Acting the Part.
A History of Staged Photography.

Edited by Lori Pauli. Numerous contributing photographers.
Merrell, London / New York, 2006. 176 pp., 54 b&w and 60 color illustrations, 9¼x11¼".

Acting the Part: Photography as Theatre is described as, "the first major history of staged photography." This wide-ranging overview explores theatricality and narrative as vital impulses within photography with a historical continuum that has largely been ignored. The book creates a situation in which Rejlander's Poor Jo (1862) shares a page with a billboard inkjet print of video stills from the 21st century. Acting the Part includes four scholarly essays that explore diverse aspects of the directorial mode. Editor Lori Pauli explores staged practice throughout the history of the medium under the groupings actor, artist and storyteller. The relationship between image and text is a bit strained in the first section as the reading sometimes refers to images 60 pages further along. Marta Weiss explores the social activities of making, displaying and posing for staged photographs in the Victorian album. Ann Thomas considers the slightly ironic emergence of the staged photograph within the antipictorial Modernist program. Karen Henry provides contemporary examples in a rich theoretical stew of the uncertainty of appearances. The book ambitiously oscillates between breadth and depth. Tracing the genre through history makes refreshing, wide-sweeping connections that cross stylistic, material and generational divides. As befitting a genre survey, any number of the topics, including the role of staging in journalism and advertising, could produce an offshoot a mile long. Yet, I was left with the desire that either the essays should talk with one another more for continuity's sake, or there should be more discrete essays included, à la Frizot's A New History of Photography. Call me greedy. In terms of the images included, the book strikes a healthy balance between the surprising and the familiar. With juicy footnotes and copious color reproductions, it also includes biographies of artists and suggestions for further reading. A worthy resource in its own right, Acting the Part is an even better launching pad. From Bayard's Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man to the contemporary "indecisive moment" which abounds in Crewdson books and graduate student studios, the thread of the theatrical supports a wealth of practice and research reaching well beyond this publication. JULIE ANAND

This review was originally published in the Fall 2006 issue of the photo-eye Booklist. To learn more about the Booklist click here.
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