Giant Hats And Artificial Grace

Gibson Girl hat pin detailAlthough I love hats, I rarely wear them, partly because they're overly warm for Southern California and partly because when you need them most they have an annoying habit of blowing off. I always wondered what people did about sudden gusts in the days when hats were more common--especially at the turn of the 20th century, when women's hats were huge.  I always assumed that the answer lay, as this detail from a Charles Dana Gibson illustration suggests, in large hat pins that firmly attached the latest styles to the period's similarly oversized hairdos.

But it turns out the real answer lies in another characteristic of the Gibson Girl: her existence not in real life but in pen and ink. The styles of the past look graceful because we know them from glamorous still images, in which a perfect moment has been captured and refined.

As this video from 1903 shows, in the real past, people did what they do today: They grabbed their hats and held them down, sometimes without success. The past wasn't more graceful than the present. The flaws have just been edited out.

Desiring The Unobtainable: Gowns Made Of Paper

Unobtainium. The exotic, unobtainable, and probably mythic substance sought by scientists that would make a resounding breakthrough and success of the scientific endeavor at hand. Borrowing that concept from science, it’s interesting to realize that some of the glamorous things we desire give a convincing illusion of attainability but are, instead, wholly unobtainable.

De Borchgrave dressConsider Belgian artist Isabelle de Borchgrave’s elaborate gowns copied from some 300 years of high fashion, ca. late 17th to the early 20th century. Even the most elaborate of original fabric gowns from those eras are, theoretically, wearable. Certainly recreatable, in approximate respects. But de Borchgrave’s gowns are made of papier-mâché! Life-size, three-dimensional, authentic-looking gowns, robes, and jackets. And shoes – delightful faux-brocade pumps and slippers.

A close look at these gowns, featured in Prêt-à-Papier: The Exquisite Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave, a recent exhibit at the Hillwood Estate in Washington, D.C., revealed the intricate workmanship of the drape, prints, trims, and ornamentation. The heavy drape of an opulent taffeta, perhaps. The gossamer lightness of voile. The impressive illusion of fabric fitted atop hoops and panniers. In certain respects, the de Borchgrave gowns are perhaps more impressive than the originals in that the artist had to not only design, cut and assemble the gowns but also fashion and paint the “fabric.” Each piece is painstakingly crushed, ironed, painted, cut, and constructed. It looks just as if a wearer could be fitted into these splendid fashions by a lady’s maid, or more simply slip into one of the sheath 1920s frocks by Poiret, Lanvin, and Redfern of London. (Virginia wrote about a 2009 exhibit of de Borchgrave's Italian Renaissance gowns here.)De Borchgrave 1920s paper dresses based on originals by Poiret, Lanvin, and Redfern of London

Papier-mâché can be made into wearable, if not especially durable, costumes and masks. The de Borchgrave gowns were not made for that.

Yet, one wants to wear these dresses, designed, as they originally were, for human beings - or at least see someone else wear them. File under “impossible fantasy” because, alas, they are fantasies made of papier-mâché.

(For another, more conceptual take on paper fashion, see also: Petra Storrs on Pinterest and YouTube.)

Distant, But Not Inconceivable: James Bond And Glamour's Escapist Balance

In a survey of the James Bond movies, pegged to the opening of Skyfall, Slate's Isaac Chotiner points to a quality essential to 007's appeal:

James Bond is not a “realistic” character; real people occasionally smile. But he is a compelling and distinct one. With the right leading man, Bond is just human enough to be believable—and yet sufficiently aloof and suave to appear mostly untroubled by the world’s real worries. He thus provides just the right amount of escapism. The best fantasies are those that appear not entirely unattainable.

This observation offers an insight into why Bond used to be the quintessentially glamorous male figure. Glamour offers an emotionally specific version of escapism. It does not merely stir adrenaline or laughter. Rather, glamour provides a way to imaginatively transcend the constraints and burdens of everyday life. For a moment at least, it makes us feel that our greatest yearnings are achievable, that the impossible is possible, that we are not stuck with the life we have.

