Tableaux photography

Tableaux or tableau-vivant photography is most often used as a form of single image narrative, borrowing concepts from pre-photographic art (e.g. figurative painting) such as combinations of recognisable characters, settings and props to imply a story – lending the depicted moment a past and a future.

Charlotte Cotton describes two uses of tableaux:

“Some of the photographs shown here make obvious references to fables, fairy tales, apocryphal events and modern myths that are already part of our collective consciousness.

Others offer a much more oblique and open-ended description of something that we know is significant because of the way it is set up in the photograph, but whose meaning is reliant on our investing the image with our own trains of narrative and psychological thought.” (Cotton 2009: 49)

I have looked at some of the common characteristics of tableaux photography to identify which might become relevant to my own work (note that much of this post is revisiting similar observations I made a couple of years ago when looking at this subject for Context & Narrative, suitably edited and updated in light of subsequent learning).

Style: references to other art and media

Among the descriptions of the genre, a few adjectives keep jumping out: painterly, theatrical, cinematic.

Woman Reading a Possession Order, 1998 by Tom Hunter

Sometimes the reference to other art is the central conceit of the work, as in Freddy FabrisThe Renaissance Series. Other times it is a more subtle reference, such as Tom Hunter and his acknowledgement of the influence of Vermeer. In some of the works of Jeff Wall and much of that of Gregory Crewdson the cinematic ‘look’ is so strong that it is in danger of overwhelming the nuances of the content.

Cotton proposes that the references to other art forms are not necessarily pure imitation but rather “a shared understanding of how a scene can be choreographed for the viewer so that he or she can recognise the a story is being told“ (2009: 49). In other words, photographers may use techniques borrowed from these other art forms simply because they support their narrative intent.

In this respect the resemblance to other art performs a similar function to the ‘external mythologies’ point discussed below – it provides a mental shortcut, creating a space in the viewer’s mind in which to ‘locate’ the potential meaning of the image. A photograph, like a painting, cannot depict an actual linear narrative, but it can allude to a story – it can have a sense of narrativity. For example, resembling a still from a movie is one way of implying a particular kind of story.

Stripping, 1998 by Teresa Hubbard & Alexander Birchler

Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler play with visual aspects of narrative such as delineated space in the frame (reminiscent of panels in a comic book) to imply disjointed time.

Photography itself can be the inspiration. Some of Wall’s work and much of that of Philip-Lorca diCorcia appropriate the aesthetic of street photography but in a way that controls the subject matter to varying degrees. Taryn Simon does something similar with the documentary genre.

Content and context: references to external mythologies

One of the evident elements of staged photography is the depiction of (or allusion to) ‘story elements’ that are already part of the collective cultural consciousness. ‘Story elements’ can include stereotypes, visual tropes, proverbs, morals and so on. Cotton includes, for example, “fables, fairy tales, apocryphal events and modern myths” (2009: 49). Examples of this are Deborah Mesa-Pelly’s and Gerd Ludwig’s work based on fairy tales.

This can act as a ‘pointer’ that quickly gives the viewer some context and foundational interpretation – by investing the image with prior knowledge, the viewer is unconsciously applying some parameters to their reading. This should help to align the viewer’s reading to the artist’s intent, whilst still allowing room for personal interpretation.

Adding the last two points together: the viewer can bring to the image an understanding of narrativity (from the visual style), and a more specific ‘story context’ (implied by the subject(s) within the frame) and so aid their interpretation.

Style without context: open-ended narrativity

Some constructed photography, however, will use a particular visual style to create a tableau that doesn’t rely on any ‘clues’ or external pointers. The use of the techniques (clichés?) of painting, theatre or cinema without obvious narrative context is a way of implying that the image contains an important ‘message’ without providing a roadmap to find such a message; these are the photographs “whose meaning is reliant on our investing the image with our own trains of narrative and psychological thought“. (Cotton 2009: 49).

So both types of constructed image – referenced and unreferenced – require something from the viewer. The former requires knowledge of the references and the latter requires the mental effort to ‘process’.


One identifiable trend in much contemporary constructed photography is the depersonalisation of the protagonist(s). The subjects are often facing away from the camera. Over half of the examples in Charlotte Cotton’s genre overview feature people with their faces obscured. A good example is the work of Anna Gaskell.

This can heighten the sense of anxiety or disquiet common in the genre; not seeing a person’s face means not knowing what they’re thinking, which in turn leads to viewers needing to use their imaginations and environmental cues to fill in the gaps (Cotton 2009: 60). This could be seen as a form of projection, where the viewer is encouraged to place themselves in the shoes of the subject. The Hannah Starkey work shown below falls into this category.

Surrealism and ‘seduction’

Some of the most interesting examples of constructed photography take advantage of the potential for creating images detached from reality, a little or a lot. There’s a ‘dreamlike’ quality to a lot of tableaux that ‘straight photography’ cannot achieve. It’s a sense of ambiguity, of ‘otherworldliness’ that can be uneasy for the viewer, often playing to collective fears in a quite sinister way. Cotton also points out that use of young protagonists is common and again heightens the dreamlike / childlike sense of sinister surrealism (2009: 64).

