Jeff Wall: A conversation with David Campany
Catalogue Raisonné 2005-2021, Gagosian Gallery / Yale University Press, 2022
Jeff Wall – Artist Talk: a conversation with David Campany
Kunsthalle Mannheim, Mannheim, Germany – 2 June 2018
DC: I would like to start with the question of spontaneity because, for artists with long careers, certain myths accumulate, and one of the myths that has accumulated around your work is that it’s all very controlled and pre-prepared. But I know that there are all kinds of opportunities for spontaneity within your photographs. Maybe we can get rid of one of the myths, that you’re a control freak. Spontaneity is something that people associate with photography, quite a lot – things can occur in photographs in ways that they cannot in other media.
JW: The idea that one is a control freak isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It has become a phrase used to suggest a neurotic inability to deal with the outside world, but a neurotic inability to deal with the outside world is a very artistic frame of mind. It’s perfectly possible that just such an artist could do extremely good work, and everybody can probably think of an artist or an author whose work was created out of such neuroses.
But I don’t think I am one of them! –, because photography is somewhat uncontrollable. Therefore, in my work in general, there are certain things I feel I can control; other things I know from the outset are unlikely to be controlled. My decision there is to abandon any attempt to do so but to prepare myself for that situation.
I’ve used the term cinematography for my work. By that, I mean something very simple. A photograph that involves preparation of something, people, places, things, and involves collaboration between the photographer and other people working on the project, whatever it happens to be is cinematography. Any photography that doesn’t involve those things, in other words, where there is no collaboration and the photographer does nothing to prepare the world to be photographed is documentary.
I make that distinction because I think it’s real; the orthodox way of looking at photography is that the documentary is the essential mode in which photography realizes itself. For a long time, anything to do with the other was considered, in some ways, a lower version or even outside of serious photography, acceptable in the commercial world or advertising. My view is that the cinematographic process that I just described is equally inherent in photography as the documentary and in fact, photography consists in some fusion or confusion of the two.
In almost every picture that I’ve made and every picture in this exhibition, there is some combination of things I could control and things I could not control.
DC: Can you give an example of that, and talk through how a picture comes about?
JW: Well, in almost all my pictures the behaviors of the people that are being photographed are both controlled and uncontrolled. A painter can reach out with his hand and paint the expression on a face of a person, that’s total control, as a matter of fact. However, a painter doesn’t have total control because, unfortunately, the brush sometimes does what it wants, but, still, he has a lot of control. A photographer does not have that ability to reach out and make a shape; it’s all done in the dialogue between people.
Jeff Wall, Man with a Rifle, 2000
I may place a person where I want them to be, but I can’t tell them exactly what to do. In A Man with a Rifle 2000, the man with the rifle is aiming at an unseen or invisible or nonexistent opponent. He did what I asked him to do, but after a few dozen or more likely a few hundred photographs, one of them was different from all the others. I directed him to some extent, but I could not control him. I simply kept photographing him to see what would evolve in the course of the performance.
Jeff Wall, In front of a Nightclub, 2006
Another example could be the picture of the people standing around in In front of a nightclub2006. The whole scene was carefully prepared, lit, and I thought maybe I would have places for all these kids to see if I could make a really great composition of figures. It didn’t work. It wasn’t possible. Finally, I had to bring all the kids there, let them play very loud music, smoke cigarettes, drink, and do whatever they wanted, and just keep photographing them night after night. My hope was to find enough pictures that I could assemble in a digital montage to make a composition. So, in a project which seemed to involve immense preparation, all the performances are undirected. They were simply recorded. At some point most evenings, I was almost in a position of a street photographer. In other words, no directions were given, and they weren’t paying any attention to me. That’s a very typical example, but because the picture has so many figures, it’s a little more obvious.
DC: And yet, photographing them night after night, you must develop some kind of empathy. A street photographer who sees someone and photographs them doesn’t have to have any connection at all. Even if you’re trying to behave like a street photographer, if you have a group of people and you’re photographing them night after night, your understanding of them, or your projected understanding of them, must affect the way you photograph them, no? Generally, with the people in your pictures, you spend quite a long time in their company.
Jeff Wall, Volunteer, 1996
JW: A good example of that is the black and white picture of the man mopping in a drop-in shelter, Volunteer 1996. This man obviously worked with me. I hired him for a month, five nights a week to come there and clean up. I did not want to direct him in any way; I just wanted him to do his job. I created an artificial world that he could occupy as if it was the real world. But it was an artificial place that he entered and then behaved as if it was a part of his everyday life. On another level, it was since he was hired to do just that.
He did his work and I photographed him for a month, and in the end, I only got one good picture, only one picture that I liked. All the others were somehow inferior. I didn’t direct him, I didn’t even talk to him; that was our agreement, he came in, he worked, and we didn’t speak. I mean, we said hello, but that was it. Because he could hear the camera shutter click and knew where I preferred to photograph him some nights he just decided not to go to those places. After a while these were games that we played and under our agreement, I couldn’t ask him to behave differently.
