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Romain Mader, Ekaterina: Mariage à Loèche-les-Bains (Marriage in Leukerbad) 2012, © Romain Mader / ECAL
Romain Mader, Ekaterina: Mariage à Loèche-les-Bains (Marriage in Leukerbad) 2012, © Romain Mader / ECAL

Discover Tate Modern's Performing For The Camera

Picture of Nalomi Kilumanga
Updated: 15 December 2016
Until June 12th 2016, Tate Modern is exhibiting Performing for the Camera, curated by Simon Baker. It investigates the relationship between performance and photography, with photographs from the invention of the camera to the emergence of social media and technology, allowing images to be captured and published instantly. Through the work of over 50 photographers from all over the world, the exhibition explores what it means to perform for the camera, and taking on the role of others. When you take a selfie, are you performing a version of yourself, for the sake of social media?

The exhibition considers the works of photographers through seven themes of performance: documentation, staging, photographic actions, performing icons, public relations, self/portrait, and performing real life. Upon entering the exhibition, visitors are introduced to the themes by the work of three photographers.

Charles Ray’s Plank piece I – II documents a split moment in time made solid by the camera. Almost in the process of balancing before falling, the photograph captures a moment that makes Ray’s actions stable and sculpture-like. The photographs embody the idea of photographic actions.

Photographs by Harry Shunk and Jean Kender document the performance that featured in Yves Klein’s photomontage, Leap Into the Void.

Aaron Siskind’s work Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation, captures divers suspended in air, with no indication to where they are, just a blank background. In twisted postures, the series of photographs combined captures a diver suspended on a blank background, no reference to space, falling, or perspective.

Documenting Performance

Documenting performance focuses on work that would have taken place even if the photographer was not present. The performance and the audience are separate from the photographer, who mostly acts as spectator in this section of the exhibition. A major part of the theme hones in on work by Harry Shunk and János Kender, two collaborators documenting the art scene from New York to Paris. They were invited to document Yves Klein’s demonstration of ‘living paintbrushes’ in his work Anthropometries of the Blue Period, where naked women directed by Yves Klein would paint themselves blue and interact with the canvas. Shunk-Kender’s body of work reflects the photographer’s eye and decisions, as they experienced the performance.

Also part of the exhibition are photographs documenting Yayoi Kusama’s Obliteration of Self, and Shunk-Kender’s documentation of Pier 18, where 27 artists were invited to showcase their work. Photographer Dan Graham photographed the surrounding areas by moving the camera along his body, taking photographs from different perspectives. The almost abstract photos are featured alongside Shunk-Kender’s objective documentation, resulting in a piece that plays on imagined views from two perspectives.

Boris Mikhailov, Crimean Snobbism, 1982 Courtesy of the artist and Sprovieri Gallery, London. © Boris Mikhailov

Boris Mikhailov, Crimean Snobbism 1982, Courtesy of the artist and Sprovieri Gallery, London © Boris Mikhailov


The theme of this part of the exhibition focuses on performances for the camera. In this section, photographs showcase collaborations with the subjects, creating performances that exist only for the camera. One of the more well-known photographers in this section is Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, also known as Nadar, active in the 19th century. Nadar would photograph celebrities, politicians, actors and artists in his studio decorated as scenes from their work or fields.

One very unique experience in the exhibition is the work of Eikoh Hosoe and Tatsumi Hijikata. The collaboration between photographer and dancer created the photobook Kamaitachi. The room which showcases their work is bright red, with an entire wall of black and white photographs. The story of kamaitachi, a spirit from Japanese folklore, is told through multiple photographs of an improvised performance in rural northern Japan. The mischievous spirit is portrayed seductively, sometimes looking into the camera, other times caught in the act. As a collaboration between photographer and subject, it stands out as one of the first to credit both as equal partners in the project.

Jimmy De Sana, Marker Cones, 1982 © Courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery, London and The Estate of Jimmy De Sana

Jimmy De Sana, Marker Cones, 1982 © Courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery, London and The Estate of Jimmy De Sana

Photographic Actions

Just as the finished work of artists and photographers can elicit emotions or convey an idea, so can the process that leads to the end result. The process of creation is showcased through the movements of the subjects and artists, laid bare through the photographer’s lens. The photographs themselves create a scene, capturing the process by the artist/photographer. Paul McCarthy’s Face painting – Floor, White Line is exhibited, where he explores photography as painting. By using his body to paint the floor and capturing the process, performing for the camera becomes painting, documented in photography.

One of the key artists reflecting photographic action in their work is Francesca Woodman. Through a series of self portraits in derelict and worn spaces, partially or entirely hidden from the camera, she taps into identity and gender questions through her work. Some photographs, accompanied with notes written by Francesca, creates a surreal sensation when accompanied by the knowledge that her body of work ended with her suicide at age 22. The photographs can be uncomfortable to the viewer; with such visceral fantasy and Francesca sometimes looking directly at the camera. Her work contains symbolism, strong and personal imagery, with blurred images from exposure and movements that embody the photographic action theme. Posed suggestively, and often merging with the space, she explored her sense of self. 

Boris Mikhailov, known for his work photographing the collapse of the Soviet Union, used the camera to investigate his own image. Posing for the camera nude, with various items in sometimes degrading positions, he criticizes his own sense of self, often comically. Placed one after the other, the actions photographed captures varied versions of Boris Mikhailov, unsure if any can truly reflect himself.

Masahisa Fukase, From Window, 1974 © Courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery, London and The Estate of Jimmy De Sana

Masahisa Fukase, From Window, 1974 © Courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery, London and The Estate of Jimmy De Sana


The self portrait theme of Performing for the Camera studies the balance between the photographer’s appearance with the inner self, expressed through the photograph. The work explores gender, self-worth, and identity. Tokyo Rumando investigates objectification and spectatorship in her series of photographs imagining other versions of herself. Sometimes sexual, dark or intimate, she places herself in front of the camera as subject of her own and others’ imagined versions of herself. The series of photographs are viewed simultaneously, as the alternate versions of Rumando sit next to each other, playing on the act of looking, as the photographs place us outside, looking in as she imagines herself, looking into a mirror.

Amalia Ulman, Excellences & Perfections (Instagram Update, 8th July 2014) ,(#itsjustdifferent) 2015 Courtesy the Artist & Arcadia Missa

Amalia Ulman, Excellences & Perfections (Instagram Update, 8th July 2014) ,(#itsjustdifferent) 2015 Courtesy the Artist & Arcadia Missa

Performing Real Life

With the emergence of easy and convenient cameras, the theme of performing real life explores the selfie and our roles in social media. Modern life has become a series of performances for the camera, as daily lives are documented online and broadcasted to  the public. Sometimes life can appear to be exaggerated, to display a version of ourselves for the sake of social media and public appearence.

Amalia Ulman used social media to delve into performance through social media by reinventing herself through a series of photos using Instagram. The transformation into an LA-based Instagram celebrity convinced everyone, and generated comments that essentially became a part of her performance. The exhibit blows up her photos from Instagram, along with platforms to view more of her series of works through the technology it was conceived by.

Another artist using photographs to perform through real life is Romain Mader. In the imaginary city Ekaterina, the work presents a fake documentary based on his experiences, turning his life into a performance. The photographs, sometimes snapshots from his travels, other times conventional photos and outdated decor, document loneliness, and the pursuit of normalcy, instead of the social awkwardness portrayed through photographs, video, and text.