Gangster Girl, Cosmopolitan Magazine, Amsterdam 1992
Staging and fiction – fully accepted in film and painting – has long been considered as something ‘not done’ in photography. As if photography should be limited to documentary – the depiction of ‘reality’ – and that the expression of a personal vision or fantasy belonged to other disciplines. Until ten, fifteen years ago it was possible to hear a photo critic say: “That’s a good picture, but it’s not real.”
I always asked myself what that actually meant, ‘real’ in a picture, because I believe a photograph is never ‘real’ or ‘true’, but always an interpretation of reality. A personal vision, acquired by means of technique. Subjective. By definition.
Photographs are about what something looks like in an image, not about what it is that is photographed. If a picture looks spontaneously, uncontrived, straight from the hart, it will look real. Further considerations are rational and don’t apply to emotional values – that what’s most important in appreciation of photography. It doesn’t matter if a situation is staged or not, as long as it’s invisible the picture will look ‘real’. When you look at a picture and realize at first glance that the image is staged and directed to create a certain effect – i.e. tries to show something that it’s not – then it doesn’t work, and the photograph will probably be considered as fake or kitsch.
Throughout history, mise-en-scène and direction have played part in photography. Think of the world famous spontaneous picture by Robert Doisneau, who, in Paris while shooting The Kiss, instructed his models from a terrace and must have said something like “Embrasse! Maintenant!”, or David Bailey’s subtle instructions like “Smile with your eyes”, or Dutch photographer Ed van der Elsken, who asked the Teddy Boys in Amsterdam to look at least a little tough. It is commonly known that Cartier-Bresson asked the old lady on Cape Cod to hold a U.S. flag, while Eisenstadt admitted to have screamed something like “Grab that chick!” when he saw ‘something white flashing’ during the V-J Day celebration on Times Square. Just like a father directing his daughter while photographing her on the beach: “C’mon little darling, smile!”
When I first heard that Diane Arbus, when making her famous picture Child with Toy Hand Grenade, circled around the boy long enough to capture the Fuck-off-bitch-leave-me-alone-you’re-driving-me-nuts– look on his face, I was completely astounded but I understood that it had been an artistically driven action. A for a spectator invisible kind of direction to get a more interesting picture. The image becomes stronger and stays believable because you don’t realize it’s directed.