On Reality 6 Preview: The Magic of Jeff Wall
April 20, 2007
Jeff Wall is a photographer from Vancouver, BC. He is exhibited, represented and respected around the world for his unique art. He will serve us as a deep dive into the far reaches to which creativity might lead. Jeff Wall is not your average photographer in any sense of the word. His 25 year career produced, so far, only about 130 images, sold in extremely limited editions for around $1 million each.
Please note: This post has been updated. Follow this link to the update “On Reality 6 Rev. – Jeff Wall Magic Revisited”. Thank you and enjoy.
- Jeff Wall uses state-of-the art photographic and computer technology to create images that share the composition, scale and ambitions of the grandest history paintings. His works often have the formal clarity of documentary photography. He exclusively stages his scenes, sometimes reproducing or interpreting paintings or specific events.
- He does not seek the decisive moment or the picturesque scene. Nor does he create symmetry, lyricism, formal perfection or abstraction. He does not deceive you, hide his intentions or use the work of others except as visual inspiration. He avoids pop culture images and enjoys some irony.
- Each of his images is the result of immensely elaborate creative explorations. He may spend from weeks to years on completing a single finished image. He never repeats himself and is always unique. He tells the obvious story or none at all.
- The subjects range from very complex to surprisingly simple, even banal “every day” slices of life. He moves from landscape and street photography to still life and genre painting, to Japanese woodblock prints and medical illustration, to Impressionist and Baroque painting.
- He views himself as part painter, part movie director and part photographer, all three being part, in his opinion, of a single pictorial tradition. Some images are shot on location, others in his studio. The process may include paid actors and consultants such as marine biologists, stage builders and Hollywood special effects experts.
- His images are very large even considering his frequent use of large format cameras and medium format Hasselblads – often in the order of 6 feet by 6 feet or 2*2 meters. Some measure 10 feet by 16 feet. The people in the images are often life-size. He can combine hundreds of images into one. The images may be prints (traditional or inkjet) or transparencies mounted in light boxes.
This post is part of my Mysteries of Photography series. Among many other subjects, I explore the mystery of creativity and visions in photography. Studying the work of Jeff Wall certainly is a very worthy endeavor if you care about photographic creativity. So I offer this post as yet another preview to the upcoming main essay “Mysteries of Photography”. Here are links to other photographic posts on this blog.
Here is a sample of Jeff Wall’s art – “A View from an Apartment (2004-2005)”:
The present material partially depends on an outstanding article, dated 2007-02-25 and titled The Luminist, published in New York Times by Arthur Lubow. This original article is outstanding. I hope my summary, additions and reorganization hasn’t completely destroyed the spirit of it.
- The Destroyed Room 1978
- Picture for Women 1979
- Dead Soviet Soldiers in Afghanistan 1992
- A Sudden Gust of Wind (After Hokusai) 1993
- Diagonal Composition 1993
- Diagonal Composition No 2 1998
- The Flooded Grave 1998-2000
- After “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue 1999-2000
- Outside a Nightclub 2004-2005
- Men Waiting 2006
- Previous and Next
“The Destroyed Room,” shows an extensively vandalized bedroom, made in 1978 as his wife, Jeannette, had left him temporarily for another man. The ransacked room contains a strewn heap of women’s clothing. This tableau of violence, directed against a woman’s possessions, acknowledges feminist art criticism. Wall used Jeannette’s clothing to construct the scene. “I borrowed her clothes because we were still on good terms and she had the good clothes,” he said. You can easily detect the scene is staged in a studio.
Wall based the image on a 19th-century painting, “The Death of Sardanapalus” by Delacroix. Sardanapalus, an Assyrian king with his armies defeated, preemptively destroys his court and harem. The influence is obvious in the diagonal lines and the rich, red palette. Wall wants you recognize the reference to the painting. He pushes his claim to belong to the great tradition of Western art as hard as he can.
In spite of the allusions to Delacroix and feminist art criticism, did the image revolve around a spurned husband’s rage? The question doesn’t shake Wall. “I don’t find my own experiences very interesting. I find my observations interesting. Maybe that’s why I’m a photographer. Maybe an observation is an experience that means more to you than other experiences.”
“Picture for Women” (1979) interprets Manet’s masterpiece “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère” by changing the setting to a photographer’s studio. In Manet’s painting, the central figure, a barmaid with downcast eyes, is the object of a gaze from a male customer who is seen reflected in the mirror behind her. The customer is located in the upper right corner in an impossible perspective that simulates the one occupied by the viewer of the painting. The key features are the male gaze by itself, the relationship towards the female and the viewer as an active, involved onlooker.
