A tableau vivant, translating from French as ’living picture,’ captures a still moment featuring one or more actors or models. Typically drawing from fables, fairy tales, modern myths, and apocryphal events ingrained in our collective psyche, these scenes are static and silent, adorned in costume, meticulously arranged with props and scenery, and often illuminated in a theatrical manner. Originating as a popular medieval art form, tableau vivant experienced a resurgence in the nineteenth century, likely spurred by the advent of photography. The narrative often unfolds within a single image, which may be part of a series, choreographed to engage the viewer through recognizable motifs, symbols, or props, evoking memories or emotional responses.

During an era when photography remained a luxury, tableau vivant thrived at the lavish English country house parties of the affluent. Queen Victoria embraced this art form early on, though solely as an audience member. In the mid-1850s, her children took center stage, performing tableaux to commemorate their parents’ 14th wedding anniversary in 1854. By the 1890s, these presentations grew increasingly elaborate, exemplified by Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught and Strathearn, his spouse, and their three children posing for a Japanese Scene in 1891. Tableaux gained popularity at community events and festivals, often featuring children who would parade before assuming their tableau positions for both audience and camera.

In 1989, Jean-François Chevrier pioneered the use of the term “tableau” in the context of contemporary art photography in his essay “The Adventures of the Picture Form in the History of Photography.” This marked the inception of a movement that emerged during the 1970s and 1980s. Although the initial translation of Chevrier’s text substituted the English word ‘picture’ for the French term ’tableau,’ Michael Fried opted to retain the French term in his references to Chevrier’s essay. Fried argued in 2008 that there is no direct English translation for “tableau” in this specific context. He emphasized that while ‘picture’ is a similar term, it lacks the nuanced connotations of constructedness and intellectual engagement that the French word conveys.

The key characteristics of the contemporary photographic tableau according to Chevrier are, firstly:

  • They are designed and produced for the wall. summoning a confrontational experience on the part of the spectator that sharply contrasts with the habitual processes of appropriation and projection whereby photographic images are normally received and “consumed”. By this, Chevrier notes that scale and size are obviously important if the pictures are to “hold the wall”. But size has another function; it distances the viewer from the object, requiring one to stand back from the picture to take it all in. This “confrontational” experience, Fried notes, is actually quite a large break from the conventional reception of photography, which up to that point was often consumed in books or magazines.

  • The photographic tableau has its roots not in the theatrical tableau vivant but in pictorialist photography, such as that of Alfred Stieglitz, a movement with its roots in Aestheticism, which already made heavy use of the tableau as a non-theatrical visual art style. Pictorialism, according to Jeff Wall could be seen as an attempt by photographers to imitate painting (perhaps unsuccessfully). Pictorialist photography was dazzled by the spectacle of Western painting and attempted, to some extent, to imitate it in acts of pure composition. Lacking the means to make the surface of its pictures unpredictable and important, the first phase of Pictorialism, Stieglitz’s phase, emulated the fine graphic arts, re-invented the beautiful look, set standards for the gorgeousness of composition, and faded.

However, photography did have the ability to become unpredictable and spontaneous. This was achieved by making photographs related to the inherent capabilities of the camera itself. And this, Wall argues, was a direct result of photojournalism, and the mass media and pop culture industries.

By divesting itself of the encumbrances and advantages inherited from older art forms, reportage, or the spontaneous fleeting aspect of the photographic image pushes toward the discovery of qualities apparently intrinsic to the medium, qualities that must necessarily distinguish the medium from others and through the self-examination of which it can emerge as a modernist art on a plane with others.

The argument is that, unlike most other art forms, photography can profit from the capture of chance occurrences. Through this process—the snapshot, the “accidental” image—photography invents its own concept of the picture: a hybrid form of the “Western picture” (pictorialist photography) and the spontaneous snapshot. This is the stage whereby Wall argues that photography enters a “modernist dialectic”. Wall states that unpredictability is key to modern aesthetics. This new concept of the picture, which Wall proposes, with the compositional aspects of the Western picture combined with the unpredictability that the camera affords through its shutter, can be seen in the work of many contemporary photographic artists, including Luc Delahaye, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, Irene Caesar, and Philip-Lorca diCorcia.

