Artists and creatives have long used photography to create staged or artificial environments in a bid to communicate something more than meets the eye. It’s a practice that’s been adopted since photography began, with 19th century photographer Oscar Gustav Rejlander being an early pioneer of the method.
His image The Two Ways of Life – which shows an elaborate scene alluding to a choice between vice and virtue – was one of the most innovative images of the century. Multiple figures feature in the image and it would have been impossible to capture such a complex sequence in one exposure. So Rejlander photographed each model and background section separately, resulting in over 30 negatives, which he then meticulously pieced together into one large single print. It’s one of the earliest examples of photomontage, and alluded to the vast potential within photography as an art form.
Since Rejlander, the art of staging images and creating new worlds has continued to be popular over the centuries, appearing in work by Claude Cahun (born Lucie Renee Mathilde Schwob) in the 1920s and 30s. Cahun became best known for self-portraits that assumed a variety of persona. The 1980s saw another resurgence in the style and brought the likes of Cindy Sherman – who became famous for her exploration of multiple identities – and Jeff Wall, who creates large-scale, meticulously staged works made to look candid, to the forefront of contemporary photography.
Artists working today to explore the fringes of reality and fiction include LA-based photographer Buck Ellison, who’s been staging images to depict a social group that is deeply private and inaccessible. “I’ve been working on a body of work that investigates Betsy DeVos, her brother, Erik Prince, the entire extended family’s exploitation of the poor, and their shadow funding of politics,” explains Ellison. “They are notoriously secretive. Vanity Fair was unable to get any photographs of them and had to resort to commissioning a painting. So I’m doing the next best thing, using actors and models to act out scenes from their life as accurately as possible.”