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Week 3: Constructed and 'Straight' Photography

In my last article I discussed the truthfulness of photographic images and again compared photography to painting. I mentioned that photographs are more veracious than painting because the subject matter is real. It was believed that a camera; objective tool for capturing reality would not lie. The camera might not, but the photographer can.

In their book Rethinking Photography, Smith and Lefley point out that in the century of photography’s invention and during the last century, photographers were divided into two camps: those who sought to replicate reality (straight photography) and those who constructed a version of reality for the camera (constructed photography).

Straight photographers would avoid any manipulation, either in the taking of the image or by darkroom processes. Their aim was to depict the scene as the camera saw it. Photographers working with constructed image would create the scene themselves to communicate their idea of what the scene represents.

According to Jeff Wall, the photographers are either hunters or farmers. Hunters act like they are capturing their prey, whilst farmers cultivate and construct their image.

Let’s have a look at these images of Imogen Cunningham and Diane Arbus who used the medium to faithfully reproduce an image of reality.

Fig. 1: Imogen Cunningham, The Unmade Bed, 1958

Fig. 2: Diane Arbus, Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, NYC 1962 Now let’s compare them to these images of Jeff Wall who constructs photographs.

Fig. 3: Jeff Wall, Mimic, 1982

Fig. 4: Jeff Wall, A Sudden Gust of Wind, 1993

The difference between the two pairs of images is not a visual one; the difference lays in the knowledge of the context. The first Wall’s image depicts a scene of racial tension that he witnessed in real life. It motivated him to construct the scene he saw and this photograph is the final result. It took Wall approximately one year to construct the second image. It is a digital montage of almost 100 elements and it was influenced by the work of Katsushika Hokusai (image below).

Fig. 5: Katsushika Hokusai, A High Wind in Yeijiri, 1830

But does it matter for us viewers to know the difference? Does it matter whether a photograph is constructed or ‘straight’? I mentioned in my last article; what I consider important in photography is what the image is about and what it represents.

Between the constructed and ‘straight’ image is a thin borderline. All images, even the most realistic depictions are constructions to a certain degree. The artifice comes with the photographer’s decision-making, such as choosing a camera, lens, vantage point, as well as finding a relationship between elements in the scene that he will finally connect by putting them in one frame. Stephen Shore noted that the photograph has edges, the world does not. The ‘construction’ comes with the photographer’s subjectivity and mind.

There is a constant flux between the reality and fiction. Some constructed images can convey reality and work as a clear metaphor, whilst some ‘straight’ images are obscure and make the viewer wonder about their meaning. Here I would like to use Imogen Cunningham’s photograph above (Fig. 1) titled ‘The Unmade Bed’ as an example of such obscurity. The image is a depiction of nothing more than the title suggests. However the meaning is rather ambiguous. Even though it is a gorgeous photograph with beautiful soft lighting, the subject matter is very trivial. Why did she photograph a bed? In my opinion the bed represents an emotion she felt when she photographed it and the image is a reflection of how she felt at that very moment.

Cunningham draws the viewer into an inviting, sensual space that radiates the heat of a bed that has just been abandoned. For me, this photograph has alternately suggested longing, satisfaction, playfulness, and anxiety. Without any elaborate manipulation, Cunningham transforms an everyday scene into an exercise in projection and fantasy.

- Miriam Roth, Everything Under The Sun: A Realist Ignites The Imagination, 2010

Truthful photograph can be fantasy-like and a constructed one truthful. I admire the work of Polly Penrose and Brooke Didonato, they both construct their images to communicate real emotions.

Let’s have a look at the latest work of Polly Penrose. Penrose mainly uses herself as a subject and her photographs are response to the surrounding environment. Through her photographs she explores identity and the opposed notions of vulnerability and empowerment, comedy and tragedy. In the below photographs she responds to the current situation of Covid and lockdown, and by constructing this image she creates a metaphor.

Fig. 6: Polly Penrose, 2021

Fig. 7: Polly Penrose, 2021

So I did take one picture, between lockdowns. It involved being stuffed with suffocating amounts of newspaper (I literally couldn’t breathe) whilst balancing blind on two rotating stools. Which pretty much sums up the last year for me.

- Polly Penrose, on Instagram, 2021

Brooke Didonato blurs the boundaries of fiction by using real-life narratives about vulnerability, instability and self-destruction, using dream like visual qualities.

Fig. 8: Brooke Didonato, from As Usual series, 2019

Fig. 9: Brooke Didonato, 2017

Fig. 10: Brooke Didonato, from As Usual series, 2019

Where would I position my photographic practice?

Up to what level I construct the photographs in my practice depends on what I want to convey. Trying to record a fleeting moment of everyday life I would use a minimum amount of manipulation when taking the photo and during the editing. Trying to express myself through the photographs to convey my thoughts, feelings, opinions, state of mind, etc., I need to construct the images, so they can speak for me.

Let’s compare these two images of mine. One is a quite realistic depiction of light coming through blinds and lighting up the wall in my living room. The other one is also depicting light coming through the window, but I deliberately used a large aperture to distort the image by making the light ‘absorb’ the top of my body.

The first photograph was taken in my new flat after a few days I had moved from one country to another. The moving was sad and the weather gloomy. This was the first time the sun came out and lit up the wall in my new living room. I thought it was worth recording it.

In the second image I was playing around with the idea of what it would be like to suddenly disappear from the world. What difference would it make?

Fig. 11: Lucie Nechanicka, 2017

Fig. 12: Lucie Nechanicka, 2017 References Figures: Fig. 1: Fig. 2: Fig. 3: Fig. 4: Fig. 5: Fig. 6, 7: Fig. 8, 9, 10: Fig. 11: Lucie Nechanicka, 2017 Fig. 12: Lucie Nechanicka, 2017 Text: Smith P., Lefley C, Rethinking Photography: Histories, Theories and Education, Chapter 4, The Constructed Photograph, 2015 Informing Contexts, from presentation ‘Hunters and Farmers’ Roth M., Everything Under The Sun: A Realist Ignites The Imagination, 2010 Penrose P., on her Instagram, 2021

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Lucie Nechanická
Lucie Nechanická
Feb 14, 2021

That's true! That would be a good topic for another article!


Owen Evans
Owen Evans
Feb 14, 2021

Both straight and constructed are nice, until someone decides to manipulate photography in revenge, or with a secret/negative agenda!

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