Research notes – Jeff Wall

The following comments are made after looking at the exhibition catalogues Jeff Wall (1) and  Jeff Wall Photographs 1978-2004 (2). The first was published by the Museum of Modern Art (“MoMA”), New York City, in connection with a series of exhibitions across three museums: the MoMA, the Art Institute of Chicago and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, between February 2007 and January 2008. The second was published in connection with a retrospective organized by Tate Modern between 21 October 2005 and 8 January 2006.

Jeff Wall is well-known for his large staged photographs, which are printed in translucent media and exhibited on top of a fluorescent light box. Most of the images portray something that the artists had experienced or seen at some point – either on the street (like in Mimic (link)), while reading a book (like in After “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue (link), or after looking at a painting (like in A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) (link). In some of the photographs, the events are clear – like for instance in An Eviction (link) – where the title and what is portrayed gives us clear indications of what is going on. In other cases the link is more tenuous, or the title is simply a description of the elements within the picture, without giving any clue about what is going on. Take for instance A woman with a covered tray (link), where the title just echoes what is in the picture, but we are left to imagine who is this woman and why is she carrying a covered tray. Wall has talked fondly of the spontaneous, aesthetic experience that we get when viewing works of art, that reaction that fill us – with joy or rage or any other feeling – “…without it being possible to define the nature or reason for this experience” (3). For some of its work, as displayed in these books, I could feel a connection but others are either too enigmatic or simply too plain for me to feel anything. Concrete Ball (link), for instance, with its subject dead in the middle, the bland overcast sky and relatively busy background is something that resembles more a record shot taken by an aficionado that just bought his or her first camera. Even after reading the notes from Tate on this image (link), I am still unable to feel anything out of it, because it goes against so many aesthetic conventions of photography without creating anything new in return (as opposed to what Philip-Lorca DiCorcia does in his Unknown (link) photograph – my notes on this can be found here). It is possible, though, that my lack of enthusiasm is somewhat influenced by experiencing this work through a small printed plate in a book, rather than as originally presented (as a backlit illuminated monumentally sized transparency, 2.6 meters long and over 2 meters tall).

Much has been said about Wall’s erudition (4), and to a certain extent to get the most out of some of his works one needs to understand and appreciate the source material for his inspiration. Without any background knowledge about it, The Thinker (link) looks like an amusing environmental portrait of a tramp that loosely mimics the pose in Auguste Rodin’s famous sculpture of the same name (link). But there is a strange, incongruous element in the image: a sword seems to be sticking out of the subject’s back – which references another, more obscure work of art: Albrecht Dürer’s 16th century drawing for a (never build) monument to the peasants killed during the 1524-25 revolt in Germany (link). It is only by looking at the original context of Dürer’s work that one could perhaps see the irony and social commentary in Wall’s reinterpretation, particularly how Dürer’s long and stylish column (in itself a parody of contemporary monuments), made in the shape of materials and tools used by peasants at that time, is reduced to almost nothing in Wall’s, highlighting that over 400 years later the working classes continue to be stabbed in the back but have even less at their disposal. It is a clever, powerful image, but its full enjoyment is precluded by the obscurity of its references. I wonder if my apathy towards some other Wall photographs is also caused by my ignorance on their inspiration. But then again, if that is the case, to what extent is Wall living to his desire to elicit a spontaneous aesthetic response? I am left to wander that.

In addition to his well-known life-sized colourful transparencies, Wall has also produced large photographs printed traditionally in black and white. His series of night shots from the late 90s represent an important departure from the transparency work he developed from the late 70s. These shots are moodier and lack the luminosity of the transparency work (they are not mounted on lightboxes either). Some of them, like Cyclist (link) and Night (link) are devoid of any highlight tones and the subjects are almost indistinguishable from the background, highlighting the despair and social invisibility of homelessness in modern urban environments. In another shot, Passerby (link) Wall has resorted to artificial lighting to create a sense of voyeurism that reminds me at once of Bill Brandt headlight series (link). The theme of a casual encounter, similar to an idea developed earlier by Duane Michals (link), is elevated to its maximum suspense by Wall’s use of a single frame – as opposed to the story told by Michals over six frames – which leaves the viewer full of doubt and to a certain extent anxiety: we do not know in which terms, if any, these two individuals met a few seconds ago, if indeed they met, and why the main subject is turning his head to see the other walker, who we can barely glimpse as he is partially obscured by a tree and the fall off from the flash light just manages to give a hint of his legs. There is no indication of where the action is going to take us next, and this in itself is the beauty of the tableaux photograph, as opposed to the series, where the viewer imagination plays an important part in completing the picture.


(1) Wall, J., 2007. Jeff Wall. The Museum of Modern Art.

(2) Wall, J., 2005. Jeff Wall: Photographs 1978-2004. 1st ed. London: Tate Publishing.

(3) Idem, p 8

(4) See Peter Galassi’s article in Wall, J., 2007. Jeff Wall. The Museum of Modern Art Pp 13-57


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