So, like a lot of performers, he was a little unruly. All my collaborators have their own minds and they do what they want. In the nightclub picture, when there are more performers, they gang up against you and then it gets really unruly. These are just the conditions for my photography; it opens up to become not that different from being in any uncontrolled environment. A controlled environment can easily mutate into an uncontrolled environment under certain conditions. What I really love about cinematography and what makes me feel very free is that unpredictability. Every situation is different and there’s no one way of approaching it.
Jeff Wall, After ‘Spring Snow’ by Yukio Mishima, chapter 34,2000-2005
There are some pictures in which I have had to direct people very, very closely because they have to do a certain thing very precisely. For example, the woman pouring sand out of her shoe in After ‘Spring Snow’ by Yukio Mishima, chapter 34 2000-2005. It was very carefully controlled for a lot of reasons, mostly to do with the composition. She had to do exactly what I asked, exactly when I asked her to do it. But that is what I find so free about the process, there is no single mode.
DC: I’m interested in how working at the scale you do, life-scale, the depicted figures have a very strong psychological charge. The viewer knows they’re not in the presence of that person, but they know a camera was in the presence of that person. The composition falls away, and the viewer is looking at a facsimile of a person at a moment, at a scale that allows people to do that. They then step back and only then do they appreciate the composition, all those formal things.
All of your pictures depicting people have this strong psychological charge. After you make hundreds of pictures of the guy mopping, for example, when you’re deciding which one to choose, are you thinking about different viewing distances and different kinds of engagement with the picture?
JW: Yes. I think that life scale is something very special. There’s something slightly uncanny about it; and it only takes place at that register. When images get bigger, they go somewhere else and when they get smaller, they go somewhere else again.
I’ve always loved life scale; it is something I leaned about mainly from paintings. When I began to work in photography in the late 1960s, photography was still dominated by the orthodoxy of reportage. Individual prints were small, made only to the size needed for reproduction in printed publications. I have no criticism of that, it just doesn’t suit me. There was an unreleased energy in the medium of photography that had to do with scale.
A lot of people were thinking about that in the 1960s and 1970s and newer, larger photography emerged. What I enjoyed in paintings was something that photography had the capacity, not only to participate in, but to add something to. It is precisely what you mention; the capture of, in this instance, a person or their face, is inherently different in painting than it is in photography. They can become similar when painting becomes so realistic that it almost feels like the presence of a person. Portraits by Velázquez, or Holbein, for example, have a photographic quality,
The presence of the person is irradiated precisely at life scale. There is a certain almost out of body experience that I think that the spectator can have where they’re hovering around another being who isn’t really there but seems manifestly present. You’re very close to them when you come up and look at the picture; you’re right here and there they are. Yet they don’t respond to you–because they’re not really there! It’s a sort of phantom presence that photography has the unique capacity to create.
Painting kind of led the way and photography could take a ride on that and add something else. So look closely at the Volunteer, and you can see that there’s some kind of pleasure and enjoyment flickering across his face, not just a task being taken care of late at night, but something he’s getting satisfaction from. That expression appeared just once, once in hundreds of shots. That’s a kind of magic unique to photography. When released or realized it’s very satisfying. Stepping back to then appreciate the composition is another dimension, something else.
DC: There are at least two pictures of people mopping, cleaning in this exhibition. Is there something about cleaning?
JW: Yes, I love to watch people clean! I think cleaning is an immensely virtuous activity that is therapeutic for the person who is doing it. People often, you know, think about housework and things like that as drudgery and of course to some extent that’s true. Often cleaning is not respected, treated as drudgery in society, particularly when women did all of the work. A lot of women probably got tired of doing housework, dishes, laundry and things like that because it was considered drudgery and not valued. I think that’s a wrong way of looking at it; I’ve always admired people who clean and take care of things; they’re doing an immensely important job.
So, I enjoy watching people clean and I don’t mind cleaning myself. I think that those virtues, (it’s good to use the older term “virtue” for it) are important and can be overlooked. If there’s a purpose in some of my pictures, it’s to enhance just these virtues to make them beautiful, and therefore desirable and respectable again.
DC: There is always a relation to realism in your work and perhaps to—well, I will use the term ‘eyesight,’ with a slight hesitation because I’m not quite sure what eyesight is. Eyesight can be a lot of things. For example, I could glance out the corner of my eye and see a guy in a yellow t-shirt who has now just gone behind a tree trunk. That’s one kind of eyesight. To stare at my glass of water in front of me, that’s another kind of eyesight. Your work always seems to have a relationship to eyesight somehow, and the realism comes from that.
JW: I think eyesight is the right term because pictorial art, and it’s been like this for centuries, has always got at a relation to how things look when we’re not looking at pictures; an aspect of resemblance. We have the kind of eyes we have, and they create the images of the world that we have and understand. That itself is the bedrock of pictorial art, one of its inescapable elements. If there’s going to be pictorial art, it’s going to have something to do with the way we see. And the artwork imitates it, replicates it, whatever you want to call it.
