Staging Anxiety

[Fall 2006]

by Jacques Doyon

The images brought together in this issue fall under the rubric of the “staged” photography. They are inscribed within a current that has flowed throughout the history of photography, as the exhibition Acting the Part: Photography as Theatre, currently on at the National Gallery of Canada, brilliantly demonstrates.

These practices turn the belief in objective photography, an image that is but a trace of reality, on its head. On the contrary, they make room for a vision of reality anchored both in the culture of the photographic medium and in that of other forms of visual culture: painting, theatre, performance, cinema, and advertising. They thus deploy an interdisciplinarity specific to the photographic image, whose narrative potential is complex.

The works in these pages by Gregory Crewdson, Matthieu Brouillard, and Janieta Eyre deal with the frights and fears that haunt our comfortable, affluent societies and crack the varnish of a well-being based on personal fulfilment and consumption. These anxieties often take the form of a melancholy and muted sadness that can lead to excess, violence, neurosis, and madness. It may also, very fortunately, be a source of creativity, as admirably illustrated by the exhibition Mélancolie. Génie et folie en Occident, presented at the Galeries nationales du Grand Palais de Paris last winter. Black bile, sadness, spleen, and depression are some of the forms that melancholy has taken over the ages, although in our times it is associated mainly with romanticism. Melancholy evokes well, however, the fears, phobias, frights, and their anaesthetizing effects that characterize much of our relationship with reality, just as the catastrophist imagination that drives the mass media does.

Since 1995, American photographer Gregory Crewdson has developed a body of work, in just six series, considered significant. His images are composed of large canvases staging the fears and anxieties of the American suburban middle class. Fires, floods, abysses that open in the living-room floor, secrets buried in the garden, searching through empty lots, the little dramas of couples, exhibitionism, sleepwalking, drifting, and anomie are some of the micro-events, of which we know neither the details nor the outcomes, that illustrate the fault lines in American happiness. With ever-larger formats and processes related to movie production, Crewdson makes works that waver between the worlds of Edward Hopper and David Lynch.

The young Montreal photographer and video artist Matthieu Brouillard is producing a unique body of work fed by theatricality and pictorialism. His large black-and-white images stage aged masculine bodies, sometimes nude, in very inhospitable interiors. They show people petrified by extreme inner tension or frozen in a movement that has suddenly lost all meaning, the head sometimes as limp as a puppet’s. A mute tragedy plays out in these images: more than in the destitution and loss of meaning, it resides in the fact that these individuals are haunted by the absolute indifference that surrounds them. In this respect, these images are absolutely contemporary.

With her recent series of photographs, Janieta Eyre continues her phantasmic exploration of her inner world, her psychic fantasies, and the twists and turns of her personality, distancing herself from the self-portrait and transposing her stagings into models. The torments and fears of childbirth are portrayed, with the shame of the stillborn and the super-awareness of the body as organic matter. The allegorical figures of disorder and terror, with the bird pulled out of the mouth, the piglet given birth to, the animal meat or phallus-shaped viscera serving as adornment, express what is unsaid about interior fragility.