On Reality 6 Rev. – Jeff Wall Magic Revisited
August 29, 2007
Artistry contains two uniquely personal components. The first is creativity. Creativity drives artistic vision. The second is innovation. Innovation makes creative ideas become real, actual works of art. Most artists create art that is unique and very different from that of the next guy. Yet the basic creative thought patterns tend to be similar. Take Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson. They created art with almost nothing in common except that cameras were involved. But their way of describing their art and their inspiration is quite similar – means may differ but art, creativity and innovation are universal concepts.
Jeff Wall is a photographer from Vancouver, BC. His unique art is exhibited and represented worldwide. He will serve us as a deep dive into the far reaches of creativity taken to an extreme. Jeff Wall is not your average photographer in any sense of the word. Moreover, he is quite a radical innovator. His 25 year career produced, so far, only about 130 images, sold in extremely limited editions for around $1 million each.
Jeff Wall is an example of the ultimate in creativity and innovation. He is also an example of Creativity (or Obsession) Gone Wild. To some he is a genius, to others a snap shooter on steroids. He is not included here to resolve that controversy. He is here as an example of what artistry and creativity can be in one person and how far it sometimes has to go. Serious photographers might think about what it would be like to be in Wall’s shoes and the commitment that implies. Perhaps that will foster some new ideas. Here is what he does:
- Jeff Wall uses state-of-the art photographic and computer technology to create images that share the composition, scale and ambitions of the grandest historical paintings. His works often have the formality of documentary photography. He exclusively stages his scenes, sometimes reproducing or interpreting paintings or specific events.
- He does not seek the decisive moment or a 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 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.
Here is a sample of Jeff Wall’s art – “A View from an Apartment (2004-2005)” – a carefully arranged everyday scene where the harbor in the window contrasts with the indoor tranquility:
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,” shows a vandalized bedroom. It was made in 1978 as his wife, Jeannette, had left him temporarily for another man. The ransacked room contains a heap of women’s clothing. The violence directed against a woman’s possessions acknowledges feminist art criticism. Wall used his absent wife’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 – check the door and the window. There is no deception.
Wall based the image on a 19th-century painting, “The Death of Sardanapalus” by Delacroix. Sardanapalus, an Assyrian king, defeated in war, destroyed his court and harem. The influence is obvious in the diagonal lines and the rich, red palette. Wall wants you to see the reference to the painting:
Despite Delacroix and feminist art criticism, is this about a rejected husband’s anger? Wall sidesteps. “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, receives a gaze from the male customer reflected in the upper right corner of the mirror behind her. The customer is located 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 mimicked the receding globe lights of the Folies-Bergère bar into the overhead bulbs, deepening the space in the photo as Manet did in his painting.
There are some common elements in the two images. But they are so vastly different it is hard to see a real relationship between the two. The warm intimacy of Manet contrasts too much with Wall’s cold, stark image. Manet shows a servant engaged by a probing Parisian male while the Wall image allure to an antagonistic relationship between the two characters without any joy whatsoever.
Wall created an elaborate battle scene based on the Soviet Union’s conflict with Afghanistan in the 1980s. The image is old-fashioned, as if just exhumed from a war museum. Then you notice that this is a macabre vision: the dead Soviet soldiers strewn about are all awake — laughing, crying and fingering their wounds.
Given his propensity for finding guidance in history, here are two possible inspirations, both famous and real but without the laughing part. The left hand image is from the aftermath of the American Civil War Gettysburg Battle. The right hand photo, from the Crimean War 1855 by Roger Fenton, is called “Valley of the Shadow of Death”. Fenton was the first known war photographer. He did not show dead soldiers, as opposed by his slightly later American counterparts. He said of this image: ” …in coming to a ravine called the valley of death, the sight passed all imagination: round shot and shell lay like a stream at the bottom of the hollow all the way down, you could not walk without treading upon them…”.
The two images above are just samples of photos that bear some resemblance to Wall’s War study of the strange and absurd. There are many more similar images. Clearly, photographers have a rather morbid (sordid?) interest in the horrors of war. Moreover, the general public enthusiastically seeks out the most graphic war images possible. I know because my “Artistic Awareness System” tracks such trends using real data. Seeing both the supply and the demand side, I can’t help feeling a bit uneasy. Why are those alive so fascinated with the dead?