That thread of realism is inescapable, and a lot of my pictures have a completely simple or direct commitment to just that kind of realism. It is, of course, a feature of painting, of sculpture, but also of literature and the other arts, even theater. Realism is something that’s inescapable but at the same time I don’t want to have an unfree relation to realism; sometimes it’s possible to do something that defies eyesight, that in some way confounds eyesight or the obvious correspondence of the image with the ‘way things normally look’. That is part of the freedom of the pictorial. I think of it as a continent or a domain in which pictorial art has lived and is going to keep on living.
DC: I’m convinced as well that the pictorial will keep on living. But if we think back to when you were just beginning, at the tail end of conceptual art and performance art and processed-based things, your commitment to the pictorial must have really stood out. Did you feel you were going out on a limb in the 1970s making a commitment to the pictorial at that point?
JW: When I was young, as a child and then as an adolescent, I was painting and drawing, and naively interested in art. I had the good fortune that my parents had art books in our house, so I learned about Bruegel and Velázquez and Picasso you know, by the time I was ten or eleven years old. I could draw and so I was always kind of in love with art. That was naïve in the sense that I didn’t really know what an artist was, I didn’t know any artists, there was no art world in my world, the world with my family–but I knew that these were good pictures.
In the 1960s, like a lot of young artists, I got very much involved in the new discourses that led to conceptual art. And of course that led me away from pictures and picture making. Doing so tormented me for a long time, from the time I was eighteen or nineteen, until I was almost thirty. I tried to reconcile myself to what was happening around me, the new art that was compelling in 1968, in a way that I don’t think you can experience today unless you were there. I moved away from what I had naively wanted to do as a boy.
I came back to it, after a long period of trouble and unhappiness, but also experimentation, excitement too, as a conceptual artist. I did ridiculously bad conceptual art for a while and I was extremely unhappy with it and very unhappy with myself.
DC: You had to be extremely unhappy with it; that seems to be the lot of the conceptual artist.
JW: That could be, but I was even more unhappy because that’s not what I wanted to be, really. Also because I wasn’t very good at it and that was extremely disappointing. When I came back around to realizing that I wanted somehow to reenter the world of pictorial, that that was what I really wanted to do, it didn’t seem like something impermissible or inauthentic.
But also by the middle of the 1970s, I wasn’t the only one going there. There was a pretty widespread recovery of the pictorial, in photography and painting. To me, it wasn’t against the previously normative conceptual art, it seemed more like it was coming out of it in an unanticipated way. That is where I see myself. I’m not opposed to the kinds of art that I failed to produce myself. I admire a lot of conceptual work. I also feel that the newer versions of photography would never have happened without the transformation of the whole idea of art that happened between 1960 and 1980. A lot of people think that there was a reaction against conceptual art and against experimental forms; I’ve never seen it that way at all.
Jeff Wall, Picture for Women, 1979
DC: But the early works that you were making have quite an agitated quality, not quite realism or naturalism. For example, Picture for Women is extremely self-conscious, self-reflexive, and it’s the only photograph you’ve made with a camera in it.
JW: There’s a camera in In front of a nightclub. But that was an accident. It’s a woman who has got a camera, which is nice.
DC: Oh yes.
JW: London in the early 1970s was one of the real centers of the kind of newer types of art I’ve just been talking about. I went through a lot of different things in London and although it wasn’t made there, I feel that Picture for Women is a London picture. It’s really about my life in London.
DC: Yes, Édouard Manet’s Bar is in London.
JW: Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère 1882, which I ‘remade’ as I put it at the time, was part of my everyday life. I was a student and I used to go to the Warburg Galleries at least twice a month sometimes just to have a look at the Bar at the Folies-Bergère as part of my day. If I lived in Mannheim, I’d be around here to look at The Execution of Maximilian[i] regularly for the same reason.
Manet’s Bar was just part of my life; it wasn’t something I learned in a university course. Because of the polemic and the more political way that art was discussed around that time, my path back to the picture, kind of went through a polemic mannerism, if you want to call it that, of art about art and the politics of representation. That was the most interesting way of thinking about being an artist at that moment. It was a way for me to bring those two problems together. That picture is kind of an anomaly, but it’s a moment, one that stood for a situation that I was really in. I haven’t done anything like that again.
Jeff Wall, Summer Afternoons 2013
DC: Yesterday you told me that Summer Afternoons 2013, the diptych of the nude figures in the yellow room, was a London picture too.
JW: That picture is set in London, but it doesn’t have the relation to my experience as a young artist in London that the earlier ones did. That’s a reminiscence of my time in London because it’s a replica of the place we lived in at that time.
