The Singular Picture

Jeff Wall: Appearance, Edition Cantz, 2018

The Singular Picture

by David Campany

It is forty years since Jeff Wall began in earnest the artistic project for which he has become so well known internationally: photographs, sometimes documentary in nature, sometimes made through preparation and collaboration, conceived and printed at close to life scale, and presented to the beholder in the space of the gallery. Although he has made diptychs, triptychs, sequences, sculptural work, performance work, video, and even a tapestry, essentially Wall’s oeuvre since 1977 can be seen as a testing of the artistic potential of the singular photograph. The photograph as picture. The photograph as tableau.

Within the tableau form, Wall has explored a great range of thematic and pictorial directions, and in this he has certainly had great effects upon the understanding of the scope of what is possible artistically with photography.  In seeing the medium as intimately connected with literature, theatre, cinema, sculpture and painting, Wall has been able to draw inspiration from every corner of the arts, past and present, while responding to the contemporary world around him. Even so, his propositions about photography – embodied in his pictures and articulated in his provocative writings, interviews and public talks – do not amount to a manifesto or artistic credo. On the contrary, the key to Wall’s continued artistic renewal has had more to do with restlessness, his commitment to keeping open and alive the question of what can be done with photography. This has also been the key to Wall’s sustained influence. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the depictive arts of recent decades without this restlessness.

All this said, the commitment to the singular photograph, belonging to no set or series, no sequence, grouping or family of images, remains noticeably rare in contemporary art photography.  For the most part, the medium tends to be pursued and understood in the form of multi-part projects, of bodies of work. Not the one, but the many. Despite the fact that photography, perhaps more than any other medium, has access to unique and unrepeatable occurrences in the world, the ‘one’ remains uncommon as an artistic goal in itself.  Why is this so? Why do so few artists make singular photographs? I think there are several reasons, none of which are particularly conclusive, but all of which open onto important questions about the ways we might understand photography, the pictorial, and the art of Jeff Wall.

Firstly, there is Wall’s own achievement to consider. Having worked in relative obscurity for his first years, with just five solo exhibitions between 1977 and 1984, when his work did come to be recognised by an international audience he had already staked out considerable artistic ground. There were portraits, landscapes, dramatic multi-character scenes, highly reflexive studio pictures, and much more.  At first, Wall edged towards the singular image quite tentatively. His first serious work, the now withdrawn Faking Death (1977) was a triptych. Its first panel was a wide shot of a studio in which a naked man (Wall himself) sits on a bed while assistants tend to his make-up, set-dressing and lighting. The second and third are near-identical mid-shots of Wall in the bed posing in what the title leads us to suppose is a death throe.  Young Workers (1978, remade 1983) was a set of four photographs reimagining the heroic worker-portraits of socialist realism. Movie Audience (1979) was a suite of three group portraits of figures staring up and out of frame into the reflected light of what we take to be a cinema screen. Stereo (1980) was a diptych. Along the way, Wall also made singular pictures such as The Destroyed Room (1978), Picture for Women (1979) and Double Self-Portrait (1979), a work that combined two exposures in a single image. It was by no means clear from the start that the stand-alone picture would become Wall’s great calling, but by the mid-1980s he had come to be identified very closely with the tableau form. So despite opening up new artistic ground, Wall’s achievement meant that he also seen to occupy most of that ground himself.

Secondly, the singular pictorial image has been seen at many points in the art of the last century or so as some kind of bourgeois capitulation to the salons of the establishment. The avant-gardes of the twentieth century in painting, photography, sculpture, literature and cinema rejected the notion of unity almost entirely.  In its place the fragment was upheld as the artistic symbol for a fragmentary age (think of Pablo Picasso’s cubism and Hannah Hoch’s photomontage; or Sergei Eisenstein’s constructivist movie editing and Jean-Luc Godard’s cinema of quotation; or James Joyce’s literary mosaic and Samuel Beckett’s ellipses). And when the avant-gardes were not deploying the fragment directly they were looking beyond singularity to multi-part works. However, there is an unthinking formalism to the supposed anti-formalism of the fragment, and it has produced all manner of false binaries. After all, unified work can evoke fragmentary responses and what really matters is response, for this is where meaning is made.  (I shall return to this point a little later.) Nevertheless, the suspicion of unity, particularly the appearance of pictorial unity, was very strong in the twentieth century, and remains so in some quarters of contemporary art and art criticism.

The third resistance to the singular image rests upon the idea that since each and every photograph is presumed to be essentially a fragmentary and incomplete, the medium’s description of the world ought to be a matter of assembly, of putting those fragments together in order to cover a subject or theme, or experience.  Think of the reportage photo-essay as it came to be developed by mass media magazines in the last century, the book of sequenced photographs, the album and the photo archive, all of which have had major influences on the potential uses and artistic possibilities of the medium.  As László Moholy-Nagy put it in 1932:

“The series is no longer a “picture”, and none of the canons of pictorial aesthetics can be applied to it. Here the picture loses its identity as such and becomes a detail of assembly, an essential structural element of the whole which is the thing itself. In this concatenation of its separate but inseparable parts a photographic series inspired by a definite purpose can become at once the most potent weapon and the tenderest lyric.”[i]

Or, as the August Sander wrote in 1951, “A successful photo is only a preliminary step toward the intelligent use of photography… Photography is like a mosaic that becomes a synthesis only when it is presented en masse.”[ii] Indeed, one can find countless similar expressions of this attitude across the last hundred years or so, even among image-makers entirely capable of making striking singular pictures.

