Tableau Vivant

I previously mentioned Tableau Vivant in passing in my post on the Rainbow of Desire. The relationship between photography and tableau vivant is worthy of more discussion.

The Free Dictionary defines Tableau Vivant as “a scene presented on a stage by actors who remain silent and motionless as if in a picture.” Traditionally in a tableau vivant, people pose in a manner to recreate a famous painting or event and hold that pose for approximately 30 seconds.
It began as a medieval liturgical presentation at the end of a mass. Its popularity peaked in the 19th century when it emerged as a form of popular entertainment. It was also adopted as an expression of protest, most notably by the women’s suffrage movement. With the advent of movies, the popularity of tableau vivant faded, although it is kept alive at events such as the Festival Of Arts – Pageant Of The Masters in Laguna Beach, CA. (This festival was the focus of the Arrested Development episode “In God We Trust”.) The creation of a tableau vivant was also part of the plot of a Modern Family episode.

The tableau was also a significant part of pictorialism in photography. Pictorialists sought to establish photography as a Fine Art by de-emphasising the precise, mechanical nature of photography through techniques such as soft focus, but also by photographing tableaux of classical themes. This aesthetic was defined in its essence by Henry Peach Robinson’s book Pictorial Effect in Photography (1869). His most famous work is Fading Away, which is also interesting as Robinson used it to argue for the use of compositing multiple images as a way of creating a photograph.

“Fading Away”, a combination print by Henry Peach Robinson. Albumin print 1858. Source: George Eastman House

For a more radical (for its time) use of the tableau in pictorialist photography, consider the work of Anne Brigman, one of the few female photographers of her time.

“Soul of the Blasted Pine” self-portrait by Anne Brigman (1908)

As the popularity of Tableau Vivant faded, so did Pictorialism, to be replaced by Modernism as reflected by the work of, to cite one example, Edward Weston. And now we are in the post-modern era of photography. Is there a place for tableau?

Apparently, as an important example of “post modern photography” is the work of Jeff Wall, for example, A Sudden Gust of Wind After Hokusai (1993). This could be because photographers have taken to heart Susan Sontang’s statement “everything has been photographed, or so it seems” and are now examining the nature of the photograph, itself.

I’ve also had a bit of fun with Tableau Vivant. To start, consider this work Photography Lesson (after Rembrandt), 2015.

One could also consider new social commentary. Here Prometheus, already bound for bringing fire to mankind, attempts to bestow us with biotechnology, eagerly desired by some and resisted by others.

Prometheus attempts to bestow biotechnology on mankind
Prometheus attempts to bestow biotechnology on mankind

What do you think? Can the concept of a “post-modern tableau” inspire photographers?


Note: Thanks to Ivan Iannoli for introducing me to the use of Tableau in photography.

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