Narrative in Photography

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In this essay we will explore and examine the use of narrative in contemporary photography. Narrative photography suggests to us that the image, or images presented to us may have a story to tell, a message to communicate or a philosophy to convey. That story could be familiar to us in some way, drawing on references to art, cinema, theatre, or literature or may refer to personal values, shared beliefs, moral attitudes or have some significance within our perception of modern society and culture. The unfamiliar narrative is that which seems to be more obscure or illusive, being more the essence of something rather than that which is literal or straight forward but still drawing us to a sense of something that we may feel on a more profound and intimate level. The concept of an idea or message, with some kind of meaning, within an image may present itself clearly and depending on the narrative that the photographers wishes to express. Others may leave us asking the simple question ‘what does it all mean?’, leading us to think harder about the artists reason for making the image. To a certain degree, we may evenually come to realise how our relative knowledge of a particular genre of art, film or literature may be the very key to our understanding and subsequent decyphering of the photographs narrative.

Whether the narrative is one of fiction, fact , philosophy or fable one element of photographic practice seems to bind them all, and that is the method of staging images. Susan Bright, writing in Art Photography Now tells us on the subject of narrative in photography ‘At first this seems at odds with the singularity of a photographic still, but “staged” photography distils stories into one-off images,packed full of multi-layered information.’[1]. The photographer may spend a great deal of time making up or constructing a view for the camera using their own preconceived vision. Though we think of stories as being told over a period of time to progress and perhaps having a start, middle and end, the single image must bring together a number of visual markers or signifiers for us to put the story together for ourselves.

Sometimes the single image has many of the visual signifiers we associate with a well known tale, fable or myth but the emphasis is not so much on which story itself but more on the moment we appear to be witnessing within that story. An image can appeal to our recollection of something we know to have a certain outcome but with a twist or change causing the us to feel something is not quite right. And wanting answers that might not reveal themselves at first glance. At this point, many of us will disregard the photograph as some kind of failed attemp to retell the story we know so well. This is the turning point for us as we must spend more time analysing all aspects of the apparently constructed image to try and fathom out what we are seeing. It is this uncanny or unsettling moment portrayed within a carefully choreographed photographic image often dramatising the event or moment which is sometimes referred to as “tableau vivant” which , in literal terms is French for “living picture”. Charlotte Cotton, in her book, The Photograph as Contemporary art ,clarifys that ‘Tableau-vivant photography, for pictoral narrative is concentrated into a single image: a stand alone picture.’ ‘Tableau photograph has its precedents in pre-photographic art’ , ‘we rely on the same cultural ability to recognise a combination of characters and props as a pregnant moment in a story.’[2]

The work of Jeff Wall is a good example of tableau photography. In Figure 1. Insomnia, we see a man lying on a floor in a kitchen. At first glance, this image seems slightly disturbing as we notice the man’s eyes are open and his facial expression appears to be of anxiety or even pain. The title of the photograph clarifies that he is suffering from some sort of sleet deprivation but the very fact that the title confirms this makes...
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