The Construction of the Image

Bert Danckaert

Thomas Demand started out as a sculptor meticulously building models of everyday situations. It became apparent that the photographs he originally made as documentation of the installations added an extra layer of ambiguity, and so they soon become the end result of his artistic process. Presenting the photographs (of, for example, a room of photocopiers, a stairway, or kitchen) in very large format created a sense of theatricality and dubious illusion that was simultaneously quick to reveal itself as a construction: meta-photography in its purest form.

Thomas Demand, Copyshop 1999

Because photographs always refer to reality without being reality, they are by definition always a construction. Scale models of the world we inhabit. The magic of photography lies in the process that leads to its construction. A lot of photographers knowingly work with this. There is a literal reference to the scale model in the work of Thomas Demand as everything in the photograph has been built with his own hands. The concept of staging can be seen in the second phase of the process through the physical act of the sculptor who reaches the definitive form of his work through the medium of photography.

What is staging? From the moment the photographer directs his lens towards the subject, he determines what will appear in the frame and what will not. In other words, the photographer determines the scene of the photograph—like a stage on which a real life situation is photographically simulated. Which is why so many photographers are fascinated with the notion of simulation and the relationship between reality, construction, and fiction.

The tension so compellingly present in Demand’s work is equally manifest—though using a completely different technique—in the photographs by the Canadian photographer Lynne Cohen. Since the early 70s, she has photographed interiors, inspired by the Pop Art and Minimalism of that time. Her preferred locations are overly constructed spaces such as laboratories, classrooms, or health spas. She also often photographs military installations or shooting ranges, where domination, power, and violence are countered with a hilarious absurdity, at times reminiscent of Jacques Tati films (4). Lynne Cohen photographs these spaces with a large 8 x 10 inch camera, rendering an incredible degree of sharpness and precision. It’s almost like a scientific instrument that produces a copy of reality for Lynne Cohen, sometimes in black and white though increasingly often in color. The objective and unerring frame Cohen employs renders the photographer invisible, as though these places have photographed themselves and the artist only had to remove the film from their cassettes and bring them to the lab.

Lynne Cohen, Untitled (astroturf) 2007

Like Thomas Demand, Lynne Cohen originally trained as a sculptor, and you can sense this in her sculptural approach to her subjects that appear like found installations or constructions that have been conceived by an artist. Only here the artist is the near invisible photographer who brings these constructions to life within the workings of her camera, without physical intervention. Cohen also plays with the construction of reality in her presentation of the work by framing the photographs in Formica frames made with materials predominantly used in kitchens. The imitation marble and granite in the Formica frames is produced through a photographic process: a real block of marble is photographed and then printed and laminated and turned into a kitchen surface, for example. The reference to photography as ersatz falls together beautifully with her Pop Art-inspired approach.

Both Lynne Cohen and Thomas Demand are acutely aware of the concept of staging defined as the construction of a set in which—through the construction of photography—a scale model is staged in the same way that decor in the theater represents a real location without actually being one.

Much has already been written about the relationship between theater and photography. This is undoubtedly the result of both disciplines’ ambiguous relationship with reality. Photographs always present a view of real situations; even when the situation is entirely constructed, the camera still captures what is in front of the lens. Reality is also staged in theater. We witness real life actors who breathe and feel as they perform. While everything is “real” and takes place in “real time”; neither the photograph nor the theater play are reality itself. Photography and theater are therefore both forms of ersatz; at best they present references or real life constructions. Both art forms are false realities and real falsehoods.

The works of Sarah Pickering also illustrate ideas about the relationship between the photographic image and its construction in striking way. Pickering photographs situations staged by the police or fire department for scientific investigations of crimes and fires. The concept of staging and reality are literally simultaneously at play here. We see burning interiors or street scenes during insurgencies, but the houses aren’t real, the blackened washing machines surrounded by false walls make it immediately apparent that these are exercise and test sites. The subjects of Sarah Pickering’s photographs openly play with construction: houses are just a facade and traffic lights aren’t fitted with bulbs. Their sole purpose is to indicate the space through which the training officers can navigate. Sarah Pickering adopts a strictly documentary style to depict these places. She uses the camera as a neutral observer to capture a clear registration: the estrangement is within the subject itself, rather than the approach. By printing the photographs on a monumental scale, the construction becomes magnified whereby the images gain a surreal undertone.

Sarah Pickering River Way (Roadblock), 2004

Photography and staging are inextricably connected, as every photograph is a construction (of seeing).

4 “I take my work to be social and political but there is no concrete message. Perhaps this is why I feel much closer in spirit to Jacques Tati than to Michel Foucault” Lynne Cohen. Interview with Lynne Cohen by William A. Ewing, Vincent Lavoie, Lori Pauli, Ann Thomas, in No Man’s Land, Thames & Hudson, 2001. London.