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Rachel M. Ward





An Anthropology of the 1980's New York through the Eyes of Dianne Blell





non-fiction virtual reality (VR), art creation, memory, digital anthropology, heterotopic worlds, optical illusions, photographic archives, 1980s, New York City, art history, interactive documentary (iDoc), surrealistic spaces, creative expression, interactive web platforms, physical objects, realms of consciousness, participatory methods, collaborative ethnography





This project is an exploration in the development of a method for creating an experimental-participatory digital biography. It represents a nuanced comment on historical shifts in technology as well as a portrait of one photographer-artist, Dianne Blell. Theoretically, it focuses on the potential of 360-degree video in the field of visual and digital anthropology in the creation of new participatory production methods. Technically, this project will represent a non-linear, experimental, sensory documentary that utilizes virtual reality (VR) methods and interactive web platforms. Stylistically, Dianne’s surrealistic photographic images align and contrast with the non-real worlds, memories, prognostications of new virtual technologies and invented digital landscapes. In other words, it is the goal to enter the studio and mind (memories, thoughts and creative processes) of Dianne Blell as a photographer/model/socialite in 1980’s NYC by providing a digital platform for the viewer to interactively engage with her artwork, photographic archives, thoughts and objects. 



Example of 360-degree experience of Dianne's studio showing CGI objects (animals) that could serve as clickable points of user interaction. For instance, by navigating to her archive room (via a mouse or headset), the viewer could gain access to slideshows of her photographs.

Click and drag image below


Overtaken by a Storm No. 2 

by Dianne Blell (as model/designer)

Click and drag the mouse on image above (Dianne's Studio, NYC)



Dianne is a New York based photographer who has specialized in wildlife, travel, archaeological, surrealist-mythological and, now, object-oriented photography. She’s had photos published in National Geographic and has traveled on expeditions to places such as Syria and Africa on Guggenheim fellowships. Dianne’s early work (1970s) focused on perspectives and performance art. Shortly thereafter she took up photography and immediately began experimentation in the creation of non-real worlds entirely through constructed sets (1980s). As I will argue in my thesis, the trajectory of her work and early surrealistic set designs are also relevant in the context of creating non-real worlds through virtual reality. 

Dianne as model and set designer (1970's)

Many of her photos look like paintings, but the photographic narratives are produced, designed, painted, and constructed entirely in the studio. She paints the sets, costumes the models, and builds the stages. In 1989, she began experimenting with digital manipulation. This was in the days before Photoshop and she found access to an industrial scanner that was as “large as her bedroom.” Her most recent exhibition (1990’s) was completed with Photoshop but she still took the photos in her traditional way – by building and painting the background sets and photographing the models separately using large format 4x5 film. In doing so, she said her career-spanning visual goal is to critique the assumption of reality inherent in the “photograph.” This argument is very much in line with current issues associated with new technologies, photographic manipulation, virtual reality and digital (non-)reality. 

PRE-DIGITAL MANIPULATION: 1980's (surrealistic set design + 4x5 photography)

The working concept for our collaborative project is to create methodology in the development of a participatory, reflexive experimental documentary that utilizes a variety of mediums including virtual reality (360-degree video). From a stylistic perspective, I aim to explore the question: how could Dianne's surrealist photo landscapes (as a constructed non-reality) be stylistically translated within the context of virtual reality for the purposes of telling an artistic non-fiction story, documentary or biography?

POST-MANIPULATION: 1990's (4x5 photography + scanners + Photoshop)

In constructing this project, I aim to focus on creating and writing about the medium and the knowledge inherent in the media production process. My fieldwork will be with Dianne and at my laptop – sharing, collecting and editing all of these materials into a documentary and a web-based platform. In these regards, my goal is to create a platform for effective collaboration amongst academia, artists and citizens as a form of creative public anthropology. I believe that the full archive of Dianne’s work represents an important time and place in history, particularly the 1980’s art scene in New York City. The representations of her work and career more generally represent themes that span various disciplines: history, technology, gender, archives, experimental media, visual art, art history, aging studies, ontology and existentialism. 