Bond allowed audiences to project themselves into an ideal life—distant, improbable, but not entirely unimaginable. As Simon Winder argues in The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey into the Disturbing World of James Bond, that life was particularly remote from the cold, depressing, make-and-mend Britain of the 1950s.

As Bond/Fleming sits in America and tucks into a mountain of crabs and melted butter, gorges on steak ‘so soft you can cut it with a fork’ and slurps another giant martini it becomes an almost pornographic contrast with the cable-knit sweaters and briarwood pipes, trad-jazz-revival and milk-bar world he had flown away from. As Felix Leiter in the book of Thunderball watches from a helicopter through his binoculars a naked girl sunbathing on a yacht and yells to Bond, ‘Natural blonde,’ Fleming’s original, chilblained, earnest British reader, with his uncontrollable flashbacks to the Burmese jungle and ill-informed keenness on Harald Macmillan, must have flung the novel across the room in despair.

Skyfall-Union-Jack-Bulldog Skyfall continues the Daniel Craig movies’ deglamorization of Bond. Here, he epitomizes not the old easy grace but, as M says in his premature obituary, “British perseverance.” The film is a celebration of the world the old Bond offered audiences escape from. This stoic, aging 007 belongs to the tough world of Tennyson, Churchill, and Margaret Thatcher, not the Jet Set. He struggles, suffers, and eventually wins out.

We don’t long to live in his world. We fear we already do.

Renaissance Portraits At The Met: Self-Image And The Public Face

Botticelli Simonetta Vespucci portraits

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has mounted an extraordinary exhibit called The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini, which includes paintings, sculptures, medals, and preparatory drawings that are rarely if ever seen together. I was lured to the December press preview by the chance to see Botticelli's idealized portraits of Simonetta Vespucci (above) without a trip to Berlin. (I've previously discussed the right-facing portrait's resemblance to a certain contemporary star.) They are indeed spectacular.

 Filippo Strozzi by Benedetto da Maiano terracotta bust

But the most impressive display was the side-by-side comparison of two busts of Filippo Strozzi by Benedetto da Maiano: the terracotta study done from life, above, and the final marble version, below.

 Filippo Strozzi by Benedetto da Maiano marble bust

The two busts are the same, yet different: a portrait before and after subtle retouching. In the marble bust, da Maiano not only makes Strozzi looks less tired and absent but also changes the tilt of his head, giving him a nobler mien. He looks like a leader.

Ghirlandaio_Portrait of an Old Man and a Boy_Louvre

We've gotten so used to thinking about retouching as something done with pixels and Photoshop that we often forget not only how important it was to early glamour photographers like George Hurrell but also how unusual the ideal of non-idealized images was throughout most of western history. Until the rise of what historians of science Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison call the ideal of "mechanical objectivity," there would have been no question that a portrait should follow the Aristotelian ideal of producing a “likeness which is true to life and yet more beautiful.”

This dictum applied more universally than we tend to think. In The Patron's Payoff, Jonathan Nelson and Richard Zeckhauser note that “though many praise Ghirlandaio’s Portrait of an Old Man for its 'realism,' the bulbous growth on the patron’s nose was even more prominent in the preparatory drawing.” You can see the final, glamorized version, which is in the Met exhibit, to the left.

As traditionally conceived, portraits are not like snapshots (most of which aren't that candid either). They're are designed to present a public face. Within the constraints of likeness, they represent the persona the subject wishes to appear--assuming that the subject is the one commissioning the portrait. In The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century, John Brewer discusses some of the dilemmas facing 18th-century portrait painters, whose clients could refuse to pay if they didn't like the results.“The trick,” writes Brewer, “was to understand how the portrait should be presented. Usually the client had a sense of how he wanted the sitter to appear. Part of a good portraitist's skill lay in discerning this; otherwise the commission could go disastrously wrong.”