“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:
And here is Jeff Wall’s version:
As opposed to the Manet case, the Wall image is great if seen in isolation. You may still ask yourself what is the purpose of mimicking (copying? plagiarizing?) another image? In this case, the two pictures are closely related – both are lovely. Looking at them close together is confusing.
Documentary-style photographs of old, ordinary and neglected spaces and cleaning areas are longstanding parts of Wall’s work. “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.
The image is a modest social statement: time left the surfaces scarred and degraded, symbolizing lives gone by. Wall calls it ‘the un attributed anonymous poetry of the world’. His social and activist statements are generally quite mild and subtle, perhaps in line with being Canadian.
The perspective, composition and staging in this image are as elaborate as any of Wall’s works. It shows the corner of a sink, a rough wooden shelf and a pale green wall. To the right a small stick of plywood lays on top of a white rubber glove. It is placed at an acute angle to the sink. Just left of center, the dark side of the sink produces diagonal lines. The light linoleum above has traces of glue around it, breaking up the straight lines dominated by the molding, the diagonal trend of the work top, the shelf, the linoleum and the little plywood stick.
No doubt a lot of work went into this image. I find the composition lacking in any kind of interest. The perspective is too bland, especially compared to the more daring one in No 1 above.
Certainly complex, the “Flooded Grave” required nearly two years of work. It shows a freshly dug, open grave filled not only with water but also with orange starfish and sea urchins. The image is viewed as hallucinatory, strange, poetic and surrealist. The scene combines images from two sodden Vancouver cemeteries with photographs of a living aquatic system created in his studio.
Wall kept a large custom-built aquarium in his studio for more than six months. Two retained marine biologists caught 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,” Wall explains. “I wanted to make it as real as I could.”
Wall likes going to extraordinary lengths. “The artistry of doing something is just fascinating,” he says. “If you don’t like artistry, why are you an artist? It’s fun.”
Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel “Invisible Man” is about a black man who, during a street riot, escapes into a forgotten room in the cellar of a large apartment building in New York and decides to stay there, living in hiding. The novel begins with a description of the man’s home with its ceiling covered with 1,369 illegally connected light bulbs.
The image is an over-the-top re-creation of the light intensive basement dwelling of Ellison’s character. The photomontages are invisible without being truly hidden. The chaotic mass of details is staged to the extreme. Positioning is elaborate, precise and overdone. Its incredibly cluttered and overcrowded nature is claustrophobic: maybe the whole place will cave in. Yet there is some feeling of space because the bottom foreground is somewhat less overcrowded than the absurd ceiling.
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 is located on a heavily trafficked thoroughfare. It could not be photographed as he wished. There simply was no place for him to stand with his tripod and large-format camera.
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.
He and his assistants parked outside the club on several nights and took 300 or 400 snapshots of the kids gathered there. Wall checked the photos for characters and clustering he liked. Then he 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. He digitally combined the two photos of the crowd with a third one of the building into his final picture.
On a damp winter morning, 20 well-used men hung at a bleak Vancouver cash corner. 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 waited 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. The men received their paychecks of 82 Canadian dollars and got 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 laborers alone ended up costing as much as $35,000.
The risk is that Wall will overly manipulate the hired hands, transforming them into puppets. Asked about the laborers, he said: “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. 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 plans for all contingencies and commands a shoot start to finish. Yet photography is never fully 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 for “Men Waiting”, 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 found undirected details — an umbrella stuck in the mud, a hooded head lowered — and choose to keep some. Speaking 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 did account for the unpredictability of his living subjects. “You can’t make these things up,” he said.
What do the horizontal power lines do to the composition? Presumable related to trains of some sort, they break the composition without creating tension. The one or two tiny groups of story listeners fit well but the power lines destroy the picture. That’s my opinion.
This is a picture with a well stated, clear and relevant message. An immigrant “foreigner” worker is mocked racially by a redneck, trashy “citizen”. The worker knows well there is nothing to be done; it’s a battle he cannot win. The redneck knows well what he can get away with.
He makes photographs that are intended to be 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 mature artist, he presented photographs equal in status with paintings. In sheer size, they were measured in feet, not inches.
