May 23, 2005

Staged photos evoke empathy from viewers

Artists in U of I exhibit provide powerful studies of how emotions are perceived.
Source: DesMoines Register
Written By Amanda Pierre

A woman looks out a window, and sweat appears on her forehead.

A monkey-like creature is bound and tied to a boy on a tricycle, with his mouth wide open.

A man faces a woman on a couch, but she faces away and fumbles with her coffee cup.

These are photographs in the exhibit “Acting Out: Invented Melodrama in Contemporary Photography,” on view at the University of Iowa Museum of Art. Lacking words or other context, they provide case studies about the power of photography.

Each of the 32 images in the show gives viewers just a snapshot, but each is full of information, or cues purposely given by the artists.

The exhibit’s curator, Kathy Edwards of the University of Iowa Museum of Art, wants people to think about how, especially in the age of reality TV, we can be manipulated by what we see.

“We as viewers understand images, especially photographic images, psychologically, through our unconscious understanding of what melodrama is,” Edwards said. “Certain kinds of human expressions, especially on the face, we immediately understand as relating to emotion.”

A facial expression, a stance, or a situation caught in a photo, therefore, can be powerfully affecting, and powerfully deceptive.

We are trained to understand, for instance, that a sweating woman at a window is fraught with worry, or that a bound creature is in some kind of danger, or that a man and a woman alone in a room are a couple.

The 14 artists who have works in this exhibit, including Cindy Sherman, Gregory Crewdson, Yinka Shonibare and Iowa native Anna Gaskell, are keenly aware that what we deduce from a vacant stare, a posture, a look or an arrangement of items can influence our emotions. So they produce feelings of fear, anxiety or wonder, using cues like sweat on the forehead or a mouth that appears to be screaming.

But all of the photos in this exhibit are staged episodes or scenarios. They used props, Photoshop, actors, models, even homeless people.

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