes they wish to question and thus the photographic image becomes essential to the meaning of their work. Dibbets’ and Baldessari’s photographs also could be said to share the same formalist attributes of those seen in the work Winogrand and Friedlander.[4]

There are also artists, such as Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger, who openly acknowledge the important part photography plays in the realisation of their concepts. These artists have helped move conceptual photography further “into a critique of the political, institutional and semioctic conditions of representation.”[5] For the reasons above I believe the real and reality can both exist within the conceptual photograph.


[1] Köhler, Michael, Arranged, Constructed and Staged – from Taking to Making Pictures, p.20

[2] Ibid, p.21

[3] Soutter, Lucy, The Photographic Idea: Reconsidering Conceptual Photography, After Image, March-April 1999, http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2479/is_5_26/ai_54421750/

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid