Art & Culture - October 6th 2021

The Art of Illusion:
Cinematic Photography

Written by
Eloise Rattle

Since the late 20th century, photographers have been unearthing what lies between fiction and reality. Unlike its siblings, painting and film, photography has the unique ability to depict both people and places as they are in real life. Artists such as Gregory Crewdson, Alex Prager, Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall are famed for using this to their advantage. These artists construct theatrical representations of reality by focusing on the interplay between quotidian subjects in surreal circumstances. At the heart of cinematic photography is this capacity to manipulate authentic scenes into narrative dramas.


Fig. 1. — Tiffany, 2009, Alex Prager — Courtesy of Lehmann Maupin 


Cinematic conventions are a crucial quality for fine art photographers working in this style. A central element for the practice is the elaborate staging that is involved. Gregory Crewdson's twenty-piece suite of photographs, Beneath the Roses (2003-2008), was executed with all the resources of the film industry, from lighting to sets, actors, costumes and crewmembers. The artist employed a crew of over a hundred - not unlike great masters such as Titian, who relied on large workshops and studio assistants to create their masterpieces.

Red Star Express, 2018–19, Gregory Crewdson, digital pigment print. 56 1/4 x 94 7/8 inches. Courtesy Gagosian.

Inside the Uncanny

Crewdson's panoramic images have an atmosphere of tangible melancholy. Strange, lonely inhabitants haunt the scenes, embodying and exploring the remote corners of the human psyche. The artist's earlier work, including Beneath the Roses, is decidedly theatrical, utilizing impeccably detailed sets to depict eerie American towns and interiors. He furnishes his scenes with the debris and paraphernalia of middle-class life. For all their complex staging, Crewdson's fabricated worlds are intensely realistic.

Behind the Scenes for Trailer Park, 2007 © Gregory Crewdson.

Make of It What You Will

The cinematic, theatrical style of these images indeed invites a sense of visual narrative. Therefore, the viewer interrogates the scene, seeking clues to answer all the questions we feel are entitled to us: Who is this? What are they doing here? Where are we? and so on. Unlike a written narrative or a motion picture, these questions go unanswered. Crewdson presents enigmatic narrative suggestions, making us believe there must be an underlying story, or at least some explanation, only to leave us stood in the dark. The artist's open-ended images are lingering, not granting us the satisfaction of closure. In this way, Crewdson's artworks transcend the physical boundaries of the photographs, gallery walls and computer screens to exist as an enduring human experience. Like director Christopher Nolan's iconic, non-linear storytelling, we are encouraged to appreciate Crewdson's artwork for what it is – not what it means.

Animating Secret Stories with Photography

Photography, film and literature are all excellent storytelling vehicles and tell a tale in different ways. For example, an advantage of the written word is describing multiple scenes or subjects and depicting both visual and cerebral elements. The stories feature in Please Don't Tell combines the visual impact of cinematic photography with engaging descriptions.

Who that?, Jean Malek (Oxycontin Blues) Limited Edition – Archival pigment printed on pure cotton fine art paper,  67 x 48 inches.
©2019 Jean Malek. Courtesy Please Don't Tell

Read this Secret Story
Buy this Artwork

Please Don't Tell's secret stories, specializes in constructing unique narratives brought to life by a series of theatrically staged photographs influenced by artists such as Prager and Crewdson. The Secret Stories follow the lives of vibrant fictional characters who personify and satirize various tropes and themes of corporate America. However, their stories are not confined to the editorial, as each photograph exists as an independent work of art available for purchase. Although whole in the editorial, the lives and narratives of these individuals are disjointed, branching off to different places with endless possibilities for where they might end up.

Beauty and the Bizarre

The quirks and foibles of American culture are examined by Alex Prager in her films and photography series. Like Crewdson, Prager conceives ornately staged sets for her shots, appearing more like film stills than individual photographs. She has attributed inspiration for this style of work to artists and directors including Cindy Sherman, Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Douglas Sirk. Prager’s characters are so fantastically unique that our imagination continues their stories outside the frame.

Alex Prager, Crowd 9 (Sunset Five), 2013, Archival Pigment Print

Inspired by mid-twentieth century cinema, Prager's elaborate sets reimagine Golden Age Hollywood. Arguably her most iconic skill is utilizing crowds of people to highlight humanity's individuality, as seen in Welcome Home. This thought may seem paradoxical; however, it makes perfect sense when looking at her images. Where Crewdson alienates his figures within barren landscapes, Prager portrays the poignancy of anonymity in a crowd. Although caught in the same mayhem in Welcome Home, each individual responds very differently – some scream whilst others stand motionless.

A Cacophony of Colour

Prager's images are super-saturated and enhanced in post-production, ensuring images that positively vibrate with colour. Behind the tableaux's technicolour exterior lies an uncomfortable undercurrent. Prager's scenes ripple with impending or current disaster, threatening her perfect dystopias. Welcome Home is almost a visual assault – we hardly know where to look as we try to make sense of a flying cat, a man brandishing a mammoth Coca-Cola bottle and a woman drinking Jack Daniels in a wheelbarrow. As strange as these subjects are, the combination of pandemonium with calm gives Prager's image a psychological depth. Eerie moments of stillness exist amongst this confusing narrative engulfed in billowing smoke. Various characters in the scene are oblivious to the surrounding commotion. In the centre is a glamorously stylized woman, staring out past the frame, lost in her thoughts - or maybe she has seen something more sinister in the distance. To the right is a man to whom nothing is more important than his adult magazine, blissfully ignorant to the ensuing panic.

Rachel & Friends. 2009, Alex Prager — Courtesy of Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong, Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York and M+B Gallery, Los Angeles

The art of illusion is central to both Prager and Crewdson's work. Props, sets and actors form the basis of a hyperreality. Although commonly used, these artists stray from the obviously excessive tricks of CGI and Photoshop to make their illusions as believable as possible. It is the making of something extraordinary out of the ordinary that makes their work so tirelessly intriguing. These artists conjure dystopian scenarios that push the boundaries of our understanding whilst exposing the corners of humanity that, perhaps, we would prefer to hide.

︎ Please visit the Please Don't Tell stories section to read tales written by key contributors and learn more about the publication. To see some more examples of cinematic photography, here is a selection of works available to browse.