Marta Weiss – Making It Up: Photographic Fictions

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Review by Paul Anderson

Making It Up: Photographic Fictions by Marta Weiss is an historical survey of photographic works that have been staged or constructed to replicate some scenes of historical significance, or to make a cultural or personal statement. All images come from the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Marta Weiss has curated the book for the V&A Museum. The images are loosely organized by subject, which includes elaborately staged scenes, group recreations of classic or historical scenes, intimate tableaus containing a few people, surreal images, and fantasy tableaus.

In one sense all photographs are ‘fictions.’ It has long been noted that a photographic image is itself an abstraction or fiction, a recorded representation of a two or three dimensional scene. This book focuses on a particular kind of photographic fiction, those that are purposely constructed or staged by the photographer to achieve some predetermined purpose.

When looking through these images I frequently found myself wondering about the photographers’ goals. Unfortunately, for some images in this collection this lack of a meaningful purpose results in images that are not very compelling. Many of the images are designed to reproduce historical events such as wars or famous paintings, but they can come across as stiff or static. Are they made to study another artist’s compositional style or lighting? Are they made to emphasize some historical point? Making a compelling photograph to recreate an historical event or painting is clearly quite difficult. The constructed images that make cultural or personal statements are in general more effective.

There are some very successful images presented in the book, some of which are shown below. One example is a Pictorialist style image from 1903 by Emma Barton called The Awakening. She made a number of these Madonna and Child studies, and this one is quite effective.

Another example is a magnificent Walter Bird photograph of actress Yvonne Arnaud in a production costume from Shakespeare’s Henry V. The image was made sometime in the 1930’s using the Vivex color process.

A nice surprise is the photography of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, more commonly known as Lewis Carroll. It is quite interesting to see photographs made by this famous writer and mathematician. Two of his images are shown on pages 156 and 157, Tea Merchant (On Duty) and Tea Merchant (Off Duty). They were made in 1873 when Dodgson dressed a childhood friend in Chinese costume. The two different poses create a nice story line.

Examples of more recent ‘fictions’ include the well-known Philippe Halsman image Dali Atomicus of Salvador Dali, and an equally fun 2005 image by Xing Danwen called Urban Fiction, no. 23. Danwen photographed a miniature real estate sales model and then digitally inserted herself into it.

This book provides a diverse survey of constructed images made since the dawn of photography, documenting historical variations in the constructed image. Some are quite successful, others are less strong, but their inclusion serves to document this genre.

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Author and Curator: Marta Weiss, Curator of Photographs, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Publisher: Thames & Hudson, New York, NY; © 2019

Text: English

Hardcover, 192 pages, 146 illustrations; 8 x 10 inches

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