Visual narratives: A critical analysis of the staged photography of Sam Taylor Wood and Tom Hunter

Sam Taylor-Wood Soliloguy I, 1998

Sam Taylor-Wood Soliloguy I, 1998

Photography has become such an bold and creative way of expressing the world around you and your thoughts. With so many genres, the art of drawing with light has become nearly impossible, taking into consideration the saturation of photography because of other art mediums (paintings, film etc). Implicitly, it has become almost impossible to turn a contemporary image into something whose resources are exclusively its own. Therefore, the image itself becomes more complex, more readable. It is up to this narrative photography to lay up a complex series of happenings by creating an intense piece of work which has got the narrative complexity of a movie As a consequence, tableaux photography, often known as narrative photography can be described as simply as contemporary art photography. This genre of photography explores the use of storytelling, it freezes a narrative into a single frame by using different props, gestures, models and location. Sometimes, narrative photography involves setting a stage on which themselves or other perform a certain story. Other times, this genre expresses a more abstract way of telling stories, letting the viewer to create connections between his physic and the photograph (Bright, 2005, p. 77-79).

Contemporary art photography has become now, widely broaden with diverse subjects. Some artists like Gregory Crew son are inspired by cinema, masterminding every detail from the photograph as directors. Some other artists, like Anna Gaskell are looking to classic literature and fables, while others, like Jeff Wall are creating tableaux to emulate reality. Thus, the ‘Tableaux Vivante’ photography is somehow inspired by everyday life and narratives. The possibilities of creating it are endless but the stories found inside them are complex and sometimes hide as much information as found in film. Tableaux photography founds its origins in the paintings of the 18th and 19th Centuries as it uses the same concept of semiotics and cultural background as found in paintings.

All its staged situations come from the variety of influences that this genre of imaging has been fed with. Carefully choreographed, artists like Cindy Sherman have been influenced by film noir in order to express narrative, while other artists, such as Tom Hunter have gone back in time and created images after the narrative found in different paintings (Bright, Cotton and Higgins 2005).

Artists who are creating the elaborate craft of photography storytelling are staging their images just like painters did or just like film directors do. Their images are incorporating a huge variety of elements such as fantasy, artifice and make-believe into their pieces of work. Then again, their complexity comes from what has already been created, but not modernized. It comes from their insides in the wish of creating more of what can remain still: photography. As Barthes (Campany, 2008, p. 135) says, an image can be filmic without actually being a film, therefore, the term narrative can be easily become more an adjective than a noun.

Throughout history, painters have made different works in order to portray stories and express well thought narratives which they had in mind. If we look at the British paintings from the 18th and 19th Century, the Pre Raphaelites Brotherhood have brought innovation in art, by focusing more on a staged narrative, rather than on the typical subjectivity of the humanism found in the paintings of the Renaissance. This revolution which has fought against the classical style of painting similar art to Michelangelo and Raphael, has stepped forward because of their deep study upon the idea of genuine expressing what is around.

Thus, my essay will document how narrative photography has been influenced by the paintings of the 18th and 19th Century. By firstly focusing on the work of Sam Taylor Wood entitled ’Soliloquy’ (1998) I will be discussing how the painting “The death of Chatterton” by Henry Walls has impacted her work, and then I will analyze how Tom Hunter was influenced by Millais painting ‘Ophelia’ in order to create his work entitled ‘The way home’ (2000).

In order to write this final essay, I have carefully studied different writings regarding contemporary art photography and paintings. Starting with Charlotte Cotton’s book, Photography as contemporary art and Susan Bright’s Art Photography Now, I will define what narrative photography is, stating its purposes and roots. In order to link my essay to paintings, I have been watching the Art Documentaries on the Pre-Raphaelites and learnt how this painters changed the perspective of narrative and how this affected the contemporary photography. Thus, I will be analyzing the work of Sam Taylor Wood and Tom Hunter, two photographers who have been influenced by the 19th Century painters.

In order to critically analyze their work, I have been looking at Tom Hunter’s introduction essay on his book “The Way Home”, an essay which also made me understand the importance of choosing to reinvestigate a certain moment in time. Finally, in order to decrypt more about the tableaux photography, I will introduce a discussion about the relationship between photography and cinema, which is another perspective of narrative photography. Apart from the books and documentaries mentioned above, I will also use as a source, David Campany’s book Photography and cinema, speaking mostly about other photographers who engaged with tableaux photography, such as Gregory Crewdson. My research will also include information from the book “Why it does not have to be in focus” (Higgins 2013), which will help me explore even further the role of narrative in contemporary art photography.

In 1848, a group of young artists called William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, have created The Pre Rapahaelite Brotherhood, which was later known as the Pre-Raphaelites. These young artists have had the intention of adding some innovation in the art which was at that time, appreciated. Having the wish of changing, the group’s intention was to reject all the art that was considered to have a mechanistic approach to the artist that came just after Raphael and Michelangelo (Mannerism). As said in the BCC 'Art Documentaries' (2009), the Pre-Raphaelites were against all the classical poses, compositions and values promoted by the art movements which existed before them and especially against the elegant compositions of Raphael, as they believed that they had a negative and corrupting influence on the academic teaching of art. Therefore, the brotherhood has started to create art which was saturated by detail, intense colour and complex compositions. With non-dogmatic principles, the group wished to determine their own ideas of depiction. They believed in freedom and responsibility as they were influenced by Romanticism but they were also particularly fascinated by medieval culture.