When Wall composed his photograph, he set his camera, seen as a mirror reflection, at the center; the woman stands at the left, coolly studying the camera and the photographer beside it. The camera and its operator become the central subject of the picture and the object of feminine scrutiny. Wall converted the receding globe lights of the Folies-Bergère bar into regularly positioned overhead bulbs, deepening the space in the photo as Manet did in his painting. The beauty of the seven-foot-long glowing image enthralls even viewers unfamiliar with the art-historical allusions.
Wall created an elaborate battle scene based on the Soviet Union’s conflict with Afghanistan in the 1980s. The image has a strangely old-fashioned look, as if just exhumed from a war museum. Until you notice that this is a macabre vision: the dead Soviet soldiers strewn about are all awake — laughing, crying and fingering their gruesome wounds.
“A Sudden Gust of Wind” is based on a famous Hokusai print in which several travelers are buffeted by unexpected turbulence that sends the sheets of a manuscript spiraling through the air. He used more than a hundred shots in the painstaking composition of the final 12-foot-long picture.
Here is the Hokusai wood print:
Documentary-style photographs of old, ordinary and neglected spaces and cleaning areas are an ongoing theme in Wall’s work. The works entitled “Diagonal Composition” explore the still-life genre with inspiration from early twentieth-century art, particularly the abstract images of artists such as El Lissitzky, Theo van Doesburg, and Alexander Rodchenko, whose paintings typically comprised grids of horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines.
They also invite a social reading. Capturing the long passage of time that has scarred and degraded these surfaces, they evoke traces of lives lived by unknown inhabitants. Wall focuses on ‘the un attributed anonymous poetry of the world’.
Simple as this image is, perspective, composition and staging is as elaborate as in any of Wall’s works. This is a relatively small and bare picture of the corner of a sink, some sort of rough wooden shelf next to it, and a pale green wall. On the extreme right a small finger of 1/4” plywood lays on top of a white rubber glove. It is placed at an acute angle to the main thrust of the sink. Just left of center, the dark side of the sink produces diagonal lines. The beige linoleum above has traces of glue around it, breaking up the straight lines dominated by the pine molding, the diagonal trend of the work top, the shelf, the linoleum and the plywood stick.
Unrivaled in its technical complexity, the “Flooded Grave” is the product of nearly two years of work. The strange, poetic, hallucinatory and surrealist image shows an open grave in a sodden cemetery filled not only with water but also with orange starfish and sea urchins. It comprises images taken in two Vancouver cemeteries that are seamlessly merged with photographs of a living aquatic system created in his studio.
Wall clearly enjoys going to extraordinary lengths. “The artistry of doing something is just fascinating,” he says. “If you don’t like the artistry, why are you an artist? It’s fun.” For “The Flooded Grave,” he kept an oversize custom-built aquarium in his studio for more than six months. The concept of the photograph was to depict a watery world within a freshly dug grave. Wall retained two marine biologists who fished out sea anemones, sea urchins and octopuses from a single offshore spot. “I wanted to make it just like a moment in time undersea, not a compendium or display,” he explains. “I wanted to make it as real as I could.”
Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel “Invisible Man” centers on a black man who, during a street riot, falls into a forgotten room in the cellar of a large apartment building in New York and decides to stay there, living hidden away. The novel begins with a description of the protagonist’s subterranean home, emphasizing the ceiling covered with 1,369 illegally connected light bulbs.
The image is an over-the-top re-creation of the light-festooned basement dwelling of Ellison’s character. The use of photomontages is invisible without being truly hidden. There is much detail and position is everything in “Invisible Man”. Its incredibly cluttered and overcrowded nature gives a claustrophobic sense that the whole place is caving in. Yet the creation provides an odd feeling of space and room within the restricted confines. Some viewers felt the picture has a racist aspect since the man is Black.
Wall devoted a full year to “In front of a nightclub” — a picture of young people standing outside a Vancouver club at night. The shoot took so long because the club Wall found, on a heavily trafficked thoroughfare, could not be photographed as he wished. There was no place for him to stand with his tripod and large-format camera.
So he had the club exterior – the columns and grille, the facade, gum-spotted sidewalk and concrete curb – reconstructed in a studio. One assistant worked for six months constructing the set. “Of course, you can’t see everything he did, but that doesn’t matter,” Wall says. “There is dirt and moss growing in the cracks where the bottom of the building is crumbling, but you can’t see it. The discoloration of the sidewalk is extremely accurate, and it took many layers of application. Wall placed his strobes in the precise locations occupied by the street lamps and other lights that shine opposite the real nightclub.