Can I say something about replicas, replication? Sometimes, like most photographers, I would prefer to be out in the world photographing somewhere. Sometimes it isn’t possible for practical reasons. In those cases, I resort to the studio and create an artificial world. I don’t use the word ‘set’ like they do in movies, because in the cinema, a set is usually something that’s made of materials that only resemble the materials that they’re supposed to be; sometimes not, but often. It suggests the cinema, it suggests the theater, and I’m not doing cinema or theater. Cinematography, the way I understand it, does not result in the cinema. Cinematography is a kind of photography and it has nothing to do with the cinema.
So if I make a place, I call it a replica. It’s a replica of the place I could not photograph but wanted to. So for example, my apartment in London still exists but the current resident wouldn’t let me photograph in her place. I had many photographs of our life there in the 1970s and I’d lived there so long I could literally pace out the size of the room from memory. That way I was able to create an exact replica of that room. I believe that if I did not make this public you wouldn’t know it was not a real place. And if that’s true, then the fact that it’s a replica doesn’t matter. All the replicas I’ve made are ones that I want to be imperceptible as such.
DC: Is the act of replication just a sheer necessity, is it a pain in the ass or is there a pleasure in making it?
JW: It’s enormously enjoyable. It’s really a blast to do.
DC: Tell me about that, because you don’t talk very much about this aspect of your working process.
JW: Artists like making things; it’s as simple as that. We do it because we like making things. Making things is enjoyable in itself. I wouldn’t do anything if it was just drudgery. Often you have to invent ways of doing things. I have tried to work with people who do set work for films a few times; they have no idea what I’m talking about when I do what I do, it’s different.
DC: Do you replicate with a particular camera vantage point in mind or do you replicate the way they sometimes do for the cinema which is to produce an environment that could be observed from a number of different positions?
JW: Since we’re talking about only one replica that I’ll admit to, then we can just talk about the yellow apartment.
It has all four walls, a ceiling, windows, everything, partly because I wasn’t absolutely sure where I would put the camera. Most of the replicas are built as completely as possible often to the point of absurdity, where it’s clearly not necessary. But essentially the practicalities are always the most important consideration.
DC: Just staying with Summer Afternoons, was it clear that it had to be a diptych or did that come about in the process?
JW: That raises the question of what a subject is. Originally, I wanted to do the man only and I don’t really remember why. I wanted to photograph the man from that angle, that camera angle, which is, in fact, the view from outside the window of the apartment, from a little balcony. And if you look at the other photograph of the woman, you can see a tiny section of that balcony through the window. Therefore once you realize where the man is on the floor you realize that the camera had to be just outside on that balcony, which is in fact where it was. It being a warm summer day, the window could easily have been open, which it was. As I worked on the picture, I began to feel that the single image was inadequate, and it began to generate some kind of energy that the first picture couldn’t contain. The woman is a kind of embodiment of the energy that was missing with just the first picture, the phantom that emerged out of my dissatisfaction with the first picture.
Any time I’ve done a picture, a picture with more than one image, it’s caused by that sort of development. The second image or even possibly a third emerges from some problem with the first one. It has something to do with the intensity of my primary devotion, which is to the single, unitary image.
DC: That’s an interesting thing with photography and clearly the heart of your practice. Your work is still very unusual – making one photograph and presenting a pictorial experience that has no relation to any other pictures. Most photographers make bodies of work, you know, a project, a set, a series, a suite, an archive, a typology; whatever it is, there seems to be an aversion to the ‘one’. Clearly it is enough for you, but do you have a sense of why it’s not more common?
JW: Not really. I’ve always felt that the convention of ‘the project’ in photography was a bit laborious, task oriented, and probably comes from the journalistic origins of photography.
DC: Coverage of a theme?
JW: Yes I suppose so. But I’m attached to pictures, not themes. I like the sovereignty of a picture in relation to its own theme and therefore to any other theme that it could be related to. Paintings have a beautiful sovereignty about them, completely free in relation to their subject. That’s one of the reasons why abstract painting emerged, an expression of the total freedom of the artist from any subject imposed or suggested by any other person, institution, or tradition.
That’s a remarkable freedom that our concept of art has given us. It is also a model of general freedom, Kantian freedom. It goes back to Kant’s idea of reason and freedom. This is one of the most important qualities of pictorial art, something I’m very attached to. I don’t want to be devoted to any cause except the picture and that devotion is itself an enactment of a kind of freedom.
DC: There is a kind of sovereignty that painting appears to have that photography doesn’t, and it has to do with scale and materiality. Generally speaking, if you’re a painter, you don’t paint your painting and then decide how big it will be. You don’t paint your painting and then decide what surface it will have or what substrate it will have. In photography, there is capture and then there’s output. It means that when people are looking at photographs, they are always looking at a choice: It could have been done another way, it really could, always. But you’ve tried to leap over that by making things at life scale. I imagine you have a good sense when you’re making a picture of what its eventual scale will be.
