Tableau Vivant


The big ideas.

Stories are an important part of culture. They are ancient and have been a part of human communication since the dawn of our written history, across every single human culture. Stories can be used as parables, as a means for illustrating a point, or as simple entertainment. Many works of art tell stories, as do other areas of the humanities, including music, film, theater, and dance. When images are presented in a sequence, they often communicate a narrative.

Tableau vivant is French for “living picture.” The term describes a unique group of carefully posed and theatrically lit models. In theater – because the actors do not speak or move –tableau vivant is a merging of the art forms of the stage with those of painting or photography. (I originally introduced this learning sequence to my students at Missouri Fine Arts Academy.)


TLW will collaborate to create several monochromatic images of simple objects or scenes.
TLW digitally project one or more images onto carefully posed and theatrically lit tableaux vivant, working in small group collaborations to create a sequence of three to five photographs.
TLW combine images into a slide show to create a short narrative “film,” with a clear beginning and conclusion.
TLW write a critical reflection about the collaborative process of creating a narrative artwork.


In small group collaborations, learners will brainstorm various narrative “themes” that might be expressed in a sequence of three to five images. For example, the theme of “piety” is expressed in the sequence illustrated at the top of this page, the theme of “dance” in the first sequence below, and an “Orwellian” theme is expressed in the third sequence depicted.

Narrative themes may be general or specific – a very short story may be related in the span of three frames, for example.

Because tableaux vivant are posed arrangements, it will be key that learners consider not only the “actors” but also the “stage” and “props.” The first photographs each group should create are several images that might be used to create a “stage” or environment. We will accomplish this by identifying and photographing (in black and white) simple objects or places that relate to the narrative theme selected by the group. For example, in the “Orwellian” theme illustrated here, a photograph of chains helps create a very ominous tone. In the “Dance” sequence, folds of fabric are a metaphorical way to represent the grace of the dancer’s movements.

Costume might also be a consideration. To create an historical narrative, for example, collaborations could invoke a feeling of authenticism by dressing actors in clothing or hairstyles evocative of a particular era.

Layered staging is created when groups carefully arrange the actors and digitally project a chosen background image onto the tableau. Groups should have their cameras situated on tripods so that the background will remain in the same position throughout the series of photographs. Actors and props may move, from one photograph to the next, but the projected image should remain in a fixed position. To achieve this effect, the camera must remain stationary. Care must be taken in arranging the actors within the projected staging, especially with regard to:

  • How does light and shadow interact with the actors?
  • Are actors arranged the same distance from the camera (possibly boring) or with some actors closer and others further from the camera (possibly more visual interesting).
  • Are actors posed in theatrical or visually interesting ways, or simply standing, with arms at their sides?
  • What is cropped out of the frame and what can be scene within the frame?

Groups should plan out the sequence of images and try several variations of each. Before shooting, groups should know:

  • How many frames will be necessary to tell the story?
  • How must each photograph be sequenced – in what order must they appear – in order to tell the story?
  • What elements must appear in which photograph?

Once a tableau vivant has been created, groups will need to carefully review the collection of images. Before making a final selection of three to five images for the sequence, check each image for clarity, appropriate focus, lighting, and crop. Select the images that best convey the narrative theme within a short sequence. Retouch any imperfections if necessary.

As a final product, image sequences should be saved in a presentation format, in which each image dissolves from one to the next, in slow transitions. (PowerPoint provides learners with an excellent presentation solution, as does Adobe Premiere.) Students may also include appropriate background sound as a means of creating mood – be aware that you may NOT use copyrighted music! (The use of copyrighted material constitutes plagiarism and is also against the law.)


  • Work in groups of four or five.
  • Agree upon a narrative theme.
  • Set your camera to its highest resolution for this project.
  • Save all image files in .jpg format at a quality setting of “12.”
  • Shoot your initial images in black and white or convert color images to black and white. (This will help you to establish a unified look to your series of images.)
  • Shoot tableaux vivant in color. (This will help to create a contrast between the projected images and the actors as well as create emphasis on your main subjects.)
  • Carefully edit and retouch your final images.
  • Combine your sequence into a presentation, using slow dissolves to transition from one image to the next. Set the presentation so that each image advances automatically. Make sure all slide backgrounds are black. Create a title slide called “Tableau Vivant” in white letters. Create a final black slide with a credit line listing each member of the group.
  • To submit, save the presentation and a folder of ALL images created to a CD.On Blackboard, each group member should complete the reflection activity in the Discussion Board section.


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