‘The Domain of Occurrence: a conversation with Jeff Wall’

Concreta magazine n.3, 2014

‘The Domain of Occurrence: Jeff Wall in conversation with David Campany’

First published in Spanish, in Concreta magazine n.4, 2014

DC: Jeff, in the past you have spoken of picture making as a set of challenges that often float free, or almost free, from subject matter. You explore a certain pictorial form or method and the ostensible subject matter may be secondary. It’s close to the way some figurative painters work. But you have circled around certain subjects, making different kinds of picture of them at different times. For instance Ivan Sayers (2009) has affinities with Picture for Women (1979), made thirty years earlier. Mimic (1982) has elements in common with Figures on a Sidewalk (2008). There are many recurrences or returns of motifs. Do the changes in your pictorial approach correspond to changes in attitude to the subjects you are depicting? Mimic and Picture for Women are forthright and confrontational. Ivan Sayers and Figures are more openly affectionate.

Left: Figures on a Sidewalk, 2008; below: Mimic, 1982


JW: I think the pictorial problems emerge from the accidental encounter that reveals the subject. They aren’t free of it, they are born from it. But, it might be that I am wanting to deal with some kind of pictorial question, like, say, the closeness of a face and figure to the picture plane. But I’m not really aware of it or if I am it is a vague impulse. And then that might help me to notice something that I might not otherwise have noticed. Or, it is really just a random encounter that sets the whole thing off in a direction I wasn’t involved with at all. I never know. Certain things probably attract me more than others, as well, and I don’t want to get very much control over that, either. So the subject is never secondary but at the same time I am not indebted to it the way some other photographers can be. Photographers often want to treat a subject extensively, devote themselves to it, and make groups or sequences of pictures about it. I do it in one image, and clear the debt in one throw of the dice. My attitude seems to be changing all the time, and not in one direction, but in some tangled way. I feel great affection for the people in Mimic, not much different from how I feel about those in Ivan Sayers. The affection is for how they appear. You need the same affection for everything you depict, or you can’t see it well and depict it well. Depiction as a process or a mode of art seems to me to be based in sheer affection for appearance as such.

Jeff Wall Vancouver, 7 Dec. 2009. Ivan Sayers, costume historian, lectures at the University Women's Club. Virginia Newton-Moss wears a British ensemble c. 1910, from Sayers' collection. 2009

Ivan Sayers, costume historian, lectures at the University Women’s Club , Vancouver, 7 December 2009, 2010


Picture for Women, 1979

DC: Do you ever feel a tension between this affection for appearance and what they used to call ‘the politics of representation’? Back in the 1970s and early 1980s you seemed to be interested in depictions of situations where there was some overt social tension or unease. Those tensions have their own kind of pictorial energy. I sense that today, or at least currently, you make fewer images of that kind. You seem more at ease with that ‘sheer affection for appearance as such’ and this has opened up other pictorial possibilities.

JW: If you are just talking about subjects, I think there are quite a few I’ve done recently that are in the same range as pictures from the 80s. But I am probably doing them somewhat differently now. Those kinds of subjects might have their own specific pictorial energy, but I don’t think they require any predictable way of being shown. So I’m looking for ways of showing, ways of creating an appearance of something, whether it is a scene of tension or of something else. Also, I don’t feel that there is any preferable kind of subject, especially since subjects usually come up by accident. If you think about the generic subjects of pictorial art—like still lifes, portraits, nudes in interiors, landscapes—it sometimes seems to me that they are sort of stand-ins for their having to be a subject for a picture. Any slightly unusual subject would likely have to come to the artist through some sort of unexpected encounter. In the absence of such an encounter, you can still keep working by using one of the generic subjects as your starting point. Once you’ve started, then you’re at work again and facing the problem of how to make that particular subject into a good painting or photo or drawing. This is probably more the case with painting or drawing, but it is still a strong factor with photography. I think it’s perfectly possible to, say, work on some arrangements in a studio when you might be lacking something else to do, or more unique to do, just the way a painter might, and that those pictures are just as likely to be successful and good as anything else you might do. So, just to keep busy, just to keep working, moving, looking, you would try this and that for as long as it seemed to be the most immediate possibility. And, as we know, that kind of studio photography has become very popular now, and maybe it is because that space presents a constant set of possibilities that don’t rely on some occurrence in an unpredictable world of occurrences. The interior of the studio is by nature a sort of space-frame of occurrence—the occurrence of something there to be photographed in some way.