But still, there are different kinds of presentation; light boxes, different types of opaque printing. So, I guess even within that, you’re aware of a difference between capture and output, which breaks with the kind of sovereignty of painting.
JW: No, I don’t think it breaks with it, it’s a different order. There is no availability of capture in painting; even a portrait is not really ‘captured’ as in photography. Photography has this two-part element, the negative and the positive and the act of photography is completed in the relation between the two, at least in analog photography. We must make a negative, but that isnot available to be seen because we don’t want to look at negatives. So capture, like you say, can’t be completed until output is realized.
The decision of where to go is made after the capture moment; this is the choice you mentioned. That is an inherent part of the photographic process and again entirely free. Once the scale of photography opened up, in the mid-1970s the notion of the relation between the capture and the input became actually freer, less conventional. Prior to that time a photograph was eight by ten inches, it was a size of a magazine page and that was that. That was a highly codified set of conventions that actually have nothing to do with capture or input; they have to do with magazines and publishing. It’s really nothing to do with the relation between the negative and the positive, there’s no real reason why a print has to be that size. Once that was suspended, then the sovereignty of the image reappeared in its specific photographic conditions.
DC: I still think a viewer intuits that they’re looking at a choice about how a photograph is presented.
JW: Yes, but the painter could have painted his painting smaller too.
DC: Could have, but he would have had to have painted it smaller.
JW: Well, I could have had enlarged it smaller.
DC: Exactly, but let’s leave that difference and just stick with the scale question. It’s true that photography for most of its history had somehow internalized publishing and the page as its scale. There was always a relation between the size of industrially produced sheets of paper, photographic paper and pages of books, magazines, and newspapers. A lot of the great photographs of the twentieth century were produced at that scale. When we look at Robert Frank’s The Americans, we sort of know that he must have been thinking about the pages in a book while he was taking his photographs. If you were to make a transparency of a Robert Frank, big on the wall, it would look kind of monstrous somehow. It’s as if all those classical twentieth century photographers assumed that the published page was the sovereign site for them. By the time you come along, all the doors are completely blown off and everything is possible, photography doesn’t have to have that relation to a published page anymore.
JW: What I do is not a criticism of what they did, there’s no sense in which there’s anything inadequate about what Frank did or anyone else did working at that smaller scale. The beauty of classic photography is perfect just as it is, it doesn’t need to be anything else than it ever was. Criticizing its limitations was never my motivation, I admire that work. I didn’t want to do it that way because, first of all, it seemed to be so perfectly done, there was nothing more for me to do. I was just a different person in a different moment. Remember, I’m old enough that I encountered photography in the early 60s, when Evans and Frank were still pretty young men and very active. It’s not like there was any problem with the ‘classical order’ of art photography, the classical order is probably permanent. I haven’t disturbed it, or wanted to, except for finding my own way.
DC: In relation to that, I get the impression that towards the beginning of your career you had the idea that perhaps what you were doing wasn’t photography. But I also get the impression you’ve come around to photography in the period that you’ve been doing it.
JW: You know, in the 70s, I was thirty and I a sassy, young artist full of ambition. So of course, my attitude was a little more aggressive than it probably really needed to be at the time. You know, that’s what happens when young people are trying to find a place for themselves, they have to use their elbows a bit to find some space. To me, looking at Walker Evans or Robert Frank, their photographs seemed so awesomely perfect. I was overwhelmed by the achievement of the two books that those two made–American Photographs in the 1930s and The Americans in the 1950s[ii]. I am old enough to have actually been around when Frank’s book came out. I saw one or two of his photographs in The Family of Man[iii] publication in about 1958. I saw it at some point, when I was around the age of twelve and slowly realized that there was a certain perfection; those are the two most perfect books of photography that we have.
As I began to get more interested in photography, I realized that I couldn’t do anything that they hadn’t done. It was just pointless. Also I was not really that impressed by the followers who came in the wake of Frank. Even though some of them were really good, their photographs just didn’t do it for me.
And anyway, I had an aversion to the idea of following. As I said, I was in my twenties, a very arrogant young person. At that stage, you’re looking for your opening, you’re looking for who you are and who you aren’t. It’s difficult. My admiration for those books had a lot to do with me not wanting to do that kind of photography. There was just no possibility of improving on what they did. Even though I wanted to do something else, it was out of a supreme admiration for what already existed. I don’t really believe in the idea that you have to defeat your predecessors, that there’s this conflict, this almost oedipal conflict with what came before. I’ve never felt that way, maybe it’s because I got along with my father very well.
DC: Maybe that’s something you realize as you go along and you can convince yourself that you didn’t have to have the oedipal battle.
JW: I remember it as not a battle, that’s what’s interesting. I have always admired other artists, in this case Evans and Frank. I didn’t want to better them; I just wanted to do something that was good too. I think that’s a freer way of looking at the art of your time and the times before you, rather than to get too tied up in ‘besting’ anyone.
