Jeff Wall

See previous post (for Documentary course) on Jeff Wall here.

Jeff Wall is a Canadian artist/photographer who is known for producing meticulously planned, constructed single image photographs that are rich in narrative potential and often rely on the perception of documentary realism. Inspiration for Wall often comes from painting, cinema, writing and other artists, although this would often be difficult to divine without contextualisation. Anther strategy for Wall is to restage moments encountered in real life. In his later work, Wall has pioneered digital compositing techniques. The presentation technique of displaying his images as giant transparencies in light boxes – a format which mimics an advertising display, while at the same time, containing images which suggest historical tableau painting. (Foster et al, 2011: 708)

I find Wall’s practice endlessly inspiring, particularly the way he manages to create images that appear effortless and aligned to the real world despite the knowledge they are anything but the documentary moments they appear to be. On some levels his work is similar to an artist like Gregory Crewdson, yet, while Crewdson is at pains to draw attention to the artificial nature of his work in order to give an uneasy sense of the uncanny, believability is key for Wall. Duncan White describes Wall’s approach as “dramatically undramatic”, “near-documentary” and simultaneously foregrounding and masking the fabricated artifice of his images: “Rather than the pursuit of authenticity, traditionally the poetic principle of photo-journalism, it is the authenticating eye of the audience that Wall is, at time playfully, most concerned with.”

Bate (2015: 43) has this to say: “[Wall is] well known for his long-held fascination with the decisive instant in photojournalism and documentary photography, which he combines in an interest in the aesthetics of the cinematic image.”

Campany (2013: 29) describes Wall’s approach like this: “[He] moved away from photography as direct witness towards a dramatising of a vast range of types of social situation experienced in the contemporary city. This is achieved by combining the descriptive character of photography with the theatrical possibilities of staging an acute awareness of genres from the history of painting and cinema.”

Warner Marien (2014: 410-2) states: “Wall’s work has been called post-Conceptual, perhaps because his reliance on ideas is coupled with a visual intensity and a complicated narrative that earlier Conceptual artists…rejected. Yet his images continue the Conceptual – and Postmodern – concern with knowledge and perception.”

In reference to Wall’s influences and aims, Badger (2001: 202) states: “[Wall] is an absolute believer in the power of the pictorial tradition – of pictures whether painted, photographed or made in any other way. His work attempts to mitigate photography’s inherent weakness in dealing with narrative by introducing the strategies of the advertising hoarding, the cinema, the diorama and the history painting. The result is a synthesis that is both classical and modern, a concerted exploration of painting and photography.”

Soutter (2018: 5) describes Wall’s work as building on modernist ambitions which claim a grandeur and seriousness for photographs as art objects and that his main interest is exploring ways in which meaning can be constructed and communicated within photographs: “His conceptual framework for staging the photographs in relation to painting, social history and critical theory has allowed him to raise the production values of the work to commercial standards while projecting a sense of intellectual engagement.”

The influence of painting:

Before engaging in photographic practice, Wall studied art history and his knowledge of this, and the influence it has had on his work, is a recurring theme. Even in pieces that overtly reference another artwork (such as ‘A sudden gust of wind (after Hokusai)’ 1993) Wall’s work is far from pastiche or imitation. Often the influence of earlier artworks can be oblique and I suspect it is only the fact that Wall is happy to contextualise that means the influences can be recognised readily.

Below are some of the pictures I have come across in my research that are directly influenced by other artworks and have particularly resonated with me:

The Destroyed Room (1978):

Jeff Wall - The Destroyed Room (1978)

In this photograph Wall references ‘The Death of Sardanapalus’ (1827) by Eugène Delacroix. The painting depicts the Assyrian monarch on his deathbed, commanding the destruction of his possessions and slaughter of his concubines. Although Wall’s work shows formal similarities with the painting, particularly the diagonal composition and use of red, the most striking difference is that the photograph shows a room with no people in it. The room clearly belongs to a female but we are left to speculate on what has led to the violent destruction we can see and also what has become of the rooms occupant. Most intriguingly Wall draws attention to the artifice of the scene as we can see through the door on the left that this is a stage set held up by supports – it is neither a real space or anyone’ house. Campany (2003: 98) reflects on how the carefully nuanced disorder of the piece is creatively mimicked so that what at first appears to be chance details are revealed as being intentionally placed: “This staging allows the viewer to connect the illusionism of photography with painterly representation.”

The picture was first installed as a large scale, backlit transparency in the window of a Vancouver – this had the effect of giving the illusion of a real space while the presentation referenced the commercial spectacle of advertising.