For instance, Jean-Étienne Liotard, who specialized in miniatures, was too realistic for his clients' tastes. (Here's a nice example of his work.) “His likenesses were very strong,” a contemporary said, “and too like [i.e., accurate] to please those who sat for him; thus he had great employment the first year and very little the second.” Ozias Humphry ran into a different sort of conflict when he was hired by a man who wanted a portrait of his wife. The wife, naturally, wanted to look young and attractive. Humphry complied--and infuriated his paying customer. “You have forgot that she is between 30 and 40,” he wrote to Humphry, “and that I am 70, and that the character of a smirking Girl is very unfit for her situation, as I should have liked to have made her of more Importance, and I find some of my friends ridicule me upon it.”

When I read that I thought of my official Bloomberg portrait. In real life, I look more or less like the photo on the left, which is a candid of me accepting the Bastiat Prize. (I'm well lit and well coiffed.) The middle photo is the one I use most of the time as my “official” portrait and is, except for reversing the hands, a characteristic post. (My hair no longer has those post-chemo curls.) The one on the right is my Bloomberg photo, for which I had professional hair and makeup and unknown amounts of retouching. But, most important, the photographer refused to let me smile. No “smirking Girls” at Bloomberg View! (For another contrast, check out Amity Shlaes at Bloomberg View, in a candid lecture shot, and on her own website.) The expression isn't my resting or serious face either; it's more attractive. So the picture looks like I'm an actress playing someone else--the same physiognomy but a different personality.

Virginia Postrel portraits

For more on Nelson and Zeckhauser's work on image building by Florentine patrons, including Strozzi, see my article here. The Met exhibit will be on through March 18. If you can't make it in person, you might want to get the gorgeous catalog.

[Botticelli's Ideal Portrait of a Lady (right-facing image) and Ghirlandaio's Portrait of an Old Man courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Other exhibit photos by Virginia Postrel and permission is granted to reproduce these photos with a link back to this post.]

Exulting In The Moment

Oregon-pacific-sunsetRecently I sat in a rental house on the Oregon coast watching the sun set on the Pacific in a magical array of oranges and blues. Adding to the magical aura was a girl of about 15 whom I had first noticed as we were driving back to catch the sunset. She had been running along the road in long easy strides, wearing her track-team colors.

Now, as the sun dropped to the horizon, she was sprinting up the hill on the road beside the house. Shortly past the house she turned and slowly jogged down, taking short, prancing steps to let her heart rate slow down. At the bottom of the hill she turned in a tight circle and once again sprinted up the hill in long powerful strides. I stopped counting after the eighth sprint of her solitary routine.

There was something immensely satisfying about watching this impressive display of self-discipline. Perhaps, thanks to Title IX, she hopes to compete in track all the way through college, maybe even on a scholarship. Perhaps she just loves to run, and running itself provides some kind of harmony and order to her daily routine, perhaps even to her life.

In any case, I was grateful to her for adding to the magic of a September evening. Her routine seemed nothing like some Sisyphean ordeal. Instead, watching her reminded me of seeing the exuberant exertions of a young animal discovering the physical power of its body and simply exulting in feeling that power in motion. I had felt much the same pleasure watching two small children run with their dogs on the beach that morning.

To observe someone exulting in the moment can be almost as pleasurable as feeling such exhilaration yourself. That morning my wife and I (both 60-somethings) had donned full-body wet suits, and, with the help of an expert surfer, had had our first experiences riding waves on a surf board. Making our first runs lying prone on the board, feeling the power of the ocean, even taking a few body-tumbling spills, was joyfully thrilling. 

In the 19th-century, in the conclusion to his The Renaissance Walter Pater wrote (to the great displeasure of religious conservatives): “To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life....Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us in the brilliancy of their gifts is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening.”

[Oregon sunset photo by Anne Hornyak. Used under the Flickr Creative Commons License.]