DC: It strikes me that by the late 1970s, which is sort of the beginning for you, you’re in your early thirties, but that’s the age by which most of those twentieth century photographers had made their best work.
JW: I was 33 when I did Picture for Women. Evans was 33 when he went to Hale County with James Agee. Frank was about 30 when he went on The Americans trip. If you are right, it might have to do with what we were talking about earlier, about the prominence of themes and subjects for them, and all of their colleagues, basically.
DC: Now that you have a substantial body of work which spans four decades, how do you feel about your earlier works? Are you able to look at them afresh, do you think about what they mean in 2018?
JW: Yes, I’m always tormented by my earlier works. I think it’s typical of artists to always be judging and re-judging what they’ve done. The process of aesthetic enjoyment involves judgment–this is the most classical version of how art is experienced. We have an aesthetic experience and part of that experience is saying, “This work is good. Is it a bit better than this one? Is it a bit less good than this one?” That’s part of the whole ranking of art comparatively, part of the pleasure of art. That is a public thing but also a private thing for each artist, an anxiety-producing process. Some days I hate certain of my pictures and judge them accordingly. On other days, I may like them better, but I’ve had years of detesting certain pictures that I wish I’d never done.
For example, I had at least ten years of really, really disliking a certain picture, just really regretting doing it, wished I’d never done it, etcetera. But recently I had to reprint it. In the process of doing so, I began to like it again, because I saw it again in a new way.
DC: Not something a painter can do.
JW: Probably not. That was interesting to me because I really had decided, I had created my own consensus that this was ‘out of the canon’. It came back because I changed my relationship to it. It could easily go the other way, where you could like something and then really have a shocking realization that you were wrong. I see my work continually under these conditions. My relationship to my photographs is kind of unstable. It is always a question of re-judging a challenge that I dread but enjoy at the same time.
DC: I’m struck by how so many of your pictures have quite a suspended relation to the time in which they were made. If we think of reportage as a certain kind of 20th century model of what photography should be, there’s an understanding that it should be a reflection of, or a mirror of its time, its moment. I don’t suppose you do it deliberately, but it seems that your pictures are often drained of those things that locate pictures in their own late twentieth, early twenty-first century moment.
JW: Drained of what?
DC: Well, things like billboards in a street that might indicate a particular moment. There doesn’t seem to be a kind of richness in the pictures of details that belong to their particular moment. This absence is partly is what has allowed your pictures to sustain themselves over years. You are kind of smiling slightly.
JW: Because you’ve noticed I don’t like billboards in my pictures.
DC: Well, not just billboards, but all of those things that make images redolent of the moment in which they’re taken. Your pictures seem to take one step back from that.
Wall: That’s an interesting observation; I do have a bit an aversion to momentary, transient visual clutter. Not a total aversion, but somewhat of one. I don’t really know why, but one of the reasons might be that there is a certain kind of classicism of taste in the tradition of realism which wants some simplifications of the surface of the momentary.
The reason those simplifications are enacted is somehow to both preserve the momentary and suspend it. The model for that in a way is the famous Baudelairian combination of the ephemeral and the eternal that he defined as the essential character of modern art. But ‘eternal’ means of course a lasting order of forms, an order we identify with a kind of classicism. Often I’ll avoid a circumstance where I can’t step back a bit from some of the ephemera.
DC: Your description brings the photographs closer to a kind of eighteenth or nineteenth century idea of illustration. As you mentioned Baudelaire, then we could mention Constantin Guys, who was writing of how the illustrator has to think about the essential, which might be a combination of the ephemeral and the eternal. The need to make decisions about what’s going to be in their picture, what will produce a kind of realism but also a kind of purification of it. A good illustrator is supposed to summarize.
JW: I like the combination of a certain swept out, subtly reduced actuality combined with extremely vulgar details that photography loves so much.
DC: It means that every element symbolizes in a very lucid way, that it’s not a kind of field of clutter; rather a consideration this pair of running shoes, consider this jacket, this wheel, every element. We’ve talked about your shifting attitudes to your own work, your past work – has your feeling about photography changed or is it constantly changing? It seems to me that you’re not interested in any definition of photography. You are interested in it as a medium but in a way that seems to elude definition.
Wall: I’ve never really been convinced that there is such a thing as the theory of photography, which is something that’s been attempted since probably Kracauer’s time in the 1920s. Photography is too complicated as a medium to be really encapsulated that way. Especially now since it’s been digitalized and become a part of a flow of image traffic on a scale never before imagined.
It’s not that I’m not interested in ‘what photography is’, it’s that I don’t think it takes me anywhere in my work to wonder about that, at least in a literal way. But I have to deal with that every time I do something. I try to convince myself that what I’m doing has emerged from the nature of photography.
In other words, if I have a possibility of doing something, some starting point emerges for me, because all my pictures emerge from an accidental encounter with something that forms a starting point. It’s not an idea; it’s a subject, a starting point. That starting point is my chance to make another picture. Then I take my chance. But I have to ask myself if this chance is consistent with it being necessarily realized as photography. If it isn’t, I don’t do it. If I think it’s not really photographic enough, there’s nothing interesting photographically in realizing the image, I don’t do it. I can’t define what it is but I know it each time.