Concealed in a van with blacked-out windows, he and his assistants parked outside the actual club on several nights and, using a telephoto lens, took 300 or 400 snapshots of the kids gathered there. Wall scrutinized the photos for characters and clustering he liked and then hired 40 extras from a casting agency. Dividing them into two groups and giving them general directions, he photographed them over the course of a month on alternate nights. (“People’s metabolism is different at night, their coloring is different,” he explains.) For each group he finished with only one frame that satisfied him. “You only need one,” he points out. Using digital technology, he combined the two photos of the crowd with a third one of the building into his final picture.
Here is how the story goes: On a damp winter morning, 20 weather-beaten men waited at a bleak corner in east Vancouver. Jeff Wall stands behind a tripod-mounted camera, patiently waiting for his vision of men waiting at a cash corner to come true. He had hired the laborers at an actual cash corner where the men normally hung out and bused them to the shooting location, a cash corner stand-in. The men were waiting for Wall to determine that the rain had become too heavy, the light too bright or the prevailing mood too restless for him to obtain the feeling of suspended activity and diffused expectancy that he sought in the picture.
He was prepared to come here, day after day, for several weeks. On any given morning, typically after three hours elapsed, he would adjourn until the next day, authorizing the men to receive their paychecks of 82 Canadian dollars and get back into the bus. “Men Waiting” is a small-scale Wall production in spite of its cast of 20 laborers plus Wall himself, assistants and equipment, its two-week shoot and on-the-street location.
The risk in these “cinematographic” pictures is that Wall will overly manipulate the laborers, transforming them into lifeless puppets. Asked how he related to the day laborers, he revealed: “My pictures are obviously related to my own life. Why would I be interested in them otherwise? I’m not a sociologist. I must identify with these figures, even though I often don’t like them, I don’t even feel that sympathetic to them sometimes. But I must identify with them in some way because they keep coming into pictures that I want to make.” Wall was fascinated by “the physical animal energy that is present on the street and waiting to be disposed of.”
He likes to plan for all contingencies and command a situation start to finish. Yet he has chosen an art form that is not controllable. Unforeseen events will occur. Some events are beneficial, such as the recompose of “Man Waiting”, which, even so, took several days to create:
- In spite of his elaborate planning, he changed the frame of the picture. One of the reasons he liked the location he had selected was a scraggly little tree (in the middle right of the final image) that had shed its leaves for winter. Further down the street was another tree, a giant fir (in the extreme right of the final image). After taking five days to find his camera position, he concluded that he couldn’t eliminate the unasked-for fir from the picture, but by including only part of the trunk, he would minimize it.
- On one of the first days of the shoot, the rain increased, and several of the men huddled beneath the evergreen for shelter. When that happened, Wall realized that the fir had a role to play in the picture after all. He changed the camera setup to encompass the entire trunk, allowing the crowd of men to continue to the edge of the picture and, by implication, beyond. “That tree bothered me all along,” he told me. “If it hadn’t rained hard, I might never have noticed it. Now I’ll just include it. It’s stronger for it.”
Throughout the shoot, he would perceive undirected movements — an umbrella stuck in the mud, a hooded head lowered — and choose to keep them. Speaking softly on a walkie-talkie, he would ask his three assistants to adjust the position and behavior of the waiting men. The final picture was structured by his artistic sense, but it was also animated by the unpredictability of his living subjects. “You can’t make these things up,” he said.
He aspired to make photographs that could be constructed and experienced the way paintings are. “Most photographs cannot get looked at very often. They get exhausted. Great photographers have done it [their masterpiece] on the fly. It [the on the fly opportunity] doesn’t happen that often. I just wasn’t interested in doing that [the on the fly shooting]. I didn’t want to spend my time running around trying to find an event that could be made into a picture that would be good.”
The art that he liked best, from the full-length portraits of Velázquez and Manet to the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock and the floor pieces of Carl Andre, engaged the viewer on a lifelike human scale. The paintings could be walked up to (or, in Andre’s case, onto) and moved away from. They held their own, on a wall or in a room. “If painting can be that scale and be effective, then a photograph ought to be effective at that size, too,” Wall concluded.
