Jeff Wall: Innovations from the Past

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Transcript Jeff Wall: Innovations from the Past

Jeff Wall: Innovating the Past
Camille Zimmerman
Mini Biography
Jeff Wall, a graduate of the
University of British Columbia, was
trained as an art historian rather
than a visual artist. After finishing
his Master’s Degree, Wall stopped
making art and began working as
an Art History professor at the
Nova Scotia College of Art and
Design and Simon Fraser
University. In fact, Wall did not
even begin to rekindle his pursuit
of the visual arts until seven years
later in 1977. Once he began
creating again, Wall started to
experiment with installations, but
is still best known for his incredibly
large, staged photographs. Wall’s
work takes influence from both
well-know artwork and literature,
as well as his own past life
Atypical Photography: Wall’s Unorthodox Style
Although a well-respect photographer in the art world, Jeff
Wall’s work can hardly be classified among typical
photographs. Wall disliked the traditional role of photography,
and his work has continually rebelled against the
characteristics generally found in photography. Two main
things separate his work from the ‘typical’. The size of Wall’s
work is much larger than traditional photography, and
purposefully recalls the epic size of painted masterpieces such
as works by Francisco Goya and Diego Velazquez. In an
interview, Wall commented that he never liked the extremely
small scale of most photography and he wanted to make a
different statement than could be achieved through the
constricting size of documentary photographs. “’I don’t like
the traditional 8 by 10,’ he said…‘It’s too shrunken, too
compressed. When you’re making things to go on a wall, as I
do, that seems too small.’” ( Wall instead
wanted to “make photographs that could be constructed and
experienced the way paintings are…[that] engaged the viewer
on a lifelike human scale” (
Continued from Previous Slide:
Arguably the most important characteristic of Wall’s work is
that it consistently rejects photography’s obsession with
documentation. According to Wall, he was never interested in
having to wait around in order to capture a fleeting moment;
he would rather construct an event from memory. Wall has
self-defined his own images as being “cinematographic”;
meaning that his photographs are completely staged using
actors, costumes, sets, and props. In an interview, Wall
described his artistic process in the following way: “I begin by
not photographing…if I see something on the street outside, I
don’t photograph it” (Jeff Wall- “I begin by not
photographing”). This attitude likely comes from Wall’s art
historical educational background. Entranced by the imposing
size and drama of old school painting, Wall takes direct
influences from works by artists such as Gustave Caillebotte,
Edouard Manet (an artist who Wall studied extensively at the
Courtauld Institute), and Katsushika Hokusai among others.
Some of his work even references well-known authors such as
Franz Kafka and Ralph Ellison.
Jeff Wall, A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) (1993)
The previous image is one of the best examples of Wall’s
“cinematographic” photographs. A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai)
is directly referencing a 19th colored woodblock print from the artist
Katsushika Hokusai (following image). Hokusai’s image depicts several
Japanese working men walking on a dirt path when they are suddenly
overtaken by a strong wind. This wind releases one man’s papers flying
through the air. Wall’s photograph is not identical to this work; Wall
chooses to depict modern American businessmen instead of 19th
century Japanese workers. I think this change was clever of Wall
because it modernizes and makes familiar a work that is otherwise very
foreign to current viewers. Another reason I think he may have done this
is due to the virtual impossibility of flawlessly copying Hokusai’s work.
One of the most iconic and beloved aspects of Japanese woodblock
prints is the striking visual appeal they obtain from their flat, 2
dimensional surfaces and stylized lines. Obviously, there was no way
Wall could have reconstructed this important visual characteristic, so he
opted instead to move farther away from the original work in order to
relate it more closely to his own cultural reality.
Katsushika Hokusai Yejiri Station, Province of Suruga (1832)
Jeff Wall, After Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, the Preface (1999-2001)
Beyond just referencing
well-known art works,
Wall is also known for
taking inspiration from
important pieces of
literature. The above
image is one of Wall’s
best-known highly staged
photographs. It depicts a
scene from the Preface of
Ralph Ellison’s Invisible
Man, which was a 1952
novel dealing with such
prescient political issues
as racism and Marxism.
An image of the author is
pictured at right.
Excerpt from Invisible Man
“That is why I fight my battle with Monopolated Light & Power. The
deeper reason, I mean: It allows me to feel my vital aliveness. I
also fight them for taking so much of my money before I learned
to protect myself. In my hole in the basement there are exactly
1,369 lights. I've wired the entire ceiling, every inch of it. And not
with fluorescent bulbs, but with the older, more-expensive-tooperate kind, the filament type. An act of sabotage, you know.
I've already begun to wire the wall. A junk man I know, a man of
vision, has supplied me with wire and sockets. Nothing, storm or
flood, must get in the way of our need for light and ever more
and brighter light. The truth is the light and light is the truth.
