Narrative Photography: An Investigation of Suburbia at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

Article excerpt

Recommended for students in grades 9-12. Most appropriate for students living in suburban communities, but adaptable for students in other settings, through a stronger reliance on movies and television shows.

The word "suburbia" evokes a wealth of imagery such as model homes, spacious yards, and minivans from movies, commercials, print advertisements, and television shows. These Utopian ideas of suburbia are partly truth and partly myth. Popular media's powerful portrayal of suburbia can be traced back to the wholesome 1950s' and 1960s' television programming of such classics as Leave it to Beaver and Father Knoios Best. In these television worlds, surrealistically perfect settings portrayed an exaggerated sense of suburban happiness and security for their viewing audience. Suburban themes and settings still play a heavy role in contemporary films, such as Edward Scissorhands, Pleasantville, and popular teen horror movies like Scream and The Faculty.

This instructional resource suggests approaches to helping high-school students critically examine life in suburbia through three large black-and-white photographs by Nic Nicosia now in the collection of the Modern Art Museum of Port Worth. Themes related to suburbia and narrative photography,1 explicitly and tacitly explored, include: the historical roots of suburbia, isolation versus community, Utopia versus reality, stereotypes and media depiction, fear and security, and mythology.

Through this study, students will:

1. Identify and describe at least three themes reflected in America's suburbs through the photographs of Nic Nicosia.

2. Interpret photographic clues and apply them in creating original literary narratives based on photographs of and movies about suburbia.

3. Create and photograph three-dimensional compositions connecting contemporary suburban life and Nic Nicosia's photographs.

Suburban Migration

There were many reasons that Americans migrated from urban areas to suburban communities. The creation of the interstate highway system made this migration possible, but education was another important impetus.

After the Supreme Court decision in 1954 outlawing school segregation as unconstitutional, millions of families moved out of the city 'for the kids' and especially for the educational (as measured by standardized test scores) and social (as measured by family income) superiority of smaller and more homogeneous suburban school systems. The sprawling, single-story public schools of outlying towns, surrounded by playing fields and parking lots, became familiar symbols of suburban life and educational manifestations of tract developments. Economic factors, combined with racial prejudice and a pervasive fondness for grass and solitude, have made private detached houses affordable and desirable to the middle class" (Jackson 1991).

Suburbia offered community life that existed somewhere between urban and rural life, creating the illusion of rural safety while still maintaining urban accessibility.

Nic Nicosia's Photography

Nicosia explores his world through situations staged for the camera. By combining miniature sets with multigenerational actors and life-size objects, Nicosia creates disorienting, fanciful imagery. Mixing reality and fantasy, Nicosia has expertly uncovered the unseemly truths about middleAmerican life, exposing the fear, violence, disturbances, and humor that may bubble beneath a perfectly manicured façade. In an age where truth can be stranger than fiction, Nicosia creates a world that hovers somewhere in between.

Nicosia began making photographs in the late 1970s, when the modernist dogma of photography was under fire. While modern masters such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston exploited the camera's ability to capture and deliver truth, a new generation questioned photography's authority and sought to expose its inherent artificiality. Young photographers staged tableaux and manipulated their works using the "truthfulness" of the medium to create believable fictions. …