Burnett (2005: 11) says this about ‘The Destroyed Room’:

“Wilful, irrational and clammily narcissistic, the mood of Sardanapalus’s chamber is shared by Wall’s The Destroyed Room. We seem to be witnesses to the aftermath of violence prompted by a psychic disturbance, perhaps self-inflicted violence, vengeance or abuse, and the room bears the scars of self-abasement. The walls are blood red and the pink fibreglass that is visible where it is torn looks like exposed, fatty flesh; the bed is gashed and the contents of the drawers overflow like a disembowelment. Standing above all the destruction, in the position of Delacroix’s bearded king, a statuette of a dancer rises like a bird.”

Picture for Women (1979):

Jeff Wall - Picture for Women (1979)

The inspiration for ‘Picture for Women’ is Edouard Manet’s ‘A Bar at the Foilies-Bergèes’ (1881-2), particularly themes of the male gaze, the power relationships between the male artist and female model and the role of the viewer as onlooker. The use of mirrors and reflections is the most obvious motif that both works share – in Manet’s painting the barmaid stands in the centre of the frame returning the gaze of both viewer and the suspect customer we can see reflected in the mirror behind her. The pose and expression of the woman in Wall’s photograph echoes Manet’s painting, significantly however, she is placed off centre with the camera that has captured the scene placed in the middle of the frame. Campany (2013: 175) recognises that through this strategy of placing the “automatic eye” of the camera centre frame, Wall forces the viewer to identify with the mechanical device. While the process of photographers taking self portraits via mirrors is a modernist convention, Campany notes that the use of a mirror here is only a suggestion and the image could equally have been made using a second camera – a comment on the photography’s precarious relationship with both reality and artifice and something which draws attention to the picture making process itself.

Burnett (2005: 13) describes ‘Picture for Women’ as a remake of Manet’s painting and quotes Wall as describing the work as “a classroom lesson on the mechanisms of the erotic.” Both works show a man (the artist) and a woman (his model) reflected in a mirror with Wall replacing the boisterous bar in Manet’ painting for the order of the studio and adding a third element, “a mechanical Cyclops with an unappeasable eye, which acts as a kind of all-seeing chaperone to the couple.” The woman is both subject and audience for the picture and the triangular composition between artist, model and audience exists solely within the camera acting as both proof of the camera’s objective gaze and realisation that this is a mere imagined construct.

A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) (1993):

Jeff Wall - A Sudden Gust of Breeze (After Hokusai) 1993

‘A Sudden Gust of Wind’ is one of the few of Wall’s images that consciously acknowledges its reference to an earlier artwork through its title. O’Hagan (2015) describes the photograph as “spectacularly hyperreal”. The image is based on a woodcut by Japanese painter and printmaker Katushika Hokusai ‘Travellers Caught in a Sudden Breeze at Ejiri’ (C. 1832). The photograph is a digital collage which bears similarity to the staged tableau of classical painting, except, here the picturesque nature of Hokusai’s work is replaced by an unromantic landscape showing flat brown fields, an uninspiring and possibly man made lake, and, hints of industry in the background. The four people in the image being battled by the elements appear out of place, two of them wear smart city clothes, and this creates a tension between the realism of the photograph and the fact it is clearly staged. Campany (2013: 161) argues that Wall’s use of theatrical staging, actors and digital montage techniques gives the work a cinematic quality which is “closer to a frozen piece of film than a photographic ‘decisive moment'”.


Tate Website: A Sudden Gust of Wind (After Hokusai)

Tate Website: Study for ‘A Sudden Gust of Wind (After Hokusai)

The Storyteller (1986):

Jeff Wall - The Storyteller (1986)

‘The Storyteller’ depicts three disparate groups of Columbian Indians gathered by the underpass of a highway exit. The relationship between the three groups is unclear – at the bottom left, a young woman, presumably the storyteller of the title, speaks animatedly with two men around the embers of a fire. Above her a couple sit on a sleeping bag, the man lying head propped up and facing the first group. The woman sits facing away from everyone – it is unclear whether they are engaged with the first group at all. To the right, a solitary man sits on the concrete beneath the underpass, he appears to be looking towards the first group but is so far away it is unlikely that he would be able to hear what is being said. Although on a surface level the picture appears to capture a candid moment, it is clear that this is part of Wall’s strategy and that the image is meticulously constructed. Each element appears to have meaning – for example the horizontal power line bisecting the frame can be read as a comment on how technology has overtaken traditional ways of living – but any readings are multiple and ambiguous. Angier (2006: 174-7) reads the image as an allegory on a fragmented group of tribal people looking for shelter. In an interview, Wall gives this explanation:

“If you are a slave, you must always at some level wonder what it would be like to be free. In The Storyteller…I attempted to create an image of a way subjected people might try to build a space for themselves. I imagined the picture as a speculative project. All my pictures are about talking, about communication, are in fact about the ways people work on creating something in common, about how they work to find a way to live together.”

