Jeff Wall and Modern Photography
By Kristy MacFarlane
In 1939, the French painter Paul Delaroche came into contact with a photographic process called the Daguerreotype. When publically available, this method of capturing everyday moments with relative ease drove, for Delaroche and the art world, an era of existential questioning. No longer was the artistic hand required to immortalise visual subjects. Painting had been dealt a seemingly life-threatening blow. Of course, painting did not die. It evolved and found new purpose through movements such as Impressionism and eventually Cubism. However, photography was progressing at just as steady a pace, slowly dominating our media and becoming perhaps the most interacted-with visual medium of our modern world. Fine Art photography, however, has often struggled to garner the same intellectual weight as painting, despite its accessibility. Perhaps this is due to its reliance on chance – and extended in this is the idea that precludes artistic merit
An example of this is Kevin Carter’s, perhaps all too familiar, Starving Child and Vulture, 1993, – a piece of photojournalism apparently captured by mere chance. Depicting a young girl, weakened by starvation, with a vulture watching her from behind - the image is uncomfortable and distressing. The image is, for so many reasons, a powerful depiction of tragedy and it encapsulates the at-times dubious morality of photojournalism. Its power resides in the fact that it is supposedly neither fictionalised, nor planned. Photojournalism propounds to be factual and, as a result, it is powerful because it is real and tangible. The little girl collapsed and exhausted is not simply a depiction designed in such a way to prompt an emotion – she is real and, thus, the horror that this photograph instills is twofold. Kevin Carter later revealed that he had left key elements of the situation out of the composition, such as the nearby aid centre, as the current composition was more affecting. However, the problems of falsity in photojournalism are not being discussed here. In fact, the claim to objectivity and chance is what makes photojournalism so effective, whether or not compositions have been manipulated. This composition, with death lurking behind a weakened frame, is seemingly within nature itself. To the viewer, it seems that nothing in this image, out-with its perspective, is reliant upon the photographer. Rather, its power resides in the subject. We might compare this to Goya’s Third of May, 1814.
It too exists to inform and preserve humanity’s suffering. While this painting is doubtlessly shocking and troubling, we are perhaps able to distance ourselves from the painted figure. He is not a real figure, so much as an amalgamation of victims to whom the viewer can place no names nor face to. Painting struggles to provoke the same kind of emotions because of its remove from reality. What it can do, however, is employ symbols and force a composition that might incite questioning and draw subversive parallels. It requires a degree of intellectualisation – perhaps something we can perceive as missing in a photograph. A painter will sketch and plan, this element of fabrication is what grants him his true power.
But what happens when a photographer exhibits this control – when he too “sketches” and plans just as extensively as a painter? Jeff Wall is the result. His staged works blend together the physicality of a photograph with the planned and purposeful composition of a painting. He often produces his photographs in front of a lightbox with some transparent elements adding an innovative light source in a self-professed cinematic way.
Unlike photojournalists, he does not rely on chance encounters to express ideas. He tackles societal issues by staging them, in the same way a painter positions a reclining nude to sketch
One of Jeff Wall’s key interests in photography is capturing seemingly small ignorable interactions between people and using these to expose societal unrest and internalised tensions. Mimic (1982) is perhaps the clearest example of this. The above scene is a recreation of something Wall was witness to – a racist gesture directed at an Asian man on the streets of Vancouver. The duplicitous title Mimic, gestures at the mocking impersonation that is the subject, but also the nature of this photo as a copy. It is not genuine, though the figures within it are; it remains a recreation. In this sense it suffers from the same lack of personalisation that Goya’s painting does. The scene that we look at is not real, thus cannot offer the same confrontation that Carter’s photograph did when it was published in the New York Times.
Yet, while limited in one regard, it is liberated on another. Carter mused after his work that he waited a few minutes for the vulture to spread its wings, of course it didn’t. In his inability to manipulate his surroundings, his artistic liberty was stripped away. Jeff Wall takes control of his works to ensure this does not happen, planning and sketching mentally and physically the scene he wishes to create. While photojournalists are limited – the fine art photographer, Jeff Wall, is freed. His job becomes creation as opposed to observation.
It is perhaps ironic that we might consider Jeff Wall, above many painters of our era, as taking the most from art history. Many of our modern works ignore and purposefully disregard what has come before, yet Wall consistently demonstrates an intrinsic connection to precursory art like that of Hokusai. His photography could be seen to recognise its debt to the older visual culture that preceded it, frequently drawing upon some of the most recognisable pieces of art, such as Ejiri in Suruga Province (1830-32). Hall’s A Sudden Gust of Wind (1993) is not a direct imitation of this work, but rather a reimagining. It took him a year to complete this piece, and he likened the process to that of a film, splicing different photos together in an almost-collage to create a unified end product. The figures struggle in a furore of wind on the outskirts of a city. The industrial lines in the backdrop provide a realisation of our industrial age, whilst providing a contrast to Hokusai’s nature-laden work.
Above, we can see his process he used to create this image. Wall ensures that all lines and perspectives are considered in addition to scale and positioning. He returns and relies upon this notion of the artistic process as refinement of composition. His work is not the result of one lucky shot, it is calculated and precise. In this image, he is essentially sketching and working through his ideas in the hope to create a polished piece of art. Quite often we can find diagonals in Wall’s work, which was a key visual tool used by the old Masters. In this example, the flying paper provides the diagonal element, pulling our eye swiftly through the image; we can see through the guiding lines that this was a considered and purposeful choice.
One of Hall’s most famous pieces is his Destroyed Room (1978). Its composition is the primary focus, featuring a cluttered and chaotic arrangement. Hall stated that this piece was a “re-encounter with 19th century art” - particularly Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus (1827). Not only does it share a chaotic and disjointed composition, but it also shares a bold and rich colour scheme of reds that emotes passion and violence. While Delacroix’s piece focuses on the violent acts of humans, Hall’s is the aftermath. We do not know what has happened – we only see the ravaged result. Through his works, he is actively returning to the past and pushing his medium to new levels of depth.
Mark Stevens, in 2007, noted Wall as the kind of artist ‘who engages in the past and lives up to it.’ Over the past two centuries, art has changed immensely, by and large due to the camera. Photographers might always struggle to prove their artistic merit, for it does seem to be the case that the most powerful photos often do arise through moments of inexplicable chance. However, by returning to the rich history of art and modelling his photographic process on that of a painter, Hall is able to exhibit control and artistic liberty over his creations. He can construct complex metaphors and deconstruct society, much like a painter. His camera is not his eye, but rather the pencil in his hand. His method of photography should prompt us all to consider the innovative ways that the camera can be manipulated to create effective and affective art.
McCabe, Éamonn, From the archive, 30 July 1994: Photojournalist Kevin Carter dies, The Guardian, (July 2014) Accessed on 13/02/2018
O’Hagan Sean, Jeff Wall: “I’m haunted by the idea my photography was all a big mistake”, The Guardian, (November 2015) Accessed on 13/02/2018.
Sooke Alastair, “Jeff Wall: Conjuring something out of nothing”, The Telegraphy, (December 2007) Accessed on 13/02/2018