DC: I think you’re right about this tendency, which is currently widespread in art photography, to accept and work with that older notion of the stand-in subject, the generic subject. But what’s striking is how recent this seems to be, or at least it’s recent in the form of the ‘expanded studio’ practice as you describe it. It used to be that photographers with an urge to make pictures but no particular idea about a subject simply went out with their cameras and found it in the world. Maybe not the nudes in interiors but certainly the still life, the portrait, the landscape, the streetscape. The picture-maker in the documentary mode, I guess you might call it. And in that mode, the photographer really does stumble upon their subjects and genre possibilities. You have made pictures that way but generally, as you often say, you ‘begin by not photographing’, by noticing something that might lend itself to the making of a successful picture. Then comes the ‘preparation and collaboration’. Are you noticing generic subjects? If so, what does it mean to notice the generic, rather than the particular?

JW: It might be that we are all working in the wake of Garry Winogrand’s last years. If the accounts are true, he was simply more interested in making photographs out in the world than he was in printing them, assessing them, even in developing his film. Winogrand, as he put it, ‘said yes’ to the elemental encounter with unforeseen occurrences, said ‘yes’ to being there, somewhere, pulling the trigger on a moment, capturing it on film. After that, photography was for him seemingly finished and maybe he didn’t want to spend the slow, excruciating time poring over all his contact prints looking for the best ones. Maybe at that point he figured that if there were ‘best ones’ they’d eventually come to light through the study and judgment of other people, people he guessed he would never know. And he seemed to be perfectly OK with that. Now, because of his show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, people are worrying over the fact that other people have selected some of the pictures from the material Winogrand never looked at, wondering where the authorship is. I think this is just great for photography—it reiterates that there are simply NO RULES. There is no reason why Winogrand couldn’t have felt somehow, foreseen somehow, that this process would itself become a great moment in the understanding of the art form. You could say that Winogrand wanted to keep as far away from the generic subject as he could; that he wanted each picture to be the result of a very specific encounter with something, some occurrence. So he could be seen as the important counter-model to any notion of photography needing to engage with the generic subject, or genre. Maybe, but its more complicated; maybe for him the endless encounters with what can seem like infinitely reduced occurrences, the tireless recording of them, often without looking through his viewfinder, maybe that process got to the point it did because he was in a state of recognition that ‘occurrences’ themselves are a single sort of thing—brief concatenations of human or animal energy forming erratically though often in structured spaces, and in the presence of a recording device. Or—also—instances of the absence of those concatenations—or of the failure of the recording device to capture one and so it captured only its wake after it had vanished—and so on. ‘Occurrence’ itself becomes generic—the pictures just show an endless stream of the thing we come to recognize as ‘an occurrence’—including its absence, or its having passed without being caught on film. Maybe that’s why he could shoot without looking—because he already knew that he was in the domain of the occurrence as such and that the image could not fail to capture that or fail to fail, either. Winogrand shows us that nothing that we consider necessary to photography as art is indispensable—this is his very radical lesson and we can accept it seriously from him because he got to the position of being able to experience that by working as rigorously as anyone did to ‘capture a unique occurrence and make a great picture’ in the street-photography way. And he seems to have worn through the backcloth of that space into a very abstract space and a very abstract relation to photography. I feel that my ‘beginning by not photographing’ has always been very close to what Winogrand was doing in his last few years, up to 1984.

DC: I see it as even more radically open than that perhaps, because I think we must include the photographic act itself among those potentially infinite ‘occurrences’. When we look at a Winogrand, yes, we sense the world was/is ongoing in its patterned but unpredictable ways but really the world itself has no sense of its own occurrence. It is only the act of observing it, putting a perceptual, or symbolic, or photographic frame around it that can turn it into occurrence. Winogrand’s camera conjures ‘something’ out of the ‘nothing’ of everyday life. But unlike, say, Henri Cartier-Bresson who wished to impose a strong pictorial order (a strong observation, a strong perceptual/symbolic/photographic frame) it seems that Winogrand was flirting with the idea that the photographic act will always and inevitably transform things into a picture and that ‘composition’ is entirely secondary to this phenomenon. So I accept what you say about your own work, that however much preparation there is, however much ‘composition’, if you are photographing living things, or even just photographing in changing light conditions, you can never be outside of the unpredictable gift of appearance. The shape a body takes. The way light hits something. The way fabric folds. An expression on a face. A chance alignment. This itself is radically, disturbingly and freely beyond authorship. The world itself is richer, stranger, more complex, more exciting, more frightening than any art, but photography has some kind of conditional access to this non-art. Does this ring true to you?

