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Pictures Like Novels
An Interview with Jeff Wall

With his elaborately staged works, Jeff Wall has played a key role in contemporary photographic art. The Deutsche Guggenheim now presents the exhibition Exposure, featuring new black-and-white tableaux by the Canadian, along with a selection of his earlier works. Silke Hohmann met the artist and talked to him about the correspondence between his images, the relationships to his protagonists and Wall's fondness for people at the edges of society.

Jeff Wall
Photo: Jack Foster
©Jack Foster / Deutsche Guggenheim

Whether recreating Manet's famous Luncheon on the Grass using Native Americans posed under a highway overpass; or allowing himself to be inspired by Franz Kafka - or as in his latest commissioned works for Deutsche Guggenheim, by Italian Neo-Realist cinema - Jeff Wall makes use of a wide variety of cultural influences in his work. Sometimes the Canadian artist recreates very banal situations he has witnessed himself, such as in Mimic, in which he captures the xenophobic gesture of a passer-by. What at first glance seems like a random snapshot is in reality the result of careful production. Wall's precise direction pulls the scene into sharp focus. Thus his large-format photography captures the "decisive moment" and allows it to become an indelible representation of commonplace racism.

Jeff Wall,Tenants, 2007
©Jeff Wall

Jeff Wall's interest in photography began when he was a teenager, but after studying art history in his hometown of Vancouver and in London, he initially began working as a painter and conceptual artist. But it was his lightboxes with which he finally had his breakthrough, in the late 1970s. His pictures get their radiance from the presentation: Wall's framed large-format transparencies are lit from behind like illuminated advertisements. For some pieces, the artist builds elaborate sets in which his models pose. It can take weeks for him to complete a photograph. But the process can also take up to a year, as in the case of the 2006 work, In Front of a Nightclub. The original location of the scene was faithfully reproduced in the studio. But the photographer does not limit himself to such - as he puts it - "cinematographic" productions. He also creates works whose character he would describe as documentary in nature. Since the mid 1990s, he has produced black and white prints in addition to the lightboxes.

Jeff Wall, In front of a nightclub, 2006
Collection of the Pilara Family Foundation
©2007 Jeff Wall

Due to his often complex production, the 61-year-old artist has only created some 150 works since 1978, some of which are altered digitally. Wall deals with phenomena such as poverty, violence and immigration, but he refuses to be pinned down to socially-conscious topics. The situations which his images capture are often utterly enigmatic, allowing the viewer to engage in many different interpretations. Jeff Wall never conceives of his work as a series. Each of his photographic tableaux is a unique composition that stands alone.

Jeff Wall, Conctrete Ball, 2002
©Jeff Wall

Silke Hohmann: You are known for working in a very focused manner, developing one photograph after another. How does it feel to see these singular works together in an exhibition, where they correspond?

Jeff Wall : I like it. I always feel there's a connection between them, but I can't define it. For example, I really like to see Concrete Ball and Cool Storage together. You can see there are affinities with the vertical shapes, with water and ice. And then the circular form of Concrete Ball and the circle there in the third picture, Logs.

Jeff Wall, Cold Storage, Vancouver, 2007
©Jeff Wall l

But these are only formal analogies. Is there a thematic correspondence, as well?

I don't think about the thematic aspect very much. These pictures have never been hung together. Still, I have the feeling that what I'm doing there is the same as what I'm doing here. I try to make large-scale pictures of places that somehow capture my attention.

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