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Press release

Grand Illusions: Staged Photography
from The Met Collection

Grand Illusions: Staged Photography from the Met Collection

August 10, 2015—January 18, 2016

Installation Location: The Howard Gilman Gallery, Gallery 852

Photographers, like ventriloquists, can cast “voices” in a seemingly infinite number of genres and period styles. This does not negate the camera’s direct relationship to the world—tying image to subject as naturally as a footprint—but instead reveals that photographs are always admixtures of fiction and reality tilted toward one end of the scale or the other. Grand Illusions: Staged Photography from The Met Collection, a survey of 40 photographs spanning the first 170 years of the medium, focuses on the ways in which artists have staged and composed images so that the imaginary is pictured as if it were real. The installation will explore photography’s relationship with other mediums such as literature and film, as well as its persuasive powers when used in advertising.

Among the highlights of Grand Illusions is Pierre-Louis Pierson's Fright (1861-64), one of the many portraits Pierson made in collaboration with Virginia Verasis, Countess of Castiglione, between 1856 and 1867. In this unique painted photograph, the countess gave explicit directions to the painter Aquilin Schad about how to embellish the scene in which she is depicted fleeing from a conflagration during a ball. Other highlights of the show include Lewis Carroll’s tableau vivant, Saint George and the Dragon, (1875); René Magritte’s sinister staged snapshot La Mort des fantômes (The Death of Ghosts) (1928); Ralph Bartholomew Jr.’s Eastman Kodak advertisement (1946–52), which was used in a marketing campaign targeting American teenagers; and Laurie Simmons’s wistful image of the miniature world of a doll house in First Bathroom/Woman Standing (1979).

Raised on the fictions of postwar consumer culture, the contemporary artists included in the survey use the assumed truthfulness of photography against itself to question how we think we know the world, the past, and ourselves. The installation leaves off at the end of the analog era, bringing the viewer to the precipice of a brave new world of digital manipulation that is bound to become ever more seamless to the naked eye. 

Grand Illusions: Staged Photography from The Met Collection is organized by Doug Eklund, Curator, and Beth Saunders, Curatorial Assistant, both of the Museum’s Department of Photographs. 

The exhibition will be featured on the Museum’s website, as well as on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter via the hashtag #MetGrandIllusions. 

August 4, 2015

Image: Pierre-Louis Pierson; Aquilin Schad. La Frayeur (Fright), 1861-64. Salted paper print with gouache. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, The Camille M. Lownds Fund, Joyce F. Menschel Gift, Louis V. Bell and 2012 Benefit Funds, and C. Jay Moorhead Foundation Gift, 2015.

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