Leaning Boards: Behind-the-Scenes Support For Classic Hollywood Costumes

I first read about leaning boards in Ronald L. Davis’s The Glamour Factory: Inside Hollywood's Big Studio System. Davis writes, “For the screen, clothes, above all, must be photogenic. Comfort and practicality were of little concern. Many of [Adrian’s] gowns were too tight for actresses to sit in, requiring them to recline on ‘leaning boards’ between takes.”

Leaning boards Jean Harlow Dinner at Eight Katharine Hepburn Walter Plunkett Sea of GrassJean Harlow in Dinner at Eight (left) and Katharine Hepburn with costume designer Walter Plunkett in Sea of Grass

This bit of film history struck me as the perfect example of how the grace you see on the screen is created by hiding the -- in this case, literal -- support behind the scenes. But I'd never seen a photo of a leaning board, and imagined that perhaps there weren't any, until Christian Esquevin included one in this Silver Screen Modiste post about MGM's costume operations.

Rosamond Pinchot as Queen Anne in The Three Musketeers, RKO 1935 leaning board Were there more? I asked Christian. There were, indeed, and he kindly scanned some to share with DG readers. In the two above, the leaning board is doing what Davis suggested in his book, allowing actresses in very tight dresses to rest without sitting. (Closely examined, the Hurrell photos from Dinner at Eight reveal that Harlow was sewn into her Dinner at Eight dress, sans underwear.)

In the third photo, of Rosamond Pinchot as Queen Anne in The Three Musketeers, the costume is not so much tight as heavy. The same is true of the photo Christian featured in his blog post. There, Jane Halsey is wearing a 102-pound beaded costume for The Great Ziegfeld.

That got me to thinking. Nowadays, Lycra makes tight gowns a lot easier to move in (though wrinkles are always a potential issue). But what did Natalie Portman (and the rest of the cast) do between takes while wearing those elaborate costumes in the (execrable) Star Wars prequel? Are leaning boards still around?

Tomorrow we'll have a Q&A with Christian Esquevin, including some wonderful examples from his collection of costume design sketches. Tune in.

[Photos from the collection of Christian Esquevin.]

Glamour May Look Effortless, But Maintenance Is Required

Always glamorous real estate sign
On a recent visit to New York, I snapped this photo with my dumb phone. (The low-res quality actually makes it look a little more glamorous than it did in real life.) It's a perfect example of why declaring something "glamorous" doesn't make it so. If you can't even manage to keep up your sign, why should we expect the building to be any better?

Here's another example, a screen shot of the website for the then-newly remodeled Peninsula Hotel in Shanghai. I was looking at the website while planning a trip to look for glamour in Shanghai. This carelessness convinced me not to look for it at the Peninsula.

Peninsula Hotel Shanghai website Glamour misspelled

What Makes The IPad "Magical"?

When Apple introduced the iPad last year, it added a new buzzword to technology marketing. The device, it declared, was not just "revolutionary," a tech-hype cliché, but "magical." Skeptics rolled their eyes, and one Apple fan even started an online petition against such superstitious language.

But the company stuck with the term. When Steve Jobs appeared on stage last week to unveil the iPad 2, which hit stores Friday, he said, "People laughed at us for using the word 'magical,' but, you know what, it's turned out to be magical."

Apple has long had an aura of trend-setting cool, but magic is a bolder—and more provocative— claim. In a promotional video, Jonathan Ive, the company's design chief, explains it this way: "When something exceeds your ability to understand how it works, it sort of becomes magical, and that's exactly what the iPad is." Mr. Ive is paraphrasing the famous pronouncement by Arthur C. Clarke, the science-fiction author and futurist, that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

So in celebrating the iPad as magical, Apple is bragging that its customers haven't the foggiest idea how the machine works. The iPad is completely opaque. It is a sealed box. You can't see the circuitry or read the software code. You can't even change the battery.

