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>> Interview: Jeff Wall
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Your pictures seem to capture a kind of standstill, the moment before something happens, or after something has happened. You deny the narrative element in your work.

People say my pictures are very narrative. It's something that's commonly said about them. But I think they're no more narrative than anybody else's pictures. Because I think all pictures have that quality. You know, what a picture really is is that phenomenon that renders the moment before and the moment after invisible. With a picture, it is decisively that thing; nothing else will ever be seen of it. And what's beautiful about that is that it erases everything else; it cancels everything else out. Everything is gone; the picture alone remains. So what's wonderful about that is that the viewer is totally free to write a novel in his or her own mind about what the picture means. That's what pictures are.



Jeff Wall, Passerby, 1996
©Jeff Wall


You say the meaning is completely up to the viewer. What about the titles of your works? Don't they softly direct the story?

When I look back, I think these titles were a bad idea. They should never guide the viewer like that. But we all make mistakes, we all do things we shouldn't do. I would like to change the titles of some of the pictures.

Which ones?

That doesn't matter. It's a bit too late now, and most people don't remember the title, anyway. That's something I've always noticed when people talk about my pictures. They tend to say "That picture with that guy ..." And I think that's good. Forgetting the title is a way of making the picture your own. Because if you look at the title, you're reading the guidebook, not the picture.

On the one hand, you deny the narrative aspect, and on the other you precisely reconstruct moments: a process that probably has its own storyline.

Yes, when I work for a week on something, or a month, I do it because things change as I work. I discover things that I wouldn't have known about the subject, about the place, about the time of day. Things I wouldn't have known if I'd worked more quickly. What I like about the process is that it's slow. I think of it as the process a painter enters into when he or she starts painting. In the end, the result is completely different from what the painter thought it was going to be in the beginning. I allow myself some of that freedom.



Jeff Wall, Overpass, 2001
©Jeff Wall

Do you stay true to the moment you've witnessed?

If I were like Cartier Bresson or Gary Winogrand, then I would always have my camera and I'd always be out hunting for subjects. But that's nothing I ever felt I wanted to do, and I probably wouldn't be very good at it. But I didn't want to miss out on life, and so I involve this notion like a cinematographer, and I reconstruct. And the reconstruction is both; it's as faithful to the event as I can make it. I feel I should be free to do things such as change the place, the season, the time of day.

Do you interact with the people that model for you, for example with the children in the picture War Game?

This is a good example for one way of doing things, but it's not the only way. When I decided to do this subject, I found a group of boys at a school nearby, and the administration allowed me to hire the kids to work with me. I got them to play these war games and let them make the games up themselves, as far as they wanted to. I videotaped them a lot and watched them play. At some point, we decided we needed to build a fort, something to defend. So I said: "We need a fort!," and one or two of them built it. We reconstructed it with the same elements every day. I worked for three weeks on it, three weeks of shooting. Things happen when you improvise; I watched and isolated the elements I wanted. And then there was this moment with a few captives, a guard, and some other boys edging away, and this was the most interesting moment in the play. So I began focusing on that. But I didn't direct the kids at all, except for when I said: "quit shooting… "I'm gonna fine you if you don't stop squirting those kids, Gennaro." In the end, I fined him five dollars. It took quite a few days to get some good material on them. But in the end they were really great.



Jeff Wall, War Game, 2007
©Jeff Wall

What kind of relationship do you develop with adults?

In this picture here, Men Waiting, I didn't direct any of these people at all, they were perfect just as they were. All I did every once in a while was to move them to another place. I had a very good relationship with these men. I was paying them, but I tried to treat them all really well, because I needed them. They almost always feel this. The people who work for me usually have a pretty good time.

Do you have to identify with the people you photograph in some way?

I'm not saying I don't, but I don't want to make too big of a thing out of it. I'm not one of them. We never see each other again.

Why did you choose black and white photography for this ensemble for the Deutsche Guggenheim?

There was no really prominent reason; I felt like doing more black and white photography, because I quite like it. When the Deutsche Guggenheim asked me to do something, I told them it was very hard for me to promise "I'll do this or that," because I never have any plans. I just hoped I could make a group of pictures that spoke to each other and felt like a kind of ensemble, while remaining independent. And it wasn't necessary for them all to be black and white. I tried it, and I was lucky to succeed. And then I tried the same pictures in color, as well. There were reasons for them to be in black and white, but it's kind of hard to explain them all.




Jeff Wall, Men Waiting, 2006
©Jeff Wall


Try it anyway: what would have happened if War Game had been in color?

For example, when I did this picture in color, there was just too much green in it. The mass of green was distracting. I realized that it wasn't inherently a good subject for color. So I made some tests in black and white. The grey tone of the grass unified everything, whereas the green didn't unify, but tore the image apart.

You speak about too much green, but what about the proposition of the pictures? A black-and-white aesthetic is usually connected with documentary photography. You are obviously interested in depicting a particular social environment.

People ask: "why don't you photograph in your own social milieu?" But this always presumes that they know what my social milieu is, that I myself know what my social milieu is. Of course I do in a certain way, but experientially, it's not all that clear. Obviously, I must have some interest in these aspects of the world. I can't deny it, because I often like to photograph there. For Tenants, I wanted to do a work outside the city, and then I found an apartment building whose architecture intrigued me. It's probably the worst apartment building in the city. But I'm not concerned with addressing social issues; this doesn't really interest me.

So what is it that interests you about the poorer parts of society?

First of all, many of the things that happen there aren't all that unpleasant. The poor parts of society are interesting, full of life-there are many positive things to be found. Maybe people are just more interesting when they're struggling harder. At least they're more interesting to me. They bear the marks of failure, suffering, of conflict, of success, of hope-all of this blended together is kind of fascinating. Whereas when someone succeeds, it's all a bit one-dimensional. What I liked about these men waiting for work was not that they had no money, but that they had so much energy, that they were ready to go. That they're available. They had so much willingness to do something, this is what intrigued me. Yes, they're poor, because otherwise they wouldn't be there. But that's not the whole of their story.

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