When I finish all four walls, then I'll start on the floor. Just how
that will go, I don't know. Yet when you have lived invisible as long
as I have you develop a certain ingenuity” (Ellison, 6).
Jeff Wall, Mimic (1982)
Mimic (shown above) is a work that is taken from reality because it is
based on an exchange really observed by Wall. The work depicts
three people walking down an urban, but otherwise deserted,
sidewalk. A couple is seen approaching a singular Asian man as they
walk. The man in the couple turns to the Asian man as they pass and
performs an “ambiguous but apparently obscene and racist gesture”
( Jeff Wall). This gesture consists of the man ‘slanting’
one of his eyes with a finger as he passes. This is clearly mocking a
predominately Asian eye shape. One of the things I found most
impressive about this work is how candid it feels- I doubt I would
have thought of this as staged if I hadn’t already known the style of
the artist. This candidness really lends the photograph a great sense
of honesty, without having to deal with the aesthetic failings of real
candid shots (blurriness, bright spots, etc.). Although this work is
clearly deeply entrenched in the reality of one of Wall’s experiences;
it also makes a subtle reference to Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street;
Rainy Day (following image). The outdoor urban setting, as well as
the placement of some of the figures feels quite similar (an example
is the walking couple on the right). Although Caillebotte’s painting in
no way deals with such tense political issues as Wall’s photograph,
the work does bring up some subtle references to 19th century class
distinctions in Paris (an example being the differences in dress among
the figures).
Gustave Caillebotte, Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877)
Jeff Wall, Tattoos and Shadows (2000)
According to Wall, the above work was inspired by a scene he stumbled
upon while walking near his house one summer. A group of several
tattooed young people sitting underneath a tree. While this scene sounds
fairly simple, both visually and conceptually, Wall saw in it something that
captured his interest.: “There’s just something really beautiful about that
combination of that fixed inking on skin, it’s never gonna go away. And
then this other pattern [of shadow], these two patterns laid on these
people’s arms” (Jeff Wall: “I begin by not photographing”). The
interweaving, varying patterns on the subject’s arms are truly beautiful.
There is something quite striking about combining an unnatural skin
decoration like tattoos with the natural and almost ethereal decoration of
the shadows. Although I can’t be sure if Wall intended this or not, the
image reminds me of Monet’s Women in the Garden (following image).
The placement of both the figures and the tree feels very similar in both
works. Both works also seem to focus explicitly on the natural effect
achieved when sunlight shines through foliage (mottled shadows).
Claude Monet, Women in the Garden (1866)
Jeff Wall, Men Waiting (2006)
Men Waiting is a black and white photograph that
depicts a group of twenty working men standing on a
street corner. They are not performing a task, nor are
they interacting with each other. They are simply
waiting. Wall reconstructed this scene from one he
had witnessed several times before: day laborers
waiting around in the hopes of being hired. Although
Wall takes inspiration from the staging process, he
still tries to make the image as close to reality as
possible. Even though Wall hired actors to play these
workers, he only hired people whose jobs led them
to actually become real ‘waiting men’. This idea of
using such actors was described as if “the Performers
are playing themselves” (
Artistic Controversy
Although Wall is quite well-received in the art world, his work does stir
up quite a bit of anger among some viewers. Nothing in Wall’s subject
matter seems to be controversial in any way, it’s actually his mode of
production that angers some people. Wall’s work has often been
criticized for being too artificial or for missing the point of photography
(that point being realism). This criticism can range anywhere from a
benign misunderstanding of Wall’s purpose (“Being quick-on-the-draw is
part of the fun of street photography!” –vidkid5678) to more personal
accusations that Wall is a sellout or no better than a big-budget
filmmaker. Wall doesn’t seem too troubled by these criticisms, as he feels
that art, even photography, doesn’t have to adhere to rules. “What an
artist could do with photography wasn’t bounded by the documentary
impulse…Painting could be topographical realism or it could be angels —
in the same medium. Why couldn’t photography do the same?”
( This attitude is likely why I can relate so well to Wall; I am
also a student of art history and (for better or worse) that is the
educational lens through which I view most issues. Wall does, however,
admit that realistic photography has its own unique merits which aren’t
really present in his own works; but he still insists that both types of
photography are worthwhile and neither should be ignored: “You have to
accept the fact that it is not a snapshot and can’t have those qualities,”
he said. “It is a semblance of life occurring on the fly, but it is a
semblance. A semblance has its own value.” (
*note about the format of this presentation: I chose a presentation of
white text on a black background because these are how lectures
have always been formatted in my Art History courses. I thought that,
given Wall’s art historical background, this would be an excellent way
to present his work. I also felt that the black background gave a
heightened sense of drama to the presentation of Wall’s images.
Works Cited