Angier states that in broad, thematic terms, ‘The Storyteller’ refers to Nicolas Poussin’s allegorical ‘Arcadian Shepherds’ (1638), both pictures feature a woman at their centre explaining something to a group of men. In ‘Arcadian Shepherds’ it is an inscription on a tomb which suggests the intrusion of death into the ideal landscape. It is unclear what the woman in ‘The Storyteller’ is saying, except that it is something urgent.

Compositionally the image quotes Manet’s ‘Nymph Surprised’ (1859-61), the pose of this image echoes that of the woman in the white sweater, and,  ‘Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe’ (1863). The body language of the characters in the painting are transposed into the photograph with the female storyteller making the same gesture as the speaking male figure, one of the male figures listening also has his arm on his knee in the same pose as the nude in Manet’s picture. Angier sees the implied connections between both images as ironic – Manet shows “a male-centred vision of nature as a vehicle for pleasure, while the photograph is an appraisal of a matriarchal vision of nature that has become dysfunctional.”

As well as ‘Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe’, the Met Museum website cites Courbet’s ‘Young Ladies of the Village’ (1851-2) “spatially ambiguous landscape” as a reference point:

“Set in a leftover sliver of land off a highway in Vancouver, where the artist lives, The Storyteller shows the liminal space where past meets future, crisscrossed by power lines and illuminated from within by the electric light that permeates our world of spectacle, consumption, and waste. Yet the work is ultimately hopeful, hiding in suspension the potential for cultural traditions to survive and contest historical amnesia, the homogenizing effects of the media, and the empty promises of technological progress. In creating a space that is both irrevocably fragmented yet retains the possibility for coherence in the mind of the viewer, Wall’s picture is, in its largest sense, a statement about the meaning and function of art itself.”

Bate (2015: 45-7) sees echoes of the composition of Claude Monet’s ‘Railway Bridge at Argenteuil’ (1873) in ‘The Storyteller’, and despite significant differences in the content, both pictures depict a seemingly banal scene in a way which provokes contemplation in the viewer: “Like Monet’s painting, [‘The Storyteller’] does not really seem to judge its subject, but merely creates a compositional form and pictorial space in which a viewer may contemplate and consider these meanings.”

Dead Troops Talk (A Vision after an Ambush of a Red Army Patrol, Near Moqor, Afghanistan, Winter 1986) (1991-2):

Wall - Dead Troops Talk

‘Dead Troops Talk’ is a strange mix of realism and artifice – the specificity of the full title appears to refer to an actual event captured by a photojournalist and initially the photograph looks gruesomely authentic. That is until we realise the soldiers in the piece are acting out a grim tableau, despite knowing the picture is fake, Badger (2001: 202) notes that a spooky realism is retained. The work can be read as a comment on the relationship between contemporary war reportage and history painting and the relationship of both to realism and authenticity.

Angier (2006: 202) says this:

“As a photographic object, ‘Dead Troops Talk’ has a peculiar relationship to the physical reality it depicts. Not only is it an enactment of the aftermath of a fictional event, it is also an image that has been constructed out of many images. Although it may be said to represent a single scene, it does not represent a single instant. It is a montage of different moments. This spreading out of time, across the whole field of view, might seem to constitute a challenge to the basic nature of photography, breaking the link between the picture and its single temporal reference point.”

Warner Marien (2014: 412) states that the work is reminiscent of ‘Napoleon on the Battlefield at Eylau’ (1808) by Antoine-Jean Gros. In an interview with Wall, Burnett (2005: 61-63) comments that the photograph reminds him of a hellish version of Bacchanalian scenes such as Titian’s ‘The Andrians’ (1523-5) or Poussin’s ‘The Triumph of Pan’ (1636). Wall agrees that there is a relationship with that tradition and that he was particularly interested in the way these painters created a rhythm in their compositions. Critic Thierry de Duve makes the interesting observation that ‘Dead Troops Talk’ is fashioned with such microscopic rigour that it is composed with the attention to detail of a Cézanne study of a fruit bowl – something that is emphasised by the lack of a horizon in the photograph. The lack of a punctum in the photograph means that we are asked to contemplate it in the same way that we would a beautiful object. (Angier, 2006: 199) The work is also thematically related to Goya’s ‘The Disasters of War’.


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