JW—sure…but let me add that, maybe the issue, in relation to what we’re saying about Winogrand, is to do with the tableau, that form. Not every image is (or wants to be, or needs to be) a tableau. The tableau can be thought of as a particularly acute act of composition, and when an image isn’t as acutely composed, it has less presence as a tableau. Winogrand’s experiment, if that’s what it was, had to do with seeing how little deliberate composing one had to do to end up with a tableau, seeing how much automatism could be involved. And he showed that there is an infinite amount. Because there are no rules, only examples, any random capture can result in a convincing tableau. The tableau form, like any identifiable artistic form, can’t be made—or made interestingly—according to rules; it just gets made somehow and if it’s good, that’s it. That’s one of the reasons it’s so interesting and long-lasting, it can appear anywhere at any time, can be composed with extreme deliberation or none at all, and so on. And chance, or accident, is always hovering in the process, to play some part or other. So, in that light, there is only a difference of degree between Winogrand shooting without looking and without processing, and my version of deliberation. His version of chance can appear during my work process at any stage, and often does, and his level of deliberation in working so hard not to compose anything but still to spend many hours a day moving around and operating his camera is just a different form of what I do. Let’s say, just for the sake of this discussion and not to make any particular claims, that his approach is one limit and mine is the opposite and everything else lies between them. Across the spectrum of gradation between these limits we have the domain in which occurrence becomes tableau. And so, if we imagine say 1000 photographers, each occupying a point on the spectrum, taking an image we’d get the 1000 shades of the tableau. And if we did this experiment, we’d ask the 1000 all to photograph the same thing in order to be able to compare the results. And so, in the experiment, the occurrence, or subject, being photographed would just stand for ‘the occurrence’ as such. That’s a way of seeing that the relation between occurrence and tableau is completely structural and aesthetic, and therefore there is, at least as a structural model, such a thing as the occurrence in the abstract, or the occurrence as such. Then, moving from that abstraction back to the actual practices of various photographers, we’d once again get the variety of pictures being made, but we’d have a sense of the common ground on which they get made.

DC: I am struck by the way the case is made (and unmade) for the tableau form in photography. The making of the case calls upon two related but different forces. One is artistic will – the desire on the part of the photographer to fashion something artistically convincing. The other centers on the viewer’s ‘will to form’ – the desire, conscious or unconscious, to relate to a photograph as a tableau regardless of intention. But then there might be something else – the conscious or unconscious desire to see past form to an engagement with the subject, or something ‘in the picture’. Last month I showed to my brother-in-law Stephen Shore’s book Uncommon Places. His main interest was the recurrence of MGB convertibles in Stephen’s pictures. He didn’t mention Stephen’s gift for composition, although clearly composition will always condition our engagement somehow. Stephen was coming for lunch that day and my brother-in-law asked him if there were lots of MGB’s in the Midwest in the 1970s or whether he had been drawn to them somehow. Stephen replied that he was drawn to them. His wife had an MGB, he liked that type of car and he always seemed to notice them when he was out making pictures. Just as there is nothing to stop any photographic document being viewed as an artistic photograph or tableau, there is nothing to prevent any tableau photograph being read as a document. Every photograph is and is not a tableau. Every photograph is and is not a document. I am simplifying of course, because what is so fascinating in photography is the tension or dialectic between artwork and document. And so many of the great photographers of the past worked in ways that drew from or dramatized that tension. Weegee, Evans, Cartier-Bresson, Helen Levitt, Arbus, Frank, Klein, Shore, so many others. They all occupied their own space between reportage and art. It’s almost as if there was an understanding that a weak claim to art could be really productive but a strong claim might crush it. Evans was once asked if photography was Art. He replied that it was an art. I suspect you might disagree with this.

JW: Well, I agree that photography is an art, like all the other arts, not ‘Art’ as such. But I don’t agree about the weak or strong claim dichotomy. I don’t think there’s a better or best way to make any art that can be known in advance and turned into a guideline or criterion. The weak claim is valid but it can’t stand as anything more than one possibility among others. It also reflects the circumstances—and the sensibilities—of that generation of photographers. Because they did so much, their approach can appear to be the much preferred or even the only valid one. But that can never really be the case, even if just because times and circumstances change.

