Pictures Like Novels
An Interview with Jeff Wall
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.
Photo: Jack Foster
Foster / Deutsche Guggenheim
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.
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
Jeff Wall, In front of a nightclub, 2006
of the Pilara Family Foundation
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.
Wall, Conctrete Ball, 2002
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.
Wall, Cold Storage, Vancouver, 2007
But these are only formal
analogies. Is there a thematic correspondence, as well?
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.