Creative Assignment – A Narrative Photograph

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Overview – Narrative Photography Assignment

In our day to day lives, we experience many narratives and myths, stories, that are woven so deeply into the fabric of our culture that they function as unconscious codes effecting our attitudes and behaviors. We as people are very much shaped by these stories and cultural codes. We don’t necessarily need to know what the stories are to be effected or changed by them.   

{loadposition adposition5} Many photographers enhance their images, creating interest, meaning and depth by accessing and referencing these narratives in their photography. I call these photographers narrative photographers; their photographs tend to tell stories that the viewer needs to figure out. The image leaves you asking what is the story? Their images are loaded with myth, symbol and story. 

Some of my favorite narrative photographers are:

Jeff Wall – This website was created for his one person major retrospective at MOMA. It has excellent reproductions of his work and great notes to accompany the photographs. After you enter the site, make sure you spend some time looking at "The Destroyed Room," 1978.  When you read the notes by clicking the small "+" button below and to the right you discover that the photograph is an allegorical recreation of a Delacroix painting the Death of Sardanopolis. As you read about the work you realize that "The Destroyed Room" is functioning on deeper narrative levels then just a room of destroyed stuff. First off, it isn’t even a room it is a set, constructed and fabricated for the photograph itself. This adds to the narrative nature of the photograph, the whole thing is a staged scene, so the truth value and objectivity, so inherent to photography in general, takes a back seat to the narrative or story. Also, Jeff Wall states that he sees the Photograph as a sort of tableaux morts or as I would call it a still life. This succeeds to further entrench the photograph in the history of art and its tropes. By the end you realize, that notions of death, Romanticism and Mannerism and the whole history of art and painting is being referenced in this work. Before you leave the site, make sure you look and read about "Picture for Women – 1979" which references Manet’s The Bar and "Dead Troops Talk – 1992" which is a digital photographic montage based on the Russian war in Afghanistan. In the end you realize that all of his images are in a dialogue with painting and the history of art. The dialogue with painting is always present due to the fact that his images are huge, some of them more than 5 feet tall, and are lit up, backlit tranparency slides, within light boxes, wow!

Cindy Sherman

{loadposition adposition6} – Cindy Sherman is the most highly paid female artist of all time. That is not by chance, her work has been extremely influential in the art world. Her photographs are narratives and stories and a lot more. Her photographs show the way women are depicted in the media, TV, film and advertising especially. The deal with the cultural narratives that result in negative stereotypes that women are defined by. She uses different methods of calling attention to this condition. One of the ways she structures her images is by using herself as the model to play all of the roles or narratives in all of her images. In each photograph, there is a tragic heroine that is in fact herself, in this way the images do not just function solely as stories, but also as self portraits. The interesting point is that there is no "self" in the self portraits because she is always playing a stereotype or role. Philosophically this asks the question, what is a women, where is the feminine? The answer is in the TV.     

Gregory Crewdson – This is a great radio piece about Crewdson’s work done by NPR. You can listen to the audio of the radio story to. – This site has a nice article as well as images.

Sandy Skoglund – 

Click here to learn about the photography of Sandy Skoglund (5 points for a comment) – A narrative photographer whose imagery focuses on the surreal and the imaginary

Creative Assignment:  A Photograph Based on a Famous Narrative (20 points)

Create a photograph that is based on a well known narrative or story. Your photograph can be based on either:

  1. a myth (popular, cultural, literary, or urban),
  2. a fairytale,
  3. a famous scene from a movie,
  4. a famous work of art (like a famous painting or sculpture),

Your finished image can be enhanced and manipulated in Photoshop by adding objects, backgrounds or creative color liberties.

The idea is that when our brains process images, we automatically cross reference our ideas against cultural constructs, more specifically stories handed down over generations. You can see this, when thinkers like Freud and Jung, claim the "Oedipal Complex" or the "Electra Complex" which are based on the stories or "narratives" handed down, in those cases, from Greek Mythology. So I am asking you to make an image that is loosely or tightly, based on a myth, or well known narrative or fairytale, it can also be based on a previous work of art. You see this all the time in art, i.e. art that references previous works of art.

The goal of the image is not necessarily to achieve a realistic or faithful reproduction of a narrative story, but to achieve a metaphorical or allegorical re-interpretation of one. Think of it like quoting a famous fictional narrative but doing so subtly.

Turning it in:
Due date: Finals Week

Important Note! – For this assignment, do not use the same fairy tales or stories from the example images below:

Submit your image in Blackboard before or during Finals Week!

Examples of "A Narrative Photograph" assignment from photo1 film class (click to enlarge):


Can you tell what narratives are depicted in these photographs?
Does this add interest and depth to the images?

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Author: Dan

Dan teaches computer networking and security classes at Central Oregon Community College.

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