Their main principle was to have genuine ideas to express. In the first period of time, they were creating stories whose narrative was strictly related to religion and medieval culture, but after years, they have moved onto representing a narrative which was unseen before: the normal life of the people. Painting the urban life was a premiere as it touched a perspective which was highly controverted by the others. The “Awakening Conscience” by William Holman Hunt, for example, shows the portrait of a prostitute who is staying in the lap of a young man. The narrative behind this picture is so full of details that it shows exactly the raw side of the modern life. What is amazing and in the same time shocking about the painting, is that it does not represent a caricature of those time, but a reality of the middle class which also looks in the psychology of the prostitute. The complexity of the composition is as authentic, as a photograph, as Hunt’s eye for details is actually recording the whole room, the feelings, and the situation. As a result, the Pre-Raphaelites may be considered the fathers of narrative in modern visual art.

Nevertheless, photography today has got the same fierce eye for detail as Hunt demonstrated to have in the “Awakening Conscience”. The bond between the Pre Raphaelites and some contemporary photographers is strong and almost too obvious to not be seen. The collective consciousness of today’s day is what gives the storytelling photography that oblique and open-ended expression of something we already know, but still something that we, as viewers, will analyse from a subjective point of view, from our own unofficial knowledge of narrative and psychological thoughts. This strong relationship between the ‘tableau vivant’ and painting is something we should think about as being more of an understanding of a scene from a modern and choreographed point of view. Or with other words, a shared understanding of the same story, being told and described in two different mediums. The reason for which contemporary photographers have chosen to recreate or to be heavily influenced by the 18th and 19th Centuries paintings of narratives, has nothing to do with nostalgia revivalism. Their reason stands behind the fact that this type of paintings can be found a well-established, complex way of telling stories through the visual power of gestures, props and location (Cotton, 2004, p. 49).

In 1856, Henry Wallis, an English Pre-Raphaelite painter, finished his word ‘The Death of Chatterton’. As a part of the Pre-Raphaelite movement that was taking place at that time, his sympathy for showing modern life scenarios was present. The subject of the painting is representing the death by poisoning with arsenic of the 17 year old, early Romantic poet, Thomas Chatterton. Back in Wallis’s day, Chatterton was considered a role model, a hero for the young, struggling artists. Wallis has chosen to represent him in bold colour scheme and contrasting pallet, focusing on the details of the whole painting.

In 1998, Sam Taylor Wood, British photographer, created the ’Soliloquy I’ photograph, which represents the figure of a young man on a sofa, lying almost dead, with his hand hanging on the floor. (Cotton, 2004, p. 54) . The whole composition of the picture is similar to the one found the ‘The death of Chatterton’ by Wallis. What Wood tried to do was to preserve the ideology found in the beliefs of the hero Chatterton, the unrecognised artist, to nowadays. Her modernised staged photography, portraits the same drama while putting in light the same bold, rich colours that are found in Wallis painting. Adding to that, is obvious that Wood’s photograph references to history of art and calls to the same allusion to an enigmatic tale which responds to Wallis’s painting at a long-distance level. As she states in the Germano Celant (1998) essay/interview, she creates “an oneiric and unreal condition, the layout of the sequence is based on an open-ended and thus ambiguous search for a stance.[…], the Soliloquy series seek to create something surreal, a possible narration, so that I arrange on the set a series of individual within a setting. This coagulates their presence and links the individual units; they have their own individual characteristics, but the setting unifies them, interweaves them and gives access to the construction of a tale, which appears enigmatic and it is therefore subject, as visual representation, to the superimposition of external representation.“

Clearly, ’Soliloquy I ‘is a piece of narrative work which engages more with the complexity of the individual represented in the image. (Frieze 1999). Adding to that, the image’s narrative shows how the mimics of the individual are actually the depicting point of the image. The model poses similar to Michelangelo’s ‘Pieta’, fact which somehow suggest an allusion to Chatterton’s appurtenance to Romanticism and also because of the unfreedom expressed by the body language of the models which communicates with the psychological uncertainty of his situation.

Few years before Henry Wallis painted “The death of Chatterton”, John Everett Millais completed ‘Ophelia’. The painting shows Ophelia, from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, singing before she drowns in a river in Denmark. The painting is highly known for its detailed flora of the riverbank and for the idea which meets both growth and decay in a natural ecosystem. As a Pre-Raphaelite, Millais painted Ophelia in bright colours and gave high attention to details for the whole scene. The subject matter also covers one of the interests found in the Pre-Raphaelites group, as it depicts a woman who has lived awaiting happiness and in the end, met death. The state of the vulnerable woman is also found in the ‘Awakening Conscience’ by Hunt.