He dislikes the way photographs are 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 which comes close to what the ever-adjusting and compensating human eye perceives. The size of his images requires the highest possible level of sharpness. Such precision eludes the documentary photographer who shoots split-second moments. We know the grainy, blurry images of Frank, Weegee, Cartier-Bresson and somehow deduct these technical deficits are authentic. Grainy, blurry pictures may convey a desired mood, but they do not reflect authenticity.
Early on, Wall sidestepped the challenges faces by street photographers: how to impose a technically satisfying formal composition on a subject that has to be captured instantaneously. Rather than hunt for material to photograph, he 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-creating 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.
Does staging a street scene and then photographing it as if it had “really” occurred betray honesty in photography? “Not necessarily”, Wall says. “What an artist can do with photography isn’t bounded by the documentary impulse”. He points out that in 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 feverishly on the light-box transparencies that still are part of his artistic career. His images of the late 1970s and 1980s were enormous transparencies lit from behind by fluorescent bulbs. The “light box” format is similar to that typically used for advertising. Like a commercial light box, a Wall photograph grabs the viewer with its glowing presence and, unlike an advertisement, hold viewers with its richness of detail and harmony.
His use of a light-box format derived from advertising suggests a possible critical analysis of consumer culture: but no. “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 admires.
He did his first one-man show in late 1978. He presented his exhibition as an “installation” rather than as a photography show. He put “The Destroyed Room” in the gallery front window, enclosed with 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 drug-infested downtown Vancouver district. There, helped by two full-time assistants and others as needed, he develop and print all of his work.
The Vampires’ Picnic:
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.
He has begun 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”, “Volunteer” and “Citizen” are presented in black and white, breaking his past reliance on color.
Jeff Wall has a strong following both from the general art enthusiasts to professional curators and gallery operators. Some say his work revolutionized their view of art. But not everyone loves Jeff Wall’s work. One critical pool finds his obsessive micro management plain out of sight, not to mention a monumental waste of resources. Other critics 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:
Another critic says: he is an intellectually ambitious, morally earnest perfectionist navigating through 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.
Another critic claims: 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 or at least magnitude 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, no one imposes any techniques on anyone else. 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.
A Fight on the Sidewalk:
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 and intellectual even if he intended it that way. Some of his subjects leave me wondering if they are worth the attention.
Why do I need to look at “A Fight on the Sidewalk” (above)? Especially if it is staged: the visual impact of the fight is lukewarm at best. To me, it could equally well be called “People Asleep on the Sidewalk”. The Rocky movies are safe in the fight department. Check out this movie scene (below) for more drama (I know – Rocky isn’t art and this scene is as staged as Wall’s is- but what the heck?):
His idea that photography should have equal standing to painting is fine even if it seems a bit defensive. Making photos look like paintings is by no means a new idea. It was very popular with British Victorian photographers in the mid to late 1800s, for instance. I can’t understand why that means the photos need to recreate an actual painting. What do the links to Delacroix, Manet or Robinson contribute to his images? Are the subjects “better” or more interesting because of these links? I doubt it. Speaking of influences:
The Overpass image above reminds me a bit of a Dorothea Lange (California 1934) Depression and Farm Agency photo (below) showing two men, clearly vagrants, walking down a dusty road, next to a huge roadside billboard, being the perfect juxtaposition, saying “Next Time, Try the Train”. That image is powerful indeed. The frustration, inequity and poverty of that piece of history are all perfectly clear. But the “Overpass” (above) does not have that power although it seems clear Lange’s photo is the blueprint. But where is the tension, contradiction or juxtaposition? Where are these guys heading? To the Hilton? To their annual Hawaii vacation? To pick apples in Western Washington? To deportation to Somalia? To a Soviet Gulag? Who knows and who cares.
What exactly does “Men Waiting” tell us? I find the “Picture for Women” to be of little interest, especially when compared to Manet’s picture. “The Flooded Grave” is impressive in its many contradictions – but why? How are sea anemones, sea urchins and octopuses related to a Vancouver graveyard? A few subjects are, to me, utterly banal and uninteresting, such as “Overpass” and “The Storyteller”. Perhaps, so are those of other 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.
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 that makes photography a standout.
That concludes the discussion of Jeff Wall’s work.