Since photographers like Rejlander and Robinson, and not least with the English and American pictorialists around 1900, photographers had tried to get photography accepted as fine art on an equal footing with painting. In particular, the technology-based starting point had always been regarded as a key obstacle to photography’s equal entry into the art scene. Newhall and his contemporary photographers realized, however, that within modernism this technological impetus could be turned into an advantage. Photographers should not mimic painting, but instead find their way to "the specifically photographic". One would create graphical, super sharp "photos that look like photographs," as the great American Modernist Edward Weston said. Newhall based his history on the formalistic qualities of photography, and about Julia Margaret Cameron's staged photographs, he wrote with thinly veiled negative charge: "Her dynamic portraits are among the finest and most breathtaking ever made with a camera, but her costume pieces lie rather in the Pre-Raphaelite painters idiom". Newhall built his story around two central tracks, both characterized by the pure, unmanipulated, non-staged: the formalist, "straight" or "pure photography" and the documentary - two central tracks that came to define photography for many decades to come.
The Directorial Mode
It was only towards the end of the 1970s that these two main photographic conventions and the notions of authenticity and objectivity attached to them, were subjected to massive criticism and were really overthrown. It happened with the flow of American photography, which critic A.D. Coleman - in an article in 1976 - named "The Directorial Mode", and which has since been termed "Staged Photography". The term was cemented by two comprehensive books in 1987: Andy Grundberg and Kathleen McCarthy Gauss' Photography and Art. Interactions since 1946 and Anne H. Hoy’s Fabrications. Staged, Altered, and Appropriated Photographs.
Under the influence of the media blends and the mixtures of high and low culture, which artistic currents such as pop, happenings and conceptual art stood for, and influenced by various postmodern theoretical approaches such as feminism and post-structuralism, a growing number of artists started using photography in a way that deviated radically from "the specifically photographic", as promoted by historians such as Newhall and later John Szarkowski, the photography director at Museum of Modern Art. As the pioneer of American staged photography, Duane Michals expressed it: "The thing about working as a photographer by walking down the street with a camera looking for something to take a picture of - I did not have to do that because it was already in my head". Michals did everything that had been banned among the modernists: he made cinematic, narrative sequences, he worked exclusively in his studio with staged models, he wrote stories under or directly at the pictures and he did not care about the technical aspect of photography at all. Likewise in the 70s and early 80s Les Krims created allegorical photo tableaus to be decoded as a riddle, not unlike the Baroque and Pre-Raphaelite paintings, and the most famous artist within staged photography. Cindy Sherman staged herself as characters from mass culture in order to problematize the production of gender and other typologies. Already in the 1960s, French structuralist Roland Barthes had criticized what he called the naturalization effect of photography, which worked to mask the ideological manipulation behind every apparently realistic image. It was not until the late 1970s and the appearance of staged photography, however, that artists seriously began to question the reality effect of photography.
As is so often seen in art history these artists' works developed - more or less unconsciously - in parallel with a similar theoretical development. Cindy Sherman was, for example, widely used as an example in feminist theoretical articles on how gender identity is not an essential, stable and biologically determined size, but is developed in close interaction with various social discourses. By staging herself as 'types' taken from Hollywood films, commercials, fashion photography and adventure, Sherman showed how gender is a conventional construction, but also how this condition can be turned into something positive, playful and challenging. Sherman: "I think of myself as an artist, not a real photographer. In a way I am a performance artist. I was influenced more by performance art than photography or painting. The image is my own performance, and I am documenting myself”. Joel-Peter Witkin, Lucas Samaras, Arthur Tress, Sandy Skoglund, Louise Lawler, Laurie Simmons, Canadian Jeff Wall, British Boyd Webb and many other artists were all part of this refreshing expansion of the means of photography in the 1980s.
Criticism of the Documentary
While a wide range of artists from the late 1970s onwards thus represented a wave of conscious and overtly staged photography in order to challenge and destroy the mythology of photographic realism, theorists also started a frontal attack on Beaumont Newhall, on realism and on modernism within photography, and the criticism was especially addressing the documentary genre: that is, the most realist of photographic genres. Theorists such as John Tagg, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Allan Sekula and Martha Rosler demonstrated how documentary photography was based on a powerful and deeply ideological discourse associated with the emergence of modern, bureaucratic society, but that this discourse had been hidden under allegation of photography as a truthful, unmanipulated image. One can thus speak of a general paradigm shift in the perception of photography in modern culture in the 1980s, a move that was also linked to the advent of digital photography. The new digital affordances made it possible for artists to manipulate images and 'tease' the audience in relation to the reality expectations, we always meet the photograph with.
An academic discourse thus developed around photography in the 1980s, highlighting the photographic image as a cultural construction, whose meaning is guided by context, rather than by a privileged relation with reality. In large color formats artists such as Sherman, Samaras, Skoglund, Simmons and Wall and many others worked to deconstruct rather than construct meaning, and to clarify or to play ironically with such conventions. —Partial text from Mette Sandbye's essay