DC: That would mean that there’s not ‘a’ theory of photography you ascribe to but just your theory of photography in the moment.
JW: It’s a ‘theory’ in the sense that I’m making a global judgment about something that is inherently absolute to me because I’m staking your reputation (at least in my own eyes) on it. And that’s something that one has to do, it’s exciting to do, and if you don’t have the stomach for it then you’re probably not an artist. You have to want to do that and often you’re doing it without exactly having a theory of why. You have a pretty good idea, it’s just that you can’t articulate it discursively, and it’s the picture that will prove it.
DC: Let’s open it up now to questions from the audience
Audience 1: When you started working digitally, you had to deal with large files regarding the size of the prints. Did the technological restrictions of the time have an impact on the final composition or image?
JW: Not really. I have worked for many years with a collaborator on my montages. In 1991 or 1992, we were sitting in front of a tiny little Mac computer, frustrated and complaining about how long it took for the forty-megabyte file to open. Now I’m sitting in front of a screen, with the same person, and we complain about how long it takes for the twenty-four-gigabyte file to open. It’s the same damn thing.
Audience 2: When I saw the exhibition there were a number of pictures that made me think, “Well, he’s got a very good sense of humor,” when I saw the titles. For example, you mentioned a couple of times the rifle which is the only thing one doesn’t see in the picture. It’s twofold because some of your pictures, have they got an actual political connotation or intention?
JW: It’s a yes and no kind of answer because it’s impossible to avoid those kinds of interpretations. I don’t think any photographer, maybe anybody who makes an image, could deny that there’s got to be some political resonance in their work. It doesn’t have to take the form of political language, however. In other words, it doesn’t have to take the form of any discursive political way of speaking. So that’s a kind of a yes.
The no part is that I feel it’s important to keep my freedom to make pictures for no reason at all, no reason that I have to justify to any other person. I think that is more important than any content or any subject. It is important for the artist to retain the right to make their work for no given reason. A lot of beautiful things have happened for no particular reason in all of the arts. An artist does something because they feel like doing it, they don’t know exactly why. We have to, and we do, allow them to do that. You can’t do that in law, medicine, or in many other places, but you can do it in art and that’s one of the things, I think, we like about art, that this purposeless, spontaneous thing can happen.
Audience 3: My question is regarding the moment you complete a picture, you’re facing this new picture and you want to make a judgement. Could you tell us about your criteria, what makes a picture bad for you? I believe there is a more subjective criterion by which you would judge this picture.
JW: I don’t think they’re that subjective. Let’s use the term ‘quality’, because it’s a term that’s been implied in everything we’ve been talking about today. Some pictures are better than others because they have qualities that the others lack. So what one wants is to make pictures of the highest possible quality. What is that? Where does the quality in art works come from? It comes from how they’re made and what are they made from. They’re made from their medium and the handling of that medium. Essentially, the judgement is based on color shape, composition, form, all the basic things that you learn at the very beginning of art school. There are no criteria more complex than those and they’re always the same. I judge my pictures on composition, on the nature of the rendering, the photographic rendering, and related things, as well as on the suitability of the subject. They are complex but basic, basic but complex.
DC: What you said earlier about your interest in the eternal or classical forms, would imply a certain, not quite a consensus, but something towards a consensus that may exist around aesthetic judgement.
JW: Yes, there is one, but it’s not unitary, there are different styles and modes, all of which have validity. I’m not a classicist in the sense that classicists might only like a certain style, that’s not what I’m talking about. There are all sorts of valid ways of making good works of art. But they all share the same basic criteria.
A good work from a distant era and a faraway place may resemble a good work of now, more than a good work of now resembles a bad work of now. That is just the goodness of art, the things it has in common with other art; those common, basic things that all artists have to deal with, no matter what the medium.
Audience 4: You did hundreds of photographs of a certain scene and all of a sudden you saw an expression, you thought was the right one, on the man’s face. Was it the expression you were waiting for or was it the moment when you saw, “This makes the picture perfect; I’ll take that?” Did you have a kind of idea beforehand how he should act or was it kind of what you saw in the moment?
And when you start composing, was it the human being, was it the scenery, was it the light, what was the impulse for you to realize a photo? Do you look for the right scenery around a person or do you see scenery that fascinates you and then the person is just an add-on? There seems to be no hierarchy in the pictures. It was the light, and the person, and the scenery, and the detail and I was wondering where the starting point for you to say, “This is a picture I want to do.”
JW: That’s very interesting, I’m glad you think there’s no hierarchy, I like that idea very much. The idea that there’s no hierarchy is very important. That’s probably another aspect of the criteria I was just talking about.