Following to that, in the year of 2000, Tom Hunter produces a series entitled “Thoughts of life and Death”, in which he presents a contemporary adaptation to the painting of the Pre-Raphaelites. In this series, he evokes the modern “Ophelia”, in his photograph entitled “The Way Home” (2000). The image is an adapted interpretation of John Everett Millais’s “Ophelia”. This piece of work portrays the death of a young woman whose journey home from a rave party, stops in a black, slippery river in an industrial motorway era, where she eventually dies. (Cotton, 2004, p. 55)

The allegory of showing the modern “Ophelia” laying in the water and metamorphosing into the nature has always been an obsession for artists. Symbolism is also clearly noticed in Hunter’s photograph as it makes a slight parallel to the artist’s background. As he states in his introduction essay (Tom Hunter, 2012) about his book “The way home”, Tom Hunter has always been influenced by the area in which he lives in. For him, Hackney represented a place which was open in accepting all its incomers as a part of its life, a place which always reinvents itself by adding new layers of culture and people on its history. Moreover, the artist recognises his massive admiration for the Dutch painter, Vermeer, who made him engage even more with the place in which he lives. “Colour and light became key to the way I looked at my neighbourhood, seducing me and taking me into a kind of meditation about my life, my way of living and the culture that surrounded me”. His well-banded connection with Hackney, as well as his appartenance in the rave culture (at that time), pushed Hunter in creating “The Way Home”. The key point however, was his fascination with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which he has had since a young age. This admiration made him to natively assign to some of their values, such as social engagement.

Like the Pre Raphaelites, Hunter is also eager to investigate and reinvestigate the beauty of nature. His ‘Ophelia’ isn’t just a simple re-make of the famous painting, but a reinvestigation and reinterpretation of what has happened before. It is a piece of work which is meant to question art in relationship to society. In depth, the reworking is nothing but a contemporary adaptation of a new drama which speaks about beauty and degradation, about abandonment and loss to music. It shows a contemporary happening, which the artist has witnessed himself during his stay in Hackney.

From a much more technical point of view, the clarity of the photography which was shot on a large-format camera, draws another parallel to Millais’s painting, as Hunter aimed to catch as many details as possible in order to come closer to the authentic painting of Ophelia. The details were again, a big characteristic for the Pre-Raphaelites, fact which was transposed into Hunter’s work as well. Carefully analysing Hunter’s photograph, we can see that historical visual motifs are represented in a modern photography, which acts as a confirmation for the influence that historical pieces of art still have on the contemporary art.

Therefore, as stated in my introduction, there is no such thing as a truly authentic piece of narrative photography, as they all have some sort of influences that came from other parts. In Hunter case, this ‘tableau Viviane’ is an adaptation of an ancient story which was simply brought to life by adapting it to a situation which is more likely to happen nowadays.

The diversity and complexity that can be found in narrative photography is fabulous. Its springs are full of detailed composition, making this genre to be the most powerful type of photography. Narrative photography is a series of moments which are freeze in a constructed set in order to tell a story. As David Company (2008) says: “To stage an image is to rupture that continuum, producing a photograph as imaginary as it is lucid”. Some other photographers are to be mentioned when speaking about staged photography: Cindy Sherman or Gregory Crewdson are also good example to mark the diversity and the influences that staged photography has sucked from our culture. While Cindy Sherman has been staging herself mimicking the iconography of cinema until she succeeded to achieve a perfectly acted photograph, Gregory Crewdson looked at a better elaborated narrative. His pictures are crystallizing a perfect film set, which leads us in calling his art, ‘cinematic’.

The actors he uses together with the lighting and set are making his art be like a movie in pictures. (Campany, 2008) Therefore, staged photography has got different ways of telling stores, as each artist has got different approaches to narrative.

As a conclusion, art can also influence the creation of a certain photographs. It challenges the idea of recreating what others have done in the past. It is a recreation which comes from the thirst of contemporary artists which feel that the adaptation of an old artwork might question the importance of art in society and might also adapt with their inner feelings of expression. Both Sam Taylor Wood and Tom Hunter have been heavily influenced by the Pre Raphaelites and have been using their admiring in order to express their contemporary views.

Tom Hunter The Way Home 2000



Bright, Susan. Art Photography Now. Print.

Campany, David. Photography And Cinema. London: Reaktion, 2008. Print.

Cotton, Charlotte. The Photograph As Contemporary Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2004. Print.

Higgins, Jackie. Why It Does Not Have To Be In Focus. Print.


Tom Hunter,. N.p., 2016. Web. 22 Feb. 2016.

Design, Erskine. "Frieze Magazine | Archive | Making A Drama Out Of A Crisis". N.p., 2016. Web. 22 Feb. 2016.

1st ed. Germano Celant/Sam Taylor Wood, 1998. Web. 22 Feb. 2016.

Video documentaries:

Art Documentaries,. All The Episodes. 2013. Web. 22 Feb. 2016.


Sam Taylor Wood, Soliloguy I,. 1998. Print.

Tom Hunter, The Way Home,. 2000. Print.

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