Michael Fried: The Tableau


Michael Fried begins the chapter with the statement that the tableau form is “arguably the most decisive development in the rise of new art photography…”. What this means is that all of a sudden in the late 1970’s and 1980’s we have a major shift from photographs that are small, portable, and intimately viewed, to photographs that are made for the wall and provide a largely confrontational experience for their audience. Viewers are no longer just looking at a photograph in relation to its content or subject matter, but they are viewing the photograph and its relation to space, light, and vision.


The term “tableau” was coined by a French art historian and art critic, Jean-Francois Chevrier, from his book The Adventures of the Tableau Form in the History of Photography. Like I stated previously, Chevrier defines the tableau by being “designed and produced for the wall”. Meaning that these photographs cannot be collected and stored in a box, and how this sharply contrasts with how we usually experience photographs, i.e in magazines and books (especially now on our smartphones). He says, “The photographers of today who consider themselves and manifest themselves as artists – taking into consideration the public space in which they exhibit – can no longer merely ‘take’ pictures; they must cease them to exist, concretely, give them the weight and gravity, within an actualized perceptual space, of an ‘object of  thought’”. He also states that even if these photographs are returning to the formalist ideas of painting, it is not to elevate photographic art to the level of painting, it is about creating a more fragmented, open, and contradictory viewing experience.


The first photographer Fried references in relation to  his ideas about the tableau is Thomas Ruff. In Ruff’s early work, shown here, he photographed his friends and colleagues on colored backdrops with a view camera and a single flash. Focused on eliminating any sense of the personal psychology of any of his sitters, he photographed them as “busts” (from the shoulders up) and encouraged them to give as neutral expressions as possible.  Ruff is quoted saying “photographs show only the surface of things anyway”, so basically what’s the point? Fried references an interview in which Ruff answered questions in a very matter of fact and brash way. He’s probed to answer why he wants to frustrate viewers by not giving them hints as to who these people are, he says, “Do they want to know the person’s name, address, or what they do for a living, or do they want to know something about their inner lives? What good would that do?” THE TABLEAU (4)

As his work progresses, Ruff makes the leap to producing large “tableau” style prints, which Fried credits to Jeff Wall making his lightbox images at this time, which he suggests, probably inspired Ruff. In the chapter, this work is referred to as “monumental icons of blankness”; a huge amount of detail in the subject, but at the same, revealing nothing about any one of these subjects. Fried brings up the term “facingness” to identify the extremely frontal expression from these subjects- with this large-scale “facingness”, and lack of psychological representation, we relate to these photos more as surfaces rather than subjects- which, falling in line more with painting, abstracts and confuses our idea of what portrait photography should do (usually, to discover some social identity) and absolutely supports Freud’s ideas around tableau photography.


Fried spends a fair amount of time comparing Ruff’s portraits to those by Manet. In the same way Ruff want’s his photographs to just be thought of as photographs, Manet’s portraits directly reference painting in the way you can see the brush strokes, and line qualities. They both represent anonymous subjects, and draw attention directly back to their medium. While Fried doesn’t want to compare these two too closely, he wants to acknowledge the importance of the roles they played in their separate movements: Manet for modernist painting, and Ruff for the rise in large scale art photography.


In Ruff’s other work, we see the same themes at work. The frontal quality of his subjects, the “facingness” as Fried says, and so detached and objective that they become mere shells of the objects we would normally identify with, and in this sense, abstracted. THE TABLEAU (7)

Fried spends the majority of this chapter talking about Andreas Gursky. Gursky is a year younger than Ruff, and studied at the same school. THE TABLEAU (8)

There are some definite aesthetic themes running through Gursky’s work, one of which, is Fried’s own term of “anti theatricality” (as in the subjects are unaware of the photographer). Fried also discusses the hyper-distance between Gursky and his “subjects”, if you can call them that, so much so that the viewer does not feel a connection to any of them. Fried references a time when Gursky, only after seeing his printed images, did he realize that there were hikers on the landscape that he did not previously notice. Fried calling this, “the oldest, simplest, and most rewarding pleasures of photography”- the discovery that the camera can capture subject matter that the human eye does not identity at the time of the exposure. This distance is key to Gursky’s work: he severs the relationship between subject and beholder, and there are simultaneously microscopic and macroscopic elements- tiny figures that require close examination, and expansive landscapes that require the viewer to step back to take it all in. THE TABLEAU (9)

In addition, his unusually high vantage point not only drives home the importance of distance (both physical and psychological) but also completely assuring the viewer that it would be impossible for his subjects to be aware that they are being photographed (aka anti theatricality). THE TABLEAU (10)

The next phase of Gursky’s development, Fried argues is another major development in art photography, is the move towards “all-overness”. Still having small figures in the frame, but having them fill the frame in a chaotic and dense mass. While the photographs seemingly represent a whole world, Fried notes that we are far from a part of that world. Fried cites an art critic, Galassi, when he says, “We may study its details at our leisure, we may even elect ourselves to sit in judgement upon it, but we will never become participants”.


Fried notes that the act of seeing is directly emphasized in all of Gursky’s work. We able to see things because of the photograph that we wouldn’t be able to see with our eyes, and this is different from anything previously known. Fried argues that with the lack of emphasis on the photographer as well as the viewer, the photograph can truly become abstract, “where abstraction stands not simply for the subordinate of subject matter to compositional principles, but rather for the picture’s exclusive preoccupation with its own inner purposes, whatever they may be”.  THE TABLEAU (12)

Lastly, we have Luc Delahaye. He is a photojournalist turned fine art photographer, and similar to Ruff and Gursky, Delahaye uses a view camera to produce large-scale photographs, and emphasizes the importance of distance and psychological detachment. He started photographing the Parisian homeless population, but would look away at the time of the exposure, while they were alone in a photobooth. More recently, he makes expansive and almost panoramic war style photographs, but is such a great distance away from anything that would of interest to a photojournalist, and he often digitally composites elements from various photos. THE TABLEAU (13)

Again, like Ruff and Gursky, he faults on the side of being overly objective, and thus faces the criticism of being distant and emotionally detached when depicting such controversial subject matter. Delahaye says, “I am cold and detached, sufficiently invisible because sufficiently insignificant, and that is how I arrive at a presence to things, and a simple direct relation to the real.” Fried suggests that we should feel disturbed by the the details found in the scene- the way a piece of straw falls across the dead soldier’s face. Delahaye presents a wealth of information in the frame, but leaves it up to the viewer to what he/she wants to focus on, and wants to become as invisible in the process as possible and also wants to appear indifferent. THE TABLEAU (14)

To wrap up, Clement Greenberg says photography is the most transparent of the art mediums. Greenberg says that this is why it’s so difficult to make the photograph transcend its almost inevitable function as a document and act as a work of art as well. The viewer wants to see directly through the surface to the “real” subject matter, unlike in painting where the surface is inevitably seen first. I’ll quote Fried in the concluding section when he says, “the function of the tableau form has been to counteract or compensate for the transparence of the photographic surface by keeping the viewer at a distance from the latter, not just physically… but also imaginatively.”


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