It was Matisse who said the emotion of a painting with a person in it doesn’t come just—or even principally from the expression on the figure’s face, but from the color around them, the size of the canvas, the shapes of the contours, the whole thing makes the mood, the emotions and the meaning. So there’s no fixed starting point.
DC: On the non-hierarchical aspect of the pictorial, do you think that has a particular character in photography because a camera takes in everything all at once. Do you think there’s a particular connection between photography and the non-hierarchical? Lee Friedlander famously said, “I only wanted to photograph Uncle Vern and his dog. And I got Uncle Vern and his dog and I also got his Buick and his fence and a row of Begonias and twenty thousand pieces of gravel in the driveway. It’s a generous medium, photography.”
JW: It’s kind of yes and no again. It’s inherent in the nature of the capture that there’s no hierarchy, so you can work with that and it’s an advantage, or at least a capacity to be used. In magazine editorial photography for example there is a real hierarchy. All you want to see is Beyoncé, the rest is just the surround. Those kinds of pictures have a hierarchy in them and why they’re generally, completely uninteresting. It’s like the art of photography is absent there, just the image capture of photography is in evidence. The celebrity photograph is the epitome of this absence.
DC: That’s interesting. Walker Evans was once asked why he never photographed celebrities and he said it’s always going to be artistically second rate because everybody looks at the celebrity.
JW: You could deconstruct the backgrounds of celebrity photographs but you’re not going to find anything there. Photography in itself has no hierarchy, as you say, but photographers do. A salient, exciting subject, like a paparazzi type photograph is usually a dull picture. That dullness is not a result of anything in the nature of photography; it’s in the nature of social or mass media. The non-hierarchical is the artistic aspect, one of the clues or keys that one uses to stay close to the nature of the medium.
Interestingly enough painting has to work very hard to create that non-hierarchy because the medium is very, very different. Painting has to make an effort to reach something that photography gets automatically.
Audience 5: You spoke about recreating a scene and your desire to keep that sort of invisible in the end product. In the image of the tide pool in the cemetery, it seems that you made a conscious decision to preserve the fact that it’s a recreation. Can you talk a little bit about producing that image and the decisions you made?
Jeff Wall, The Flooded Grave, 1998-2000
Wall: Interesting, that’s true. In The Flooded Grave, the montage discloses its impossibility, even though it is technically ‘seamless’. The photomontage process used there is the same as always for me—to create an invisible suturing, a convincing spatial and visual unity. But the Grave is a different type of a picture, one in which we see something that we know can’t really be. One knows is fictional but has to believe in it optically–although you know it can’t really be, there’s nothing that your eyes can tell you that will convince you that it isn’t there in front of you.
Everything you see in the picture is documentary: the fish were all there, they were photographed in a tank, but they were there, the octopus were; then, out in the real world, the cemetery workers were there, the crows were there. The water area was laboriously made in a tank in a studio, but everything that was photographed was photographed directly, as reportage
Audience 6: How do you decide to present a picture on a light box or as an opaque positive photographic print?
Wall: I have made transparencies on light boxes for a long time, exclusively, from beginning in the 1970s until about ten or twelve years ago. In the ‘70s when I began, I wanted to work large and I wanted to work in color. There were a lot of technical problems at that time that we don’t have to worry about today and so I never found an acceptable paper medium to print on to the scale I wanted. The transparent medium seemed to solve some of the problems I perceived at the time. I didn’t plan to do transparencies, I just discovered that option during the first days of trying to find out how to print the pictures I wanted to do.
It was rather new then, so it was kind of startling. Not many photographers had ever used it seriously. Its newness was exciting. As time went on, I became more conscious of its limitations or at least the very specific character of that kind of image making.
I had always wanted to do other things but I didn’t have the means. It means a lot to me to make my own prints and for more than twenty years now I haven’t worked with any commercial labs. I do everything in my own studio. I wanted to do black and white from the beginning but it took me twenty years to get a darkroom together. I wanted to print on my scale, doing it myself. As soon as I could do that, I enlarged my repertoire. I never wanted to do just one thing.
Black and white allowed opacity allowed me to do things that I couldn’t do with transparency. As I worked with opacity in black and white, I started wanting to work with opacity in color. In that period, after 1995 or so, inkjet printing began to emerge as a real possibility. That opened the door to making color prints, something I’ve been doing now for quite a long time. I see them as different modes of seeing, different modes of photography, just the way you might if you were a painter, you do a watercolor and then an oil and then a lithograph. It’s, just a larger repertoire to deal with different aspects of the medium.
Edited by Gary Dufour, 2020
[i] Édouard Manet (1832-1883) The Execution of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico 1868 oil on canvas, 252 x 305 cm Städische Kunsthalle Mannheim, Germany. This version of the painting is the last and largest of three versions painted by Manet.
[ii] Evans, Walker. American Photographs. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1938 and Frank, Robert. The Americans.New York: Grove Press, 1959.
[iii] Steichen, Edward. The Family of Man. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1955.