Category Archives: Project 1: Setting the scene

A5: Project 1: Setting the scene

Watch this famous scene from Goodfellas directed by Martin Scorsese in 1990: [accessed 24/02/14]
Don’t read on until you’ve answered the following questions.
• What does this scene tell you about the main character?
• How does it do this? List the ‘clues’.
Make some notes in your learning log.

The young man is extremely well known in this circle of ‘important’ people. His car keys are taken from him and the car parked by some invisible person. He enters the smokey, restaurant by a back door and no one stops him. As he moves along guiding his lady friend, lackeys stand aside, open doors and move out of his way. He has done this many times before. He presses dollar bills into the hands of these security guys as he wafts along. Moving through a very busy restaurant kitchen no one pays much attention to the couple indicating that this young man comes here very often and enters the restaurant by this means every time. He is not used to having to stand in line.The chefs he knows, in the kitchen, he greets like long lost friends.

Emerging into the packed restaurant the maître d’hôtel spots the couple immediately and whistles up a table. At first glance we cannot imagine where the waiter could put this table. But it is fitted in between tables at which ‘friends’ of the young man are sitting. He greets everyone in a friendly manner. They are all dressed alike in formal suits indicating that it is an up market restaurant.

Once seated a drink is offered by a group of guys at an adjoining table. Everyone wants to keep on the right side of this young man. His companion asks him what he does for a living and he replies “I’m in construction”. This is totally laughable as he is obviously not a construction ‘worker’ he appears immensely rich. She is not convinced nor are we. But we are not meant to be. We immediately try to think of what aspect of racketeering he is involved in.

Photography, like film and unlike painting and other art forms, relies on what’s in front of the camera for its content, so the props, clothes, location and setting have to be right for the time period and the story. Setting up a shot can be an arduous job. Many photographers working in this genre (known as tableaux) produce a single image at a time.

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The example used for photography is Jeff Wall’s “Invisible Man” This constructed image is packed with props to suggest claustrophobia and quirkiness, The millions of light bulbs, the untidiness and the furniture all make us very uncomfortable. We feel drawn to the one figure in the image. We want to rescue him from his madness. It is an extremely effective image.

Drawing on Documentary & Art

So as Hannah Starkey, Self-Portrait 2, May 2010 112 Photography 1 Context and Narrative much as Starkey’s image is literally a self-portrait, it is also a comment on photography  itself and its ability to create a different reality.

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Hannah Starkey’s photographs are informed by her own experiences of a woman living and working in a cosmopolitan city. […] To create the images, Starkey uses professional actresses whom she chooses to play the specific roles required in each photograph. Starkey conceives each image as a mise en scene, a narrative fiction of everyday living.” (source; more samples here and here).(1)

Starkey also does self portraiture. I did not know this photographer before and keep going back to look at her work. I am fascinated by its ordinariness. Yet it is staged, the lighting is strictly controlled and the backdrops are very striking, often with garish colours.

I re-read The Lady of Shalott by A,L Tennyson and pasted it into my physical log as it is very many years since I first read it and I remember being very confused by its contents. It is comforting that with age things become clearer. I am not sure what was going on in Starkey’s head that she sites this poem as a strong influence. Perhaps she felt trapped behind the lens. But then did ‘coming out from behind the lens’ caused her to loose her aesthetic soul? Who knows but it adds an interesting puzzle to the images.

I am very drawn to this type of image myself and am happy I had not seen Starkey’s work before I completed by assignment 3 C&N. I might have been more influenced and less free. But the idea that a photograph becomes a kind of mirror on reality is a little disquieting. Am I worried about aging?

Tom Hunter’s work revolves around real people and their stories – but he portrays them through fiction. The real people he gives a voice to are those in his local community of Hackney.

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Tom Hinter resides in Hackney in London. He has a deep affinity for the place but takes issue with The Hackney Gazette’s reporting style. The stories are mostly sensational. The headlines are brutally descriptive. Hunter took a number of these headlines and, using friends who live in the area, he re-created the scenes. Each image, although supposedly depicting some tragic event in Hackney, is set up to resemble some well know ancient painting. (2). I am unsure how I feel about these images. I detest the style of the Gazette’s journalism but I am not sure if Hunter’s image do a lot to change that. The images are beautifully executed but despite this I am unmoved. I need to ponder why.

Taryn Simon

In the American legal system, one is theoretically presumed innocent until proved guilty and our mythology around fair play makes most of us trust in the rectitude of the legal process. Over the years, however, growing police authority and a vast, powerful judicial infrastructure have combined to administer justice imperfectly.(3)

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But Simon’s work questions this presumed innocence. She photographed people who were wrongly convicted, on photographic evidence, and committed to prison. Larry Mayes was incarcerated for 18.5 years…

Simon’s other work, Contraband (2009), A Living Man Declared Dead Chapters I – XVIII (2010, The Picture Collection (2012), similar  documentary photography is used to demonstrate how unreal an image can be,

Philip-Lorca DiCorcia’s series Hustlers

diCorcia is able make photographs that MoMA’s former Chief Curator Peter Galassi describes as “operating in the space between postmodern fiction and documentary fact.” In so doing, he challenges the accepted role and involvement of the photographer in the (perhaps quixotic) pursuit of absolute truth.(4)

diCorcia went to LA to photograph Hustlers. He and an assistant approached prostitutes to co-operate in different sets he created and he photographed each one of them. On the final printed images he gives the name and details of each prostitute together with the amount he paid them. This amount would be the amount normally paid for sex with the particular prostitute. The series was made in the 90s at the height of the AIDs problems in the US. The sets and lighting are extraordinarily haunting and sensitive. Looking at these images my feeling was one of immense sadness

All of these photographers constructed or re- constructed sets to make their images. The question I am asking myself is “did I believe these images?” “did they represent reality for me?”. I think the answer depends on what I mean by real. Is a set-up image real? It is an unreal reality…..

  1. Conscientious | Hannah Starkey. 2016. Conscientious | Hannah Starkey. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 27 April 2016].
  2. Living in Hell and Other Stories | Tom Hunter. 2016. Living in Hell and Other Stories | Tom Hunter. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 27 April 2016].
  3. The Huffington Post. 2016. Taryn Simon and the Relativity of Truth. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 28 April 2016].
  4. TIME. 2016. Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Groundbreaking Portraits of Hustlers. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 28 April 2016].