Apple has long had an aura of trend-setting cool, but magic is a bolder—and more provocative— claim. In a promotional video, Jonathan Ive, the company's design chief, explains it this way: "When something exceeds your ability to understand how it works, it sort of becomes magical, and that's exactly what the iPad is." Mr. Ive is paraphrasing the famous pronouncement by Arthur C. Clarke, the science-fiction author and futurist, that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

So in celebrating the iPad as magical, Apple is bragging that its customers haven't the foggiest idea how the machine works. The iPad is completely opaque. It is a sealed box. You can't see the circuitry or read the software code. You can't even change the battery.

Read the rest here.

DG Q&A: Interiors Stylist Adam Fortner

Fortner_Adam_byStephenKarlisch When I asked my Facebook friends to recommend photographers or stylists who could talk knowledgeably about hiding lamp cords, someone gave me a great tip: call Adam Fortner. An Austin-based stylist, Adam started on the editorial side of the profession, as the art director for Texas Architect magazine, later moving to Western Interiors & Design Magazine. In 2007, he founded Creative & Sons, which does photo styling of interiors and objects for editorial and commercial photographers, as well as art direction and production services. (He also has a cool blog, where you can find posts on subjects like decaying Victorian Lego houses and how stylists compose faux grocery lists.) We had such an interesting conversation, moving from lamp cords to other forms of styling magic, that I asked him to share some thoughts and experiences with DeepGlamour readers.

DG: How is styling interiors different from being an interior designer?

Adam Fortner: An interior designer creates spaces that are functional, and we show them off. The main difference is in the format our work takes. An interior designer creates a space that is meant to be experienced in three dimensions. The photographer and stylist’s job is to take that three-dimensional, fluid space and present it in a two-dimensional static photograph within a limited frame. Everything we do serves the photo, which can mean eliminating or moving things so they look best on camera, not necessarily so they function in the space. I tell people you can’t live in a styled room: the chairs are all at odd angles and the coffee table might be three inches from the couch; but look at the photograph and it’s magically transformed from what you see around you.

Photo by Casey Dunn

DG: How is a room different when it's been styled for a magazine photo shoot compared to the way it might look if the owner had cleaned it up for visitors?

AF: For the most part we try to leave the room as we found it, but once we’ve found the angle and framing of the final photograph, adjustments have to be made. At that point a stylist’s job becomes editing. It might be a simple tweak to accommodate the perspective of the camera and show off one detail or another, or filling spaces that might have become visual voids in the frame, or even removing or adjusting things to avoid overlaps or add the appearance of depth. In some cases the accessories or pieces that the designer or client chose just won’t work for a photo and you have to change it. A dark, rich duvet cover may look and feel luxurious in person, but it may fall flat in camera. I am careful to reassure homeowners or clients that it’s not about their personal taste, it’s about the composition and quality of the photo.

Casey Dunn kitchen

Photo by Casey Dunn

My favorite exchange about styling comes from a short-lived sitcom and goes like this:

– Who wants their room photographed anyway so everyone knows what their stuff looks like?
– They don’t photograph your stuff; they bring in their own stuff.
– Well why don’t we just have them come in and finish the room?
– Because if your stuff doesn’t look fabulous in the first place then they don’t want to come in and change it!

DG: What's the purpose of styling a room for a magazine photo? What's the effect you're trying to achieve?

AF: Styling is often called the “hidden profession.” A lot of people don’t know it is even a career, and in fact, to be good at it, that’s the whole point: not to be noticed. So you have to find a balance of studied naturalness. A lot of it is also about aspiration. You want to create a space that people want to be in, one that exemplifies the way people want to live, not necessarily the way they actually live. Honestly, how many people wake up to a vase of flowers, a cup of tea and The New York Times perfectly folded on their nightstand?

CaseyDunn2 Photo by Casey Dunn

DG: How does styling for architects differ from styling for interiors magazines or advertising?