Dianne Featured (left to right): Hamptons Star, with Leo Castelli, a Russian Perfume ad, Vogue Interiors, in 360-video


  • Photographer: heterotopia, optical illusions, questioning reality, gender, fashion, classics, orientalist, surrealist 

  • early pioneer of Photoshop 

  • exploration of technological change in the 80s through Dianne 

  • her experimentation with illusions 

  • various frameworks of representation (Orientalist, Roman-Greek, iconographic, feminist, or illusory)

  • representation of the female body 

  • hetertopic worlds in VR, photography, mind

  • cf. other excavation and archival projects with artists

  • cf. art historians studying the lives of middle class women

  • cf. aging studies, particularly in relationship to 'the archive’

  • choosing a thematic framework for the project (e.g., Orientalism, illusion, aging) to explore how this shifts views of art, making, media or pieces collected 

  • an 80s theme giving viewers experience of being a female artist in this world 

  • how she was anticipating Photoshop

  • how she was interpreting the female body 

  • building a prototype of 360 experiences to prove how this could aid academic fieldwork 

  • prototype of this method with an artist 

  • an explanation of technology and the process 

1980's Virtual Reality (VR) video clips (assorted authors)



For the written thesis, and as a critique, I intend to write about the problems associated with virtual reality in the field of ethnographic research, such as navigating theoretical and ethical issues, issues of representation, autonomy, and creativity. Importantly, I will focus on assumptions regarding the inherent objectivity of the 360-degree camera I use and how this relates to well-known ongoing debates within the field of visual anthropology (such as Mead & Bateson discussion that you can record objective data by placing a film camera down in the middle of your field site). Some additional theoretical questions that I will address through the creation process of an interactive virtual reality documentary include:


  • What does it mean for the viewer to have agency within a documentary?  
  • Is this still within the genre of non-fiction?
  • Is reality more accurately conveyed with 360-degree cameras? 

  • How does this relate to MacDougall's method of observational filmmaking?

  • What does it mean in anthropology to give agency to the viewer rather than the subject?

  • How is this collaborative rather than observational?

  • How can virtual reality be a more collaborative medium than traditional filmmaking?

  • What would it mean to have an anthropological or ethnographic "game"? (Such as the concept of “Serious Games (SGs)” by Kateros, Georgiou, Papaefthymiou, Papagiannakis, & Tsioumas, 2015)

  • Is this science, education or entertainment or a combination of the three?

  • How could this medium be used in anthropological fieldwork as a recording tool? 

  • How does my project represent all forms of virtual reality that are currently being produced: games, documentaries, avatar experience, or VR pornography (in terms of ethics, non-fiction documentation, interactivity, etc)?

  • How could one “enter” the mind or medium of an artist?

  • What does it mean to "transport" the viewer into the photograph itself?

  • How does this participatory creation process provide ethnographic insight (Making Culture Lab)?

  • How could this relate to Zoe Bray’s work (working closely with an interlocutor during the process of creating art)?

  • How can this be considered a Rouchian form of ethnofiction (vis a vis the focus on Dianne’s “memories”)?

  • How to relate this to Dianne's goal of questioning the nature of the real in the photograph?

  • How could this metaphysical concern be translated to VR? 

  • How can VR be representative of both reality and an exploration of non-reality (such as memories)?

  • (Technical) How to film and create this? (e.g. the reality of the artist’s set versus the non-reality of entering outer space (as in her photographs)?

  • How does utilizing VR map the trajectory of the use of technology in her own work? (e.g., her transition from pre-digital physical manipulation, scanning, to Photoshop and now to virtual reality)

  • How does this translate to the trajectory of the field of anthropology? 

  • Of (visual) society?

  • Of humans?

  • Of Dianne's life?

  • Of her own relationship to technology versus society's relationship to technology (from birth, physicality to non-human physicality (e.g. bionic hips)?

  • And society generally — from Lascaux, through the industrial revolution to Vive headsets?


Themes that contrast: 1980's New York — early 80's VR iconography — Dianne's 1980's surrealist photographs 

See full board here (click link): Virtual Reality Prototype Styleboard by Rachel Ward


  1. Dianne's Photographic Archives

  2. 360-video

  3. Canon 5D Mark III video

  4. 35mm Photography

  5. Archival Film (8mm)

  6. Interview audio

  7. Interactive web platforms



  1. NYC Photography Studio

  2. Bridgehampton Home

  3. Bridgehampton Art Studio



  1. NYC Photography Studio

  2. Bridgehampton Home

  3. Bridgehampton Art Studio



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