The ‘weak’ claim reflects or expresses a certain ambivalence about art that was characteristic of the avant-garde, or the avant-garde period. But things have moved on from there and now there’s less reason to want to undermine art, especially ‘Art’, and more reason now to want to preserve it as a possibility, since it is to an unprecedented extent threatened with a kind of dissolution into a mass culture or a global digital culture. Art with a big A seemed like an accomplice of imperialism etc. a hundred years ago and to some extent it was…but by now it is the nuanced distinction between the works of art themselves and the culture in which they were made that seems more important, and that sense of nuance is maybe what ‘Art’ has handed on to us and what we now probably need to get closer to than we have been. The ‘weak’ claim was an important means to reduce the pretensions of—if not the art itself—at least the aura around it and the way societies received and manipulated the art, and that, as part of the self-critique of art, has given us a completely new way of appreciating the art that was once considered so pretentious. It doesn’t seem so pretentious anymore—at least not the good art. (The less good always takes on that sense of pretension because it’s pretending to be better art than it really is.) For example—notice the revival of interest in nineteenth and early twentieth century Pictorialist photography over the past several years, something that wouldn’t have been likely without a real change of mood and attitude. Anyway, the ‘weak’ claim is now a permanently valid approach but it doesn’t have the exclusivity it had say in 1930 or even in 1970.

And then, about the MGBs—there is no way to prevent a viewer from appreciating something shown in a picture more than the picture itself. But it is one of the great qualities of pictures that they can give their beauties even to the viewer who’s not looking for them, and who seems unaware of them in the moment of looking. But the beauty has jumped into their awareness nevertheless and abides there waiting to be recognized…maybe waiting forever, but…

DC: There is something very mysterious in the fact that the beauty of certain photographs may work on us without being recognized, and even when it is recognized it may still be incomprehensible. That can happen in any medium of depiction but it’s particularly strong in photography because of its document character. But coming back to your earlier point, I agree that the historical avant-gardes had their suspicions of Art and that those suspicions did shape certain attitudes to photography. As we know, even into the 1970s there was great antipathy towards any idea of the tableau form being valid, especially in photography (and there are still strong pockets of suspicion!) I agree also that that long moment is over, that there are no rules or criteria. And I agree that the tableau can be a very important resistance to that worrying dissolution into mass culture.   But I don’t think the photographers I just mentioned were particularly motivated by those avant-garde suspicions. I think they felt that photography simply got energized in extraordinary ways as an art form by that encounter with occurrence, out in the world. I can see you have your own relation to that energy too, although you mediate and modulate it differently perhaps. I was just looking again at the catalogue of the exhibition held at BOZAR, Brussels (Jeff Wall: The Crooked Path, 2012) in which you showed your own work in relation to some of the art you have admired. I notice that the photographers you included mainly come from that ‘documentary style’: Evans, Zille, Brandt, Levitt, Weegee, Winogrand, Shore, Gursky’s early work. A few operate in a more constructed, allegorical way (the still lifes of Wols, Christopher Williams and James Welling). But are there photographs made in your ‘cinematographic’ mode that you admire?

JW: I think they all were motivated by the avant-garde sentiment against ‘Art’, maybe in a somewhat less overt or direct way, but the view is still there. And, right, the documentary project was a very fitting form for that opposition to take, since it had many social, even radical virtues that one could claim that ‘Art’ didn’t have, or have any more. But you could also say that everything interesting in the arts between around 1860 and 1960 was motivated by the avant-garde position, because that was the most interesting, compelling and productive one for that long time. Even people who opposed it in some way or other were inspired by it, even if negatively. The whole reduction, or reductive process isn’t comprehensible otherwise—and within that process is the project of reducing ‘Art’ to something lighter, quicker, richer, more open to the everyday, not so big and heavy and slow, and grand. When I moved toward photography, though, I had the strong feeling that that process had run its course and that all the virtues of ‘weak’, ‘small’ claim-making had become truisms, not that alive any more. I always loved Robert Frank and the others and they were an inspiration and model for me since my teenage years, but I just felt that there was nowhere to go with the breaking down and further miniaturizing the notion of art in that avant-garde or neo-avant-garde way. It wasn’t about a return to some condition before the reduction—and I’ve said this many times—I feel it was an authentic reaction or response to the artistic circumstances of that moment somewhere in the early 70s. ‘Art’ was so ‘out’ by then that it just couldn’t not become interesting in a new way. My take on the tableau was shaped by my earlier connection to painting and the model of painting as tableau played an important role for me. But I was not attempting to ‘make paintings by means of photography’ or some such cliché of the 80s or 90s. I was making photographs in a way that had existed since the beginnings of photography but that had been eclipsed by the great tide of discovery of the virtues of the documentary mode. That shadow-space was the open space for me. So, for me it’s not about some divide between the documentary mode or documentary style and cinematography—photography lives, I think, by means of the infinitely nuanced interplay between those modes. So I don’t think its curious that the photographers that interest me most and to whom I feel closest are those that usually aren’t thought of as cinematographic—like Evans or Atget or Zille. And this is not to say I ‘find traces of the cinematographic within their documentary practice’—that’s another cliché by now. I don’t find that or need to find it. The inspiration for me is the absence of cinematography in their work.



Concreta magazine no. 4, 2014.