AF: The architect is creating or defining a space, so showing off their work takes a different form. Architects understand and experience spaces in a different way. For them, an open and unadorned space is beautiful in and of itself. They appreciate the clean lines, textures, and light in a room. When styling a space for an architect, you often only need minimal adornments, and what you do use really needs to highlight the architecture. That doesn’t always sell the public, though. Empty spaces can look cold and uninviting at first glance, and it takes a little more time and effort to see the details. A magazine or advertisement doesn’t have that luxury; it needs to grab a viewers’ attention in a split-second. I try to recommend this approach to architects. By creating images that capture people’s attention, they then have the opportunity to guide clients deeper into the details, and have a better chance of communicating their thoughts and ideas.

Casey Dunn bathroom boots

DG: You've recently done some styling work for shoots done in photo studios rather than real interiors. How is styling different when you build from scratch? What does it teach you about styling in the “real world”?

AF: I think of styling as storytelling. When you work in someone’s home, the story is already there. They’ve created their own world with their own tastes: their books, their art, their furniture; we’re mainly there to enhance and document it. When working in a studio, you’re starting with a blank slate. You have to create the entire story–start to finish–and the sky’s the limit so that allows you a lot more freedom. I’ve been working with an excellent production designer who has taught me so much about that. I’ve taken those lessons back to the houses I work on give myself a little more room to create atmosphere, especially when faced with more challenging, less engaging spaces.

DG: When you see a photo of a room in a catalog or interiors magazine, do you think about how it’s been styled? What do you notice that a layperson wouldn’t?

SpectraStudios bar glasses AF: I can’t look at magazines or catalogs without noticing how they’re styled. I hardly look at the products in catalogs. In fact, I’m usually looking at the objects that aren’t for sale. Similarly, in magazines, I’m looking for those small touches that give the space personality. I also look at not only what is in the photo, but also how it’s placed, and why that composition works.

The DG Dozen

1) How do you define glamour?

Glamour is a magic combination of confidence, beauty, and ease that create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. The word always conjures a flash of light in my mind’s eye… whether it be flashbulbs, the sparkle of a diamond, the sheen of beautiful fabric, or just that glint in the eye of someone at ease with themselves. But I also think that glamour is something ascribed, not inherent. Things are only glamorous because someone else thinks they are.

2) Who or what is your glamorous icon?

Alexander McQueen. A very good friend of mine gave me a book of his work for my birthday, and while I knew of him and some of his work, I was impressed/amazed by the range and drama and sophistication of what I saw from start to finish.

3) Is glamour a luxury or a necessity?

For basic survival glamour is a luxury, but like the fine arts, it’s an unknown quantity that can’t be measured or explained, yet somehow makes life more enjoyable.

4) Favorite glamorous movie?

Auntie Mame. The interiors of her apartment are just amazing. In fact, it was those sets that got me interested in interior design. If I could pick just a scene from a movie, it would be the “Ascot Gavotte” scene from My Fair Lady. The amazing black-and-white dresses and hats against the simple, white, paper-like buildings (all dreamed up by Cecil Beaton) along with the stilted movements and poses are just brilliant.

5) What was your most glamorous moment?

When I was working for a magazine in Los Angeles we hosted a tour of the Case Study houses in Pacific Palisades, which was amazing enough, but in the evening they opened up the Eames house and lit up the lawn with strings of lights. I stood there taking in the crisp night air coming in off the ocean and thinking that I never could have dreamed I’d be there, yet there I was.

6) Favorite glamorous object (car, accessory, electronic gadget, etc.)?

A Cartier Tank Américaine Flying Tourbillon watch. With a name like that, how can it not be glamorous?

7) Most glamorous place?

Not any one specifically, but an old house filled with lots of history.

8) Most glamorous job?

Is there a glamorous job? I think there are a lot of jobs that seem glamorous, but that’s because we don’t do them. If something looks easy and glamorous, it’s probably because there’s a lot of hard work behind it.

