Creating the Moment

My research project is (almost) officially under way, I’ve even got a title for it, Creating the Moment, which I’m rather proud of, and a brief summary of what it’s about, which I am due to discuss with the stand-in tutor tomorrow (he’s fine, it’s just a bit confusing having to deal with more than one).  It will be on the subject of ‘tableau photography’ which I mentioned in a previous post.  Along with Tom Hunter, I am planning to look at some Jeff Wall images, such as this one, a very clever (too clever?) mix of photographic trickery, self-portrait and art-historical knowingness.


Jeff Wall, Picture for Women, 1979 © Jeff Wall

Here’s the summary for my project:


‘Tableau photography’ – photography of staged scenarios – is relatively recent in photographic history (unless it can be seen as descending from 19th c. ‘art photography’ and/or early 20th c. pictorialism), and contrasts with the general majority view of photography as the representation of reality.  Its characteristics can include: more or less direct references to historical artworks; narrative content (explicit or implied), whether wholly fictional or illustrative of factual scenarios; carefully planned and constructed images (making it more of a collective exercise than many other genres of photography).

In his essay ‘Diderot, Brecht, Eisenstein’, Barthes describes the ‘perfect instants’ or ‘pregnant moments’ which characterize epic theatre and cinema, linking them to Diderot’s conception of the tableau as a type of artwork. Taking this essay as a starting point, this research project will consider selected photographic works by Tom Hunter and Jeff Wall, with the aim of accounting for them in the context of photographic history and theory.

Case Studies

Tom Hunter, Jeff Wall – given the time available, these will necessarily focus on a few key works.

Avenues of Research

Research will focus on some of the following topics within the time available:

  • Defining the tableau – narrative content: the ‘perfect instant’ / ‘pregnant moment’ (Barthes)
  • Photography as fictional narrative vs. ‘realism’ / ‘the decisive moment’ – can a photograph be ‘fictionally competent’?
  • The tableau in aesthetics and art criticism – e.g. Diderot, Lessing’s ‘Laocoön’
  • Social, political and moral messages in the tableau – are these a necessary feature of the tableau image?
  • Tableau images in photographic history – e.g. 19th c. “Art Photography”, Pictorialism – are these comparable to the case study examples?
  • The tableau in film and theatre – e.g. Brecht, Eisenstein – are tableau images equivalent to film stills or photographs of stage performances?
  • Art-historical references – e.g. Manet, Vermeer, Pre-Raphaelites – how and why do these add meaning and/or value to the image?
  • Making the tableau – planning, actors, props and scenery, digital construction
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