Michael Snow
Clothed Woman (In Memory of my Father) 1963
oil and lucite on canvas
152 x 386.2 cm
Purchased 1966
National Gallery of Canada

A picture is worth a thousand words!

Ottawa - June 14, 2006

From 16 June to 1 October 2006, the National Gallery of Canada investigates the world of the photographer as storyteller. Acting the Part: Photography as Theatre is one of the first exhibitions to explore the transformation and wide variety of “staged” photographs from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. The exhibition was curated by Lori Pauli, Assistant Curator, Photographs Collection, at the National Gallery of Canada.

“The exhibition highlights the narrative side of photography because photographers have been telling stories through their photographs since the medium was invented, and of course the desire to tell a story in pictures is the very basis of the visual arts”, comments Pierre Théberge, Director of the National Gallery of Canada.

Acting the Part features more than one hundred photographs, including works by Oscar Gustave Rejlander, Julia Margaret Cameron, Lewis Carroll, Henry Peach Robinson, Man Ray, Duane Michals, Les Krims, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall, Yasumasa Morimura, Wang Qingsong and many others. The photographs are grouped under three major headings: “Actor”, “Artist” and “Storyteller”.

Among the “actors” are the Swedish photographer Gustave Rejlander, who “performs” in a photograh entitled Two Ways of Life (1857), and F. Holland Day who shocked his contemporaries at the end of the 19th century by posing as Christ in religious scenes. Almost one hundred years later, in 1988, Yasumasa Morimura mimics Manet's Olympia. Artists used staged scenes to experiment with different identities, showcase their mastery of the more complex technical aspects of the medium or, more simply, make a kind of sketch or “aide-mémoire” for to expand on later. While not all the photographs in this room are, strictly speaking, self-portraits-in some cases the work is a collaboration and in others someone else operated the camera-each scene was conceived and directed primarily by the artist. For example, the artist Marcel Duchamp portrays “Rrose” in Man Ray's photograph Rrose Sélavy (1923).

The theme of the second room, the Artist, reminds us that young artists have always learned from Great Masters by copying their works. Early photographers soon realized that photography could be used to place copies of such works within easy reach of students. They also began using actors to recreate famous paintings and sculptures. The backdrops used by fashion photographer Erwin Blumenfeld (Untitled c. 1936-40) were taken from well-known paintings. Cindy Sherman, artist and actor in her own creations, poses in recreations of several works, such as Untitled no. 223. Other artists to use this technique include Adi Nes (Untitled 1999) and Eve Sussman, whose video 89 Seconds at Alcazar contains a scene reconstructing Velázquez's masterpiece of 1656 Las Meninas (The Maids of Honour).

The exhibition's third room focuses on the theme of the Storyteller. Many Victorians expected that a photograph, like a painting, should tell a story or provide moral instruction. Consequently, scenes from literature or history were popular subjects for photographers of the period. This section presents pioneering works such as William Henry Fox Talbot's The Fruit Sellers. In the same period, Julia Margaret Cameron was creating works of high moral purpose such as Go Not Yet (1874) or Pray God, Bring Father Safely Home (1872), and Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, was composing in 1875 photographs of “tableaux vivant” such as Saint George and the Dragon. Later, in the 1940s and 1950s, the narrative photograph became an important advertising tool. Then after 1960, Duane Michals took the genre in a new direction when he posed models and himself in dramatic narratives that explored abstract subjects such as love and death.

“I am proud to say that many of these works come from the collections of the National Gallery of Canada and the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography,” says Mr. Théberge. “Needless to say, a survey of this breadth could not have been realized without the generous participation of numerous specialists and institutions. I want to thank all the project collaborators, especially the lenders, both institutional and individual.”

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue and a variety of activities, including a film series.

The exhibition is organized by the National Gallery of Canada. The Gallery wishes to thank its media partners, Télévision de Radio-Canada, CBC Television, Le Droit and The Ottawa Citizen.