The art of posing: 'Performing for the Camera' at Tate Modern

Naked white male model, arched over with hands and feet in small red cones, on a grass effect green carpet, brown wall backdrop
Performing for the Camera' at Tate Modern is a new exhibition that questions the nature of posing (in its myriad forms). Pictured: Marker Cones, by Jimmy De Sana, 1982. Courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery, London and The Estate of Jimmy De Sana
(Image credit: Jimmy De Sana)

Unless you're Kate Moss, having your picture taken can be an uncomfortable experience. We overcompensate by falling back on awkward half-smiles and girly duck-pouts. Whatever your grimace of choice, posing for a photograph is an innately performative act. With this in mind, Tate Modern's major spring exhibition questions what it means to say 'cheese'.

'Performing for the Camera' leaps straight into the golden age of performance art, with Yves Klein's famous image Leap into the Void. Emphasising the staged trickery of the photograph, the curators have chosen to position the 'making of' images alongside the seminal shot. Here, it is revealed Klein isn't actually leaping to his death – a group of subsequently edited-out friends are nervously waiting to catch him in a sheet.

This photograph, along with dozens of others featured in the first half of the show, come from a collection donated to Tate last year by photographers Harry Shunk and János Kender. Now, the walls of the gallery tell tales of the couple's obsession with live performance art. Bodies twist, dance and peacock, and their cameras are the audience.

As the show progresses, the performative aspect of the images gets more and more disrupted, and difficult to define. We journey through obscure byways of performance portraiture's history – passing holiday snaps taken from relatively unknown photographers, alongside defining images from the likes of Joseph Beuys and Francesca Woodman.

Despite this broad scope of images, a sense of humour unites the exhibition – much of it centred around nudity. This is expressed in Jimmy De Sana's Marker Cones, where he is pictured strutting on all fours, with what looks like party hats on his hands and feet. But on-camera performance doesn't just mean jumping off buildings and clowning around naked. As much as the exhibition is united by levity, a darker undertone sneaks in, through Japanese photographer Masahisa Fukase's quiet, muted images of himself in a tepid-looking bathtub. He performs loneliness just as evocatively as De Sana performs comedy.

Fukase isn't the only artist posing for his own images. A whole room in the gallery is devoted to the 'Self / Portrait' – where photographers perform on both sides of the camera. As selfie-culture becomes ingrained, more and more gallery space is being given up to the trend. We've already seen Amalia Ulman's Instagram-focused 'Excellences & Perfection' in London this month at the Whitechapel Gallery. She appears again here, flouting her own ironic brand of voyeurstic sexuality in that all too familiar mirror pose, iPhone camera in hand.

A selfie was also picked as the principle advertising image for the exhibition – and it has been plastered all over London. The picture is taken from Romain Mader's staged series that depicts him clumsily posing with mail-order brides. He explains his reasoning for making himself the protagonist: 'It's too easy to mock people. It's better to pose myself and be the main character in my work. This way, there's irony and vulnerability.' 

Mader's sentiment rings true throughout the exhibition – as much as the highly performative images of theatric, extrovert bodies are beautiful and striking, the portraits that stick with us are those that reveal an honest, relatable vulnerability.

Black and white daytime image, uneven concrete road, man on a bicycle, stone brick building to the left, man in a dark suit jumping off the building wall, grey sky

The exhibition uses Leap into the Void, 1960, a work by Yves Klein (seen in mid-air) and shot by Harry Shunk and János Kender, as an appropriate jumping-off point. Courtesy the artists and Met Musuem

(Image credit: Harry Shunk and János Kender)

Left: Black and white image of a young lady smiling for the camera in seventies clothing, bonnet of a car of the same era in shot Right: Vintage colour image, lady in a swimsuit and hat holding a plant branch in a metal stand, stood on a wooden pier, sea and sky in the backdrop

As the show progresses, the performative aspect of the images becomes more and more disrupted, and difficult to define. Pictured left: From Window, by Masahisa Fukase, 1974. Courtesy Masahisa Fukase Archives and Michael Hoppen Gallery. Right: Crimean Snobbism, by Boris Mikhailov, 1982

(Image credit: Boris Mikhailov. Courtesy the artist and Sprovieri Gallery, London)

Young blonde woman in black lingerie taking a self portrait with her mobile phone in a bathroom mirror, gold taps, white tiles, white sink, drinking glass, brown washbag

Amalia Ulman's Instagram-derived series of images exemplifies a contemporary meta-commentary on the nature of self-portraiture. Pictured: Excellences & Perfections (Instagram Update, 8th July 2014)Courtesy the artist and Arcadia Missa

(Image credit: Amalia Ulman)

Young blonde woman in a white wedding dress, flower tiara, pearl necklace, holding a bouquet of yellow, blue and white flowers, man in glasses at the frongt of the shot, snowy mountainous landscape and village in the backdrop, cloudy pale blue sky

A staged series of artist Romain Mader clumsily posing with mail-order brides is a highlight. Pictured: Ekaterina: Mariage à Loèche-les-Bains (Marriage in Leukerbad), 2012. Courtesy the artist and ECAL

(Image credit: Romain Mader)

Wooden floor, red walls, white ceiling with lighting, black and white portrait photographs in rows along the walls

As much as the highly performative images of theatric, extrovert bodies are beautiful and striking, it's the portraits that reveal an honest, relatable vulnerability that stick with us. Pictured: 'Performing for the Camera', installation view.  Courtesy of Tate Photography

(Image credit: Joe Humphrys)

Wooden floor, grey walls, white ceiling with lighting, grey wooden seating on the left and right walls, picture gallery of framed images on the walls

'Performing for the Camera', installation view. Courtesy of Tate Photography

(Image credit: Joe Humphrys)

Wooden floor, white walls, white ceiling with lighting, picture gallery, black grate on the floor to the left, open doorway with view of the next room, pale blue walls and picture gallery

The exhibition is on view until 12 June. Pictured: 'Performing for the Camera', installation view. Courtesy of Tate Photography

(Image credit: Joe Humphrys)


'Performing for the Camera' is on view until 12 June. For more information, visit Tate Modern's website


Tate Modern
London, SE1 9TG


Elly Parsons is the Digital Editor of Wallpaper*, where she oversees and its social platforms. She has been with the brand since 2015 in various roles, spending time as digital writer – specialising in art, technology and contemporary culture – and as deputy digital editor. She was shortlisted for a PPA Award in 2017, has written extensively for many publications, and has contributed to three books. She is a guest lecturer in digital journalism at Goldsmiths University, London, where she also holds a masters degree in creative writing. Now, her main areas of expertise include content strategy, audience engagement, and social media.