The tableau as a form still dominates the art photography market. As Fried notes: “Arguably the most decisive development in the rise of the new art photography has been the emergence, starting in the late 1970s and gaining impetus in the 1980s and after, of what the French critic Jean-François Chevrier has called the “tableau form”.

However, there appears to be only a handful of young, emerging artists working within the tableau form. Examples include Florian Maier Aichen, Matthew Porter and Peter Funch. More recently, Canadian artist Sylvia Grace Borda has worked since 2013 to continue to stage tableaux for the camera within the Google Street View engine. Her work creates 360° immersive tableau vivant images for the viewer to explore. Through her efforts to pioneer the tableaux vivant for online exploration, she and her collaborator, John M. Lynch, won the Lumen Prize 2016 for Web Arts.

One of the most prolific users of the tableau is Jeff Wall whose images are created from scenes he has witnessed or memories, these he meticulously recreates. Wall’s exhibition ‘Tableaux Pictures Photographs’ 1996-2013 we see images such as ‘Flooded Grave’ in which an open grave has been filled with water and sea life, such as starfish and sea urchins. This is typical of the way in which Wall plays with the tension between the real and the unreal. For Wall, it is the way in which we will voids with our daydreams, in our daydreams we see what isn’t there. When exhibiting his work, Wall uses large light boxes to display his colour images, giving them a luminosity that adds a hyper-real quality to them which in turn confronts the viewer with the drama in front of them. The images become more than a photo and more akin to a lit stage. Wall a postgraduate in art history has a deep understanding of how space is full of relationships and how to construct a visual scene for the viewer.

For his tableau, the British photographer Tom Hunter reworks the images created by Victorian painters such as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, especially in his series ‘Thoughts of Life and Death’. One image from this series ‘The Way Home’ 2000, is a direct translation of John Everett Millais’s ‘Ophelia’ (1851-52) which depicts the tragic character from Shakespeare’s play ‘Hamlet’. In Hamlet, the drowning of Ophelia is not actually acted out on stage but rather delivered in poetic verse by Queen Gertrude. In Millais’s painting, he has depicted the moment Ophelia has fallen from the broken branch into the brook and begins to sink without a struggle, with calmness upon her facial expression. The artist gives form to the poetic description beautifully. As with Millais’s painting, Hunter’s image is rich in detail showing the English landscape however brings this into a contemporary setting by the inclusion of a metal footbridge and rooftops of modern housing. The use of a deadpan expression on the figure’s face engenders in the viewer a sense of anxiety and uncertainty about the context or meaning, resulting in the viewer questioning the scene before them.

Gregory Crewdson also adapts the Millais painting for his own narrative in his ‘The Twilight’ series. ‘Untitled’ (Ophelia) 2001. Whereas Hunter depicts a girl who drowned on her way home from a club, Crewdson’s image shows his Ophelia as a typical American suburban housewife laying lifeless in a flooded home. In the documentary ‘The Aesthetics of Repression’ (2004), Crewdson discusses his interests in the psychology underlying the American suburban experience. As a side note, Crewdson’s father was a psychiatrist who had his office in the basement of their family home, a motif that appears in many forms of his images. Each tableau that Crewdson creates is akin to the elaborate blockbuster movie sets, using huge teams to create scenes of suburban life within the studio. The use of large sets and actors gives his images the appearance of movie stills, frozen scenes of action. Influenced by artists and movie directors such as Hopner, Spielberg and Hitchcock, Crewdson’s images have a dramatic almost sinister nature to them.

Often tableaux photography will employ pictorial devices to throw questions and a sense of the unknown about the meaning or context. Such devices are often subtle as a turned head, figures facing away from the viewer or a deadpan expression. As with each of these photographers, within my own practice, I have experimented with how the image is choreographed, dressing the set, lighting and how the figure is represented within the image. When looking at the space within an image I feel that in order to give the space meaning there needs to be a human presence. If there isn’t someone there to experience the space does the space exist? The use of tableau photography in my practice is a clear method to illustrate this.