The juxtaposition of unsettling content in a visually pleasing style is one of the characteristics of much successful staged photography. As Cotton puts it: “work that is, in terms of its narrative meaning, socially subversive or difficult is often carried in an aesthetic that is rich and seductive to the eye. We almost realise too late the true meaning of what we have been drawn to, enjoyed and appreciated” (2009: 65-66).


Many of the artists who specialise in constructed photography present their images very large, much larger than traditional prints, and some like Wall prefer to use lightboxes as the means of presenting images. Part of this is to heighten the reality by showing scenes life-size or larger. Another reason is to present a high level of detail, one of the hallmarks of constructed images – most practitioners work with large format cameras for maximum clarity. Super-sized images also allow for a depth of sustained analysis that a smaller print might not. Cotton also points out the allusion to a stage or movie set (2009: 76).

Depicting the unseen

Perhaps linked to the above but a separate enough point in my opinion – and the major reason for my interest in tableaux – some of the best practitioners of constructed realities are those that are able to allude to intangible subjects.

When I look at the work of Hannah Starkey, for example, I see someone successfully depicting daydreaming. Her characters have enigmatic, faraway looks in their eyes, and the use of mirrors and windows within her photographs suggest alternate realities being dreamt about.

Similarly, though I have a mixed reaction to the work of Jeff Wall, there is a subset of his work that does intrigue me: I discovered an interview where he says his aim is often to recreate a memory. The tableaux are not necessarily complete works of creation for him but often an attempt to re-create something, and often a memory that he believes is generic enough to be shared (such as falling as a child). However, as noted below I do find Wall a bit of a mixed bag…

My evolving opinion of tableaux photography

I’ve had a bit of an epiphany on tableaux in the last few years. When I first came across the genre, I felt a little underwhelmed and failed to really see the point. Looking back, it may have had something to do with the photographers I first looked at (predominantly Wall and Crewdson), as I’ve gradually come to appreciate this kind of work more when I’ve seen a wider range of approaches.

A View from an Apartment 2004-5 by Jeff Wall born 1946
A View from an Apartment, 2004-05 by Jeff Wall

I think my issue with some of the more famous images by Wall (and to a lesser degree, Crewdson) is that rather than the amount of effort going into the image making it more impressive, it somehow makes it less impressive for me, if the end result doesn’t have any clear message or resonance – I often get a sense of ‘why bother?’ with some of their images.

I visited a Wall exhibition not long ago and found the images to be disappointingly humdrum. I find that the mundanity of many Wall images (such as A View from an Apartment) subverts the second part of Cotton’s quote above in that we assume (not know) it is significant because of its construction, and making us project significance where there may be none could even be part of Wall’s intention. In this respect it’s tempting to consider some of his work as a kind of art world prank…

For the sake of balance: some of Wall’s work I find genuinely impressive, such as Insomnia (1994) and Passerby (1996), because these images are visually arresting and imply an interesting, often sinister story rather than a mundane one. To my earlier point, in these images it feels like he’s evoking an intangible emotion or memory, whereas the works of his that leave me cold come across more like technical exercises.

Untitled, 2004 by Gregory Crewdson

I generally find Crewdson’s work to be more visually interesting (potentially because his work more resembles cinema, an art form I enjoy, whereas Wall’s work seems closer to painting) but still find it odd that most of the discussion surrounding his work emphasises the complexity of his inputs over the artistic value of the output – I just found a lot of it quite overblown.

My change of heart on tableaux came with casting my net wider and finding artists who produce more nuanced, less flashy work where the constructed nature of the image isn’t overly prominent and the viewer is more able to engage with the content of the image.

Without wishing to be overly gender-conscious, I found more of the tableaux photography I appreciate to be the work of female practitioners, who I feel are often more capable of the nuance and quiet ambiguity that I find interesting in an image. For me this goes as far back as Cindy Sherman‘s Untitled Film Stills of the 1970s but there are lots of contemporary practitioners that have caught my eye, many of which I covered in the first half of this post.

I’ve also observed that my engagement with tableaux images increases when I see them in context as part of a wider project or body of work, as there is an accretion of meaning that builds with each image. I think this is related to a personal preference that I’ve recently realised: that I am more drawn to images that transmit an idea or evoke a sensation than those that tell or imply a narrative.

So in summary I increasingly appreciate this kind of photography, particularly that which fits the second part of the Cotton quote at the top of this post – those ambiguous images that encourage the viewer to fill in gaps, reader-as-author-style (Barthes 1977) to lead to a collaborative interpretation of the artist’s intended meaning.

Application to my own work

Whilst my current experiments regarding memory aren’t in this genre (at the moment I’m manipulating personal archive shots) I can see ahead to a potential evolution of the major project that might involve recreations of memories – my own or maybe even other people’s – that I subsequently manipulate in order to communicate aspects of memory loss/failure.

This approach appeals to me because I subscribe to the theory that memory itself is a construct, albeit a mental one formed in the mind of the person remembering. So in this way I am thinking of exploring the parallels between constructed photography and constructed memories.

For this reason I will continue to consider tableaux a potential input or at least inspiration to my own work.


Cotton, C (2009) The Photograph as Contemporary Art. London: Thames & Hudson.

Barthes, R. (1977) “Death of the Author” in Image Music Text. London: Fontana Press. (accessed 26/09/2017)