Thursday, 20 September 2007



(First published 21st March 2007)

A survey at MOMA and current works at Marion Goodman, NY occasions this post. Wall’s photographs are famous firstly for their tableaux or staged enactments of events between people, mostly in exterior settings, invariably by large-format camera, in wide angle, deep focus. He is also noted for digital modifications to prints, for panoramic landscapes and still lives featuring worn or distressed surfaces. Both exhibitions provide slide shows to their websites which offer no links to individual works, unfortunately. Other sources are used here.

Wall’s treatment of fictive events is interesting for contrasts with advertising and entertainment practices as well as reportage and the older photographic approach of ‘the decisive moment’. Persons or the event are generally viewed from a distance, from a flat or frontal angle, so that depth and setting are easily established and location of figures often seems paramount to their actions. Where they are, is as important or more so, than what they do. Were the foreground to be prominent with framing devices or curious objects, the figures would not carry so much interest, but the pictures tend to stress just the distance from camera to figures – to frustrate greater attention to them. Usually the figures are too small within the picture to be properly the subject, yet too busy or interesting to be just background, and this frustration is sometimes registered in criticism, as a deplorable indifference.

The distance sometimes gives the setting and event a staginess, an emotive as well as literal distance. Other times persons and event give setting and space a defusing, distracting presence. Fiction at some point meshes with fact. The treatment thus runs counter to advertising and cinematic norms in terms of composition, and while Wall’s large-scale transparencies on light-boxes suggest the glossiness and prestige of commercial use, the focus, or surfeit of it, foils accompanying expectations, in spatial ordering and content. Wall’s deliberately prosaic approach to composition in camera angle, lighting and focus discards an older orthodoxy for surprising appearances, spatial and tonal ambiguity and telling juxtaposition or location. The work firmly rejects the ‘decisive moment’ of a Kertesz, Cartier-Bresson or Frank, the informal reportage of a Davidson, Winogrand or Arbus. In this Wall is part of a trend toward the end of the 70s that turns away from the spontaneity and intimacy afforded by a supposed passive observation. Instead, he strips the picture down to a single, long and sharp perspective, enlists a large-format camera and industrial-scale colour transparencies to drive the point home; deals in figures, strictly in terms of distance.

The distinction depends upon the particulars of figure and setting, and Wall varies distance for figures from closer, as in Mimic (1982) to more distant as in The Storyteller (1986). Where setting and event compete for attention, we struggle to separate them in the usual ways, possibly review priorities, remake links and distinctions, for the world and pictures. And the work is duly rewarding. But the effort can be frustrating and fascinating by turn and obviously not for everyone. Wall also adjusts some works digitally, sometimes obviously, other times not and the integrity of photography is often thought to be in jeopardy for it. But where the effects are obvious, the result is no more than a superior montage or collage, and where they are not, the result is a further idealised picture, elsewhere pursued as effectively by lens, filters, lighting, film stock, processing and printing options. Photography’s supposed fidelity or allegiance to realism is as over-rated as it is misunderstood.

Wall’s panoramic landscapes (many of parts of Vancouver) carry some of this interest in distance for subject, but rather than problematic figures or events, tend to look to unusual conjunctions of landmarks, architecture or season. The work reorients distance, in a more traditional way. Still lives, or selected small objects (of which there are several in the Goodman show) on the other hand, concentrate upon worn or stained surfaces, at best share an interest in the literal erosion of identity, a wedding to circumstance. But this is a more familiar photographic interest as well and seems largely a diversion, perhaps counterpoint for Wall.

His contribution remains with the large figure compositions and their uneasy distances. Interest in the parameters of fiction in photography is subsequently explored in a wide array, from the work of Gregory Crewdson to Collier Schorr to Tracey Moffat, amongst many others. Photography has not so much lost its attachment to facts by more obviously engaging in fiction, as refined and revitalised both. Photography competes with painting by this, confronts new limitations; finds new advantages. Painting is all the more vital for it.


thesecretlivesofcats said...

Walls work alway seemed staged to me. I guess I new it all along...but he's Canadian right? So I think he shares something guessed that his work is simultaniously cimematic and appearing to be objective...but leaning away from the perverted side...:(

If Jeff Wall had a piece called "Entirely Red Medical Facility" or "Concrete College Library Containing Clairvoyants" then my nation-based stereotype might have some merit.

CAP said...

The stilted, staginess is a big part of it. But the locations are 'realistic' up to a point - it's the extent of the staging or realism that makes them interesting.

He could be more 'cinematic' and go the Gregory Crewdson route (see Post 90) but he's into this distancing (literally) of a story AND any kind of slice-of-life realism. The pictures cut both ways - they step back from cinema and melodrama for more of a location, and at the same time they step back from 'just' a location to foreground a sense of place with stereotypical figures or hints of a familiar narrative (or myth).

He's a British Columbian, but I don't know how if at all that influences his approach - certainly he uses the surrounding landscape quite a bit.

thesecretlivesofcats said...

I like how you explain Wall's compositional strategy. I'm sorry for using that word "cinematic." It can be rather vague, like "painterly." Thank you for giving it a context.

Both artists, for me, conjure generic imagery. A news report will end like this "...and the virus is still out there." And that phrase will be coupled with a woman sitting on a bench. In real life she's waiting for a bus. It's just a stock image they chose to use at the end of their news montage.

That same implied horror...or drama...of the normal image makes their work all the more effective than histrionics.

Sometimes, with Wall, when I get the gag-or narrative-I get a bit disappointed. I just love the look of the photos so much.

Now the real question is what Gordon Lightfoot and Bryan Adams would say about all this. :P

CAP said...

Or for that matter Arcade Fire or Broken Social Scene?

But I don’t really know how Wall fits into a Canadian national identity, whether its best measured against music.
The only other artist I know from Vancouver is Jessica Stockholder.
But I have friends there who tell me the gallery scene is quite lively.

I’m glad you got something from the post.