Since the photograph was first hailed as an inherently realistic medium, photographic style has oscillated between meticulous composition and serendipitous capture. That initial confidence fluttered as photographers discovered early methods of manipulation and mimicked painting styles to self-consciously declare artistic merit. The pendulum swung back with the advent of portable cameras that snap shots without subjects’ knowledge; having the option to do so, photographers cherished dirty, grimy, “real” life. Then, again, as artists’ philosophical arguments became more nuanced to accommodate the demand for continual novelty in expressive forms, Roland Barthes argued that the naturalization of photographic reproductions “masks the ideological manipulation behind the image,” resulting in a false “facticity.”
Though it is still a broadly effective categorization, photography is not so consumed by this dichotomy as it has been. Arguments about authenticity instead evaluate the faithfulness of the reproduction, where faithfulness can variably mean technical accuracy and semiotic accuracy. Instead, different fields embrace the degree of artifice that best suits their needs. Jada White’s Snakes Motto is firmly a staged composition. Elsewise known as tableaux vivants, staged compositions are advantaged in producing attractive images that communicate a singular message. This does not mean that serendipitous snapshots are any less deliberate; many of Vulgaris’ serials manufacture coherent emotive appeal with creative manipulations.
Having the option, most tableaux pay great attention to every aspect of the photograph. Often, the purpose is to contrast the fantastic nature of the subjects with a quotidian background, or to craft an objectively striking scene. Using young, attractive models, soft, multi-point lighting, passive fabrics, and a plain background is what sets Snakes Motto apart from most other staged compositions. Take, for example, Future Blue is Waiting for You by Ole Marius Joergensen. Joergensen uses the entire depth and breadth of the image, and its relation to adjacent images, to communicate a coherent narrative. Conversely, White’s plainness relinquishes a source of semiotic power. We must turn instead to what little we have left: staged forms that reside outside the realm of fine art.
Unlike many staged compositions that emulate real life, White does not attempt to pass off her images as serendipitous captures. Instead, she reproduces common elements of fashion photography, definitively a staged form, to amplify her message. Aside from similarities imparted by mood, White’s models (in both senses) impart fashion’s coveted aloofness via confident vulnerability, and that possessiveness matched only by dependence. If not for the polluted skin hinting at outwardly-expressed internal corruption, Snakes Motto would belong in a Fall-Winter catalogue instead of Vulgaris.
The models’ diseased features rearrange these symbolic associations in the context of some more ascetic, distant photographic field. Aloofness and guarded vulnerability turn to injury, shame, and desperation when the subject of medical examination. The boy who turns his chin up to the camera is not doing so out of a misplaced attempt at aggression, but is compelled to display the full extent of his infection. The girl who pollutes the boy is not sexually dominating him, but exhibiting symptoms of an infectious disease that drives her to seek out victims. The racial implications are unavoidable, but we see no maliciousness in her face. She is seductive, but any expected trace of villainy instead turns out to be a silent challenge to the viewer, as if she dares them to cure her. White’s models-turned-patients carry a disease of the soul, born of falsity, envy, and pride, upon their most intimate features.
The model-patient is not just a rhetorical form, but itself a poignant duality. Perhaps we should not have so easily discarded with White’s subjects standing in for real social actors. The socialite-model-patient on White’s stage is the codex for decoding the Snakes Motto:
“It is a series inspired by the lies people tell in order to keep a certain image in society. I played on the idea of what it would look like if someone had been caught in their lie without knowing. I am also looking at the human condition and why we create fake lives that seem more entertaining for an outsider’s benefit. I had the snake skin represent the snake in ‘Adam and Eve’ to not only call upon the sin of lying but also question the ethical dilemmas of mankind’s curiosity.”