In Spain, “I saw the Velázquez, Goya, Titian — I loved it and wanted to be part of it somehow,” he said. “Every time the bus stopped, you were looking out the window, and there was a sign in a light box. I began to think, it’s luminous, Velázquez was luminous and I’ll try it.” When he emerged in 1978 as a fully formed artist, he presented photographs that demanded equal status with paintings. In sheer size, they were measured in feet, not inches.
He dislikes the way photographs were typically exhibited as small prints. “I don’t like the traditional 8 by 10,” he says. “They were done that size as displays for prints to run in books. It’s too shrunken, too compressed. When you’re making things to go on a wall, as I do, that seems too small.” Many of his images exceed several feet in any direction. Some are over 10 or even 15 feet wide.
He desires the sharpness of large formats. The sharpness of such an image comes close to what the ever-adjusting and compensating eye perceives. Moreover, the size of his final images requires sharpness. This precision usually eludes the documentary photographer who catches fleeing, split-second moments. We know the grainy, blurry images of Robert Frank, Weegee, Cartier-Bresson and other documentary photographers. We somehow deduct these deficits are signs of authenticity. Although grainy, blurry pictures may convey a desired mood, they do not reflect authenticity.
In his early methodology, Wall sidestepped the challenge haunting the street photographers: how to impose a technically satisfying formal composition on a subject captured instantaneously. Rather than hunt for material to photograph, he initially manufactured all his subject matter in the studio.
Very soon he moved out of the studio to shoot landscapes and street scenes on location. He looks for “the indeterminate American look”, which he says he can find by not looking for anything in particular. “You have to forget about the idea of the spirit of the place,” he says. “It’s one of the big, consoling myths of people who live nowhere.”
Using a large-format camera on a tripod severely constrains street photography. Beginning in 1982, he circumvented the problem by re-create subjects using that he calls “cinematographic photography.” Typically, he would see something, often a small event with compressed human drama and political overtones. Rather than snap it, he would go home, think about this glimpse of everyday life or popular culture. If he wants to proceed, he hires performers to re-enact the scene.
But staging a street scene and then photographing it as if it had “really” occurred: Wasn’t that a pretense that betrayed the honest parameters of photography? Shouldn’t a photograph be a document of things the photographer found in the world? “Not necessarily”, Wall says. “What an artist could do with photography wasn’t bounded by the documentary impulse”. He pointed out that in the visual arts only photographers and cinematographers are criticized for staging rather than directly recording scenes. Other arts always offer re-creations of the outside world.
By the late 1970s, Wall worked furiously on the light-box transparencies that still characterize his artistic career. His images of the late 1970s and 1980s were enormous transparencies lit from behind by fluorescent bulbs, a “light box” format that was typically used for advertising. Like a commercial light box, a Wall photograph grabbed you with its glowing presence and, unlike an advertisement, held viewers with its richness of detail and harmony.
The Vampires’ Picnic:
His use of a light-box format derived from advertising and might have suggested a critical analysis of consumer culture. “I was not especially interested in doing a critique of advertising — it was an accident.” His concern with the physical beauty of his images also set him apart from most of the contemporary avant-garde photographers and closer to the painters he revered.
He was ready in late 1978 for his first one-man show. Presenting his exhibition as an “installation” rather than as a photography show, he placed “The Destroyed Room” in the storefront window of the gallery, enclosing it in a plasterboard wall. You could see it only from outside, where, especially after dark, it resembled an actual vandalized room. Before the show closed, the piece was purchased by the National Gallery of Canada, a great send-off to his career.
Wall no longer restricts himself to light boxes. Over the last decade, he acquired four small buildings in a convenient if drug-infested downtown Vancouver district. There, helped by two full-time assistants and others as needed, he develop and print all of his work. He began making large, beautifully gradated black-and-white photographs on paper in the mid-’90s and more recently inkjet color prints. Many recent images, such as “Men waiting”, are presented in black and white, breaking his past reliance on color.
In his studio he recently staged a vampires’ lawn picnic and, extravagantly, a conversation among resurrected Soviet soldiers slain in Afghanistan. He imported Hollywood special-effects consultants as part of his team. “I used up a lot of blood,” he says. He quickly grew tired of these outlandish subjects, but computer technology remains an important part of his artistic arsenal. By converting his film exposures into digital files, Wall can then superimpose them invisibly and endlessly, often assembling a final image on film from many different shots.
