Photography as Staging

By Andreas Müller-Pohle

Photography is always staging. To speak of "staged photography" as a tendency or genre only makes sense, therefore, when staging is intended.1


There are two types of photographers, the discoverer (Finder) and the inventor (Erfinder).

The discoverer acts "in motion," after the model of the hunter and gatherer.2 His activity can be described as "scenic searching": he extracts something from the scenery; he acts perceptually.

The inventor, on the other hand, acts "stationary," after the model of the sedentary producer.3 His activity is an "in-scenic" (staged) researching: he places something into the scenery; he acts conceptually.

Thus, "searching and discovering" describe nature-oriented gestures, whereas "researching and inventing" are culture-oriented. He who becomes an inventor has been denied nature. It is exactly this which characterizes the current situation in photography: Reality – the photographer's natural realm – has begun to be denied him. Yet when reality has been denied, one must invent it anew.


The picture-taking process can be described as a collaboration between four basic elements: A subject deals with an apparatus in such a way that it transforms the light reflected from an object into a picture. According to these components, a difference can be made between five strategies of staging:

staging the subject, i.e. the self-staging of the photographer in front of the camera (–> self-portrait, performance, body art);

staging the apparatus (the photographic hard- and software) in the sense of utilizing the camera contrary to its pre-programmed function (its directions for use) or in association with other apparatus such as computers or lasers (–> visualism, generative photography);

staging the object by means of constructing, fabricating, arranging an object or situation for the purpose of a photograph (–> still-life, "fabricated to be photographed," etc.);

staging the light by using artificial light sources or by exploring alternative regions of the electromagnetic spectrum (–> "photographis interruptus," infrared photography, X-ray photography, etc.);4

staging the picture itself, i.e. transposing the camera output into a meta-structure, be it a photographic (–> sequence, tableau, montage, photo-object) or a multimedia form (–> collage, photo/text, photo/painting, etc.); the photographic process is extended here into a multistage process.

The scope of photographic staging is therefore larger than is generally conceived when staging is solely seen as staging the object – a view which only serves the purist ideology of an "objective" photography in that it negates all other factors involved in the picture process. However, at the same time it also becomes clear that "staged photography" should not be seen as a rigid aesthetic category, but rather more in the sense of a strategic orientation: there is no categorical boundary between the ideal of the "discovered" and that of the "invented," but rather a continuum.


Apart from specific genres (such as pornography or advertising) which have always belonged to the domain of staging, the history of photography may be viewed as a swinging back and forth between "discovery" and "invention": In opposition to the theatrically arranged salon photography of the 1850s, an amateur-dominated "photography in accordance with nature" emerged three decades later. The stylization and impressionistic transfiguration manifested by this photography near the close of the century gave rise, in turn, to a countermovement of objective, unembellished, "straight" photography that reached its peak in the 1920s. After the Second World War, the subjective ideal of an "absolute photographic creation" (Otto Steinert) stood in opposition to the postulate of an "absolute realistic photography" (Karl Pawek). The latter, which achieved its triumph with the "live" photography of the '60s, led into a pictorial culture which became the starting point for the conceptualists' analytical investigation of media during the '70s. Finally, with the emergence of documentary photography at the end of the '70s, a tendency toward purism developed once again, in opposition to which arose neosubjectivism and visualism.

Today, in the second half of the '80s, the crisis of "straight photography", of photo-purism, of photographism5 can no longer be denied. It is an ethical as well as an aesthetic crisis in which photography's loss of credibility and its increasing redundancy go hand in hand. Will new technological developments lead out of this crisis, as did 35mm technology, color photography and the instant picture process in the past?

The technological signs point instead in another direction; namely, toward the functionalization of photography through the computer and the enslavement of the analog photographic process by new digital imagery systems. The photography of the future is the electronic image – an image that is synthesized, processed and staged from preceding pictures, in order once again to be reprocessed and recycled itself. Thus, a picture in which the "discovered" and the "invented" enter into a new, cyclical relationship: where the "find" is no longer - as is the case in classical photography - the result of the creative process, but rather a preliminary stage and material for inventions.

That is, the strategies of staged photography are the picture strategies of the future.

1 A.D. Coleman's essay from 1976, The Directorial Mode: Notes Toward a Definition (in: Light Readings, New York: Oxford University Press, 1979, pp. 246–257), can still be considered as the most appropriate analysis of staged photography.

2 "To find" originally meant "to step on something."

3 "To invent" and "to stage" (from to stand, to place) are used here synonymously.

4 "Photography," in its broadest sense, describes a sum of methods for recording electromagnetic waves: "photo-graphy" = "to write with photons."

5 "Photographism" is the attempt to rescue photo-purism from postmodernism; cf. Andreas Müller-Pohle: Information Strategies (in: European Photography 21, Göttingen, 1985, pp. 5–14).

© 1988 Andreas Müller-Pohle. First published in European Photography 34, "German Stagings," Göttingen, vol. 9, nr. 2, April/May/June 1988


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