Around 1855, well over a century before Cindy Sherman, photographers were playing to the camera. They, too, posed as other than themselves, and they did it with authority. Louise-Pierre-Théophile Dubois, for one, did it in judge's robes and Roger Fenton with the barrel of a gun. Fenton, who had traveled to the Crimea as European photography's first war correspondent, dressed as a Zouave fighter from Algeria. Neither may be exactly a household name, but in 1895 Edgar Degas inserted himself into a group portrait. He leans so intently toward a woman at his right that one may forget that he had set up the shot and ordered someone to snap the shutter. Playing along, his two friends look more bored than complicit. And that, too, is a pose.
So all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely selfies? Maybe not, and museums that trot out self-portraits in oil as early selfies are just pandering. The Met, though, sees a hidden history of staged photography with "Grand Illusions," forty photographs from its collection. It does not do all that much to disturb one's notion of photography or the world. Here a staged photograph is just that, no more and no less. It does, though, alert one to the performance. Unlike Sherman herself, "Grand Illusions" does not challenge, in the museum's words, photography's "unmediated relationship to the world," as a "footprint" of objects and light. James Casebere and James Welling, after all, fashion their abstractions from paper and dirt. Yet it pleads for an alternative tradition to portraiture and photojournalism, through January 18. It includes an actual Eastman Kodak ad, credited to Ralph Bartholomew, Jr., but also Frank Majore's misty ode to Chanel, an artful still-life. Of course, it includes one of Sherman's Untitled Film Stills from the late 1970s. In each, the Met argues, "the imaginary is pictured as if it were real."
Maybe, but the imaginary is an elusive place, as art and psychology would be the first to say, and reality is not much better. The curators, Doug Eklund and Beth Saunders, might just as easily have described the prints as the real pictured as the imaginary. They also just happen to include Surrealism's imaginary pictured as the imaginary, with a street scene as looming shadows by Bill Brandt and the ever-present man in the street by René Magritte, seen from behind as La Mort des Phantômes, or "the death of phantoms." Do not forget either the real pictured as the real, as in ominous recreations of a crime scene by Laura Larson back in 1899. The same label might apply to Jan Groover, with her shimmering cutlery from 1978, as art photography finally embraced color. So what if a knife in the hand of a woman chef dealing once and for all with veggies, from Philip-Lorca diCorcia in 1989, has become a lethal weapon?
Can photography ever leave the stage? A studio has always been a staging ground, just as for John Singer Sargent in oil. Portrait photography had its origins there, before the hand-held Leica freed things up,and it still has its profit center there, with the commercial gloss of Richard Avedon. For Lorraine O'Grady in Harlem, a parade float, too, is a stage—and so for Catherine Opie or Holly Zausner are American cities. Candida Höfer and Thomas Struth go so far as to take the theaters and museums of old Europe as their subject. Even when Carleton Watkins used photography as an argument for preserving the American West, in the 1860s, he was helping to convert nature to national parkland, where humans can play.
You will not see any of that at the Met, although Nan Goldin makes her bedroom a theater. In part, the museum has just devoted the same space to Piotr Uklanski, whose staging grounds include a dockyard in Poland, where workers assemble in the shape of Solidarity's raised fist. In part, too, it can only show off its collection. That restriction may explain some obvious omissions, such as the suburban dreamscapes of Gregory Crewdson or the drama within a studio of Jeff Wall. The museum is merely boasting, and it has the holdings for quite a boast. Its strategy is to pair the "Pictures generation" of the 1980s, with its critique of consumer culture, and pictures from the past.
And what a pairing. Before Laurie Simmons played with dolls as a feminist statement, André Kertész had his doll house, Morton Bartlett his plaster children, Ralph Eugene Meatyard his masks, and David Levinthal his world war staged with child's toys. Hans Bellmer called the human actors in his nightmarish sex scenes from the 1930s La Poupée, or "the doll." Still, there are hints of so much more, waiting for a more thoughtful and ambitious show. Did you know that Degas in his group portrait reverses a painting of his, in which a woman leans to her left toward an inattentive man? Can you swear, too, that they were anything but real?
Was early photography still going through a stage? If so, it had to complete for respect with painting, as here with an Entombment for F. Holland Day, an Arthurian legend for Julia Margaret Cameron, an aristocrat pretending to fear for Pierre-Louis Pierson, fruit sellers for C. H. F. Talbot, or the awakening from a dream for Clarence H. White. Lewis Carroll surely stages Saint George, rescuing a damsel from the dragon—acted out by children. Still, what could be closer to everyday reality than child's play?
Perhaps photography can never really leave the stage, but it cannot leave behind reality either. Now if only you could know for certain which is which.
Grand Illusions: Staged Photography from the Met Collection Curators: Doug Eklund and Metropolitan Museum of Art 1000 Fifth Ave. UES Map 212 535 7710 metmuseum.org Aug 10, 2015 through Mon, Jan 18, 2016 Hours: Tues - Sun 9:30 - 5:30; Fri, Sat to 9 pm.