Not everyone loves Jeff Wall’s work. Some find his obsessive micro management plain out of sight, not to mention a monumental waste of resources. Others find that his work lacks in depth and simply consists of elaborate snap-shots. Here is Walter Robinson:
- “The critics love his light boxes, which I think are obnoxious, and say his photos are beautiful, when I think they look like big snapshots — but I guess that’s the point of their being so laboriously constructed.”
- “Many of his images, much reproduced, are less than thrilling. ‘A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai)’ is a yawn, as is his illustration of a scene from Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’, a set piece showing a shabby apartment with hundreds of light bulbs on the ceiling. ‘Dead Troops Talk’, a scene of fallen soldiers in Afghanistan, is in poor taste, to say the least.”
Other critics chime in:
He is an intellectually ambitious, morally earnest perfectionist navigating through the shoals, fevers and chills of avant-gardism. A control freak who smothers the life out of his picture, hung up on his process, he is seduced by the elaborateness of his techniques and the gorgeousness of his images. The effort to make viewers think hard in a Modernist way about the gaps and distortions inherent in perception is ignored.
A Fight on the Sidewalk:
His shift into narrative representation and Pop versions of subject matter in the light boxes was a strategy to make conceptual art more communicative. It eventually became so grand and so glamorous, aimed so much at redeeming pictorial traditions, that the original intention was lost. Wall tries to do as a 21st-century photographer what 19th-century painters like Manet and Seurat did in their elaborate depictions of contemporary life which is a historically absurd undertaking. “His claim to be a new history painter is very problematic for me,” a critic says. “The pictures have become very overwhelmingly spectacular objects. There is a kind of Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk quality. You have the set and the narrative; all we are waiting for is the sound.”
What do I think? First, to me it is impossible not to admire the immense creativity of his visions and execution. Second, the dedication of spending weeks or years to find the perfect or near perfect image is a lesson to every photographer. Third, the combination of many expressive means, from large format cameras to digitalization to light boxes and huge prints with the references to other art forms is quite humbling; at least it is to me.
Just about everything he does makes sense – if you are him. His techniques are not for everyone but they should provide food for thought to any photographer. After all, providing food for thought does not impose the techniques on anyone. Although his influence on individual photographers is quite substantial, I won’t adopt his ways in my own work except as an inspiration to try new things.
My reaction to what counts – his images – is mixed. Admiring what it took to get there is not the same as falling in love with the result. The extreme staging leaves me with a feeling of aloofness and lack of spontaneousness. It is too deliberate even if he intended it that way. Some of his subjects leave me wondering if they are worth the attention.
What exactly does “Men Waiting” tell us? What do the links to Delacroix, Manet or Ellison contribute to the images? Are the subjects “better” or more interesting because of these links? I doubt it. I find, for instance, “Picture for Women” to be of little interest, Manet or not. “The Flooded Grave” is impressive in its many contradictions – but why? A few subjects are, to me, utterly banal and uninteresting. Perhaps the answer to that is, so are those of others avant-gardists including, say, Andy Warhol with whom, I think, Wall has more in common than he has with Delacroix.
I do like quite a few images for what they are, not for the elaborate staging or art links: “Outside the Nightclub” is great, as are the “Milk” and “Mimic” images. I enjoy the “Octopus” and “Some Beans” scene and the “Sudden Gust of Wind”. The original “Diagonal Composition” is much more interesting than the later No. 2. “The Vampires Picnic” is intriguing indeed.
I do not believe painting, cinematography and photography are of the same pictorial tradition, not in execution or in vision. Ultimately a photograph is the result of releasing a shutter, freezing a moment. That’s the uniqueness of photography. Combining a bunch of such moments into a new image perhaps resembles the brush strokes of a painting. It still does not change that frozen, unique moment.
Here are more posts from this blog that deal with photography. The posts are newer as you go down in the list:
- About Photo Documentaries
- Susan Sontag wrote in “From On Photography”
- On Reality – Part 1 – Elements of Light
- About Stanley Kubrick, the Photographer
- On Reality – Part 2 – Photo Journalism
- On Reality – Part 3 – More on Photojournalism
- On Reality – Part 3a – Those faked, staged famous photographs in Part 3?
- On Reality – Part 3a(Update) – Famous Faked Photos and How to Make Them
- On Gordon Parks- Segregation, Hollywood, Fashion and more….
- Can Celebrities shoot?
- On Reality – Part 4 – Remembering Joe Rosenthal. On War and Photography
- On Reality – Part 5 – How Perceptions and Illusions destroy Reality
- On Ethics – Part 1 – Just a point of view?
- On Reality 6 Preview: Visionary Photographers
Explore and enjoy.