9) Something or someone that other people find glamorous and you don't

Working in the publishing industry. Like before, it often gets glorified in movies and on TV, and really it’s mostly hard work. Yes, there are moments of fun and excitement—that happens anywhere when you love what you’re doing—but there’s also the other 90 percent of the time that you are working and planning and coordinating to make that moment happen. But even I forget that sometimes.

10) Something or someone that you find glamorous whose glamour is unrecognized.

Space. Not the final frontier, but the absence of stuff. Space to do whatever you want: an empty room, an open field. It can be anything and everything.

11) Can glamour survive?

I didn’t know it was in danger! I think the world needs glamour, whether to embrace or rail against, depending on the mood, so it will be around for quite some time.

12) Is glamour something you're born with?

I don’t think so. It’s something that you achieve, intentionally or otherwise.


1) Angelina Jolie or Cate Blanchett?
Cate Blanchett, no question.
2) Paris or Venice?
3) New York or Los Angeles?
New York (but LA for the lifestyle)
4) Princess Diana or Princess Grace?
Princes Grace
5) Tokyo or Kyoto?
6) Boots or stilettos?
7) Art Deco or Art Nouveau?
Art Deco
8) Jaguar or Aston Martin?
Aston Martin
9) Armani or Versace?
10) Diana Vreeland or Anna Wintour?
Diana Vreeland
11) Champagne or single malt?
Champagne, it makes anything a celebration
12) 1960s or 1980s?
13) Diamonds or pearls?
Diamonds. Can’t beat the sparkle.
14) Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell?
15) Sean Connery or Daniel Craig?
Sean Connery

[Photo of Adam Fortner by Stephen Karlisch. Bathroom with boots photo by Casey Dunn. Bar photo by Spectra Studios.]


Creating Illusions

Stage-setDigital special effects are now used so frequently in films and television that we tend to take them for granted. Photoshop is so widely used to manipulate digital photographs that we seldom notice the changes, sometimes even when “realistic” advertising photos have missing, wrongly sized, or misaligned parts. (The website Photoshop Disasters adds funny comments to miscalculated images.)

The theater has always dealt in illusions, and we are perfectly capable of imagining that a bare stage or an abstract set (such as the one shown in the photograph) represents a fictional world. Shakespeare’s plays were first performed on bare stages: thus the characters often speak of the time of day and place.

With experience we also sometimes take theatrical conventions for granted. A proscenium stage is described as having an invisible fourth wall through which the audience views the sets and action onstage. A movie or television screen serves much the same purpose. We forget that we are looking at a flat picture plane once we begin looking “through it” to see images that seem to have dimensional qualities. The addition of 3D further heightens our feeling that we are seeing a dimensional reality, rather than the illusion of one projected onto a screen.

Stage and screen illusions depend partially on an awareness that what the audience will be able to perceive is limited. The fourth wall, for example, does not reveal what is going on above, behind, below, or to the sides of the stage. Cameras reveal only what is in front of the lens, concealing even the person operating the camera.

When actors and dancers perform onstage, they know where the fourth wall is, and they sometimes “cheat” by turning their bodies enough to insure that their speeches and actions are audible and visible to the audience. Dance studios have large mirrors so that dancers can develop some sense of how their bodies, costumes, and movements will look to the audience. In film and photographic work, actors and models learn to maintain an awareness of where the camera is, as well as the light.

Kitchen-set In most dramatic productions, the prevailing convention is that the actors act as if the audience is not there, even though actors need to retain some awareness of them. In most film situations, such as the dining room set shown in the photograph, it is impossible to ignore the presence of the equipment. The ability to perform effectively while aware of the presence of an audience, or a camera and a set full of equipment, is a difficult skill, but one that actors must master if we are going enjoy the fictional illusion that they exist in a “real” world.

[The abstract set was built for a production of Sara McKinnon, an opera by Mark Medoff and Randall Shinn. Photograph by Carol Shinn. The photograph “Film set in the dining room” is by Flickr user ricardodiaz11. Used under the Flickr Creative Commons license.]