The fourth resistance relates to the third, but rests on a presumption about the photograph’s tendency to derail the desire for the kind of extended looking that the singular image might demand. The artist and writer Victor Burgin expressed it succinctly in 1980:

‘To look at a photograph beyond a certain period of time is to become frustrated: the image which on first looking gave pleasure, by degrees becomes a veil behind which we now desire to see. To remain too long with a single photograph is to lose the imaginary command of the look, to relinquish it to that absent other to whom it belongs by right: the camera. The image now no longer receives our look, reassuring us of our founding centrality, it rather, as it were, avoids our gaze.  In photography one image does not succeed another in the manner of cinema. As alienation intrudes into our captation by the still image, we can only regain the imaginary, and reinvest our looking with authority, by averting our gaze, redirecting it to another image elsewhere. It is therefore not an arbitrary fact that photographs are deployed so that, almost invariably, another photograph is always already in position to receive the displaced look.’[iii]

For Burgin, the photograph has built-in limitations. What makes it attractive – its immediate promise of gratification or knowledge – is also its weakness… “therefore” our looking is deferred and displaced.  It is no doubt true that for the most part photographs do come to us en masse. This is the nature of our daily experience of visual culture.  But are the limitations really intrinsic to the medium? Or is it a matter of our visual culture having schooled the habits of our looking to accept deferral and displacement? There is no simple answer to this, and in the last instance each of us must come to our own conclusions.

Wall took up the artistic challenge of the isolated tableau photograph against these kinds of resistance.  In itself this set his work apart early on, and continues to do so.  But before I turn to the matter what is at stake in the singular image as Wall has explored it, let us first consider the only work in the present exhibition that comprises more than one image: the diptych Summer Afternoons, made in 2013.

Jeff Wall, Summer Afternoons, 2013

In this work Wall presents the viewer with two different views, side-by-side, of what appears to be the same domestic interior, each photographed from a different angle. In one view we see a reclining nude man on a green, carpeted floor amid pink furniture, his back to the camera. In the second picture, a nude woman reclines against the yellow wall on a bed that doubles as a day sofa.   Each figure seems absorbed and preoccupied, the man perhaps with his own physicality, the woman in some kind of daydream or reverie. Although the two images hang on the wall together and are framed the same way, they are subtly different in their size and proportion. While this encourages the viewer to take each on its own terms, they are clearly presented as a pair. Whatever response we might have to one is complicated by our response to the other.

Not long after Summer Afternoons was completed, Jeff Wall took part in a public discussion with the movie editor Kevin Tent. The subject was the relation and non-relation between images. Since Wall’s preoccupation is with the single image requiring no relation to any other, for the purposes of the discussion Wall elected to address the occasions upon which he has made multi-part works. He opened his remarks by suggesting that these varied works are all in some sense failures to resolve within the bounds of one frame the pictorial challenge he had set himself. Something in each case “escaped being included or subsumed in a single image,” as he put it. Of course, this failure is not really a failure. If it were, Wall would stop there. It is better understood as a realisation that something else might be permitted to happen, that could only happen, beyond the single image.

So, what is happening with Summer Afternoons that could not happen if it were one photograph? Only the diptych form is able to present the riddle of whether we are supposed to surmise that these two people belong to that room at the same time, present to each other’s nakedness without interacting. They could be. One could imagine the two pictures like a movie edit, giving us consecutive views, at right angles to each other, of the same space. Or, it could be that these two people are occupying this space at completely different times, on separate summer afternoons, unaware of each other.  Perhaps each behaves like this, in this room, only when they are quite alone – the man somewhat awkward with his body; the woman relaxed with hers.  The title, Summer Afternoons, only adds to the ambiguity. In terms of evidence, neither reading of this pair of pictures is more convincing than the other.  It is in the nature of this diptych, perhaps any diptych, to suggest possible relations between the parts without being able to claim any relation emphatically.  Standing in front Summer Afternoons, looking at one semi-autonomous picture and then the other, a viewer may well presume one reading or another, or may enjoy the fact that no reading can be conclusive. “Once you have two images, you have the essence of the editing problem already,” Wall notes.

Editing may suggest the possibility of narrative, but it should be remembered that the word “narrative” can be used as both adjective and noun. This is a happy accident for those making and thinking about photography, and it offers an important way of understanding the medium. A single photograph might be described as narrative if it suggests a situation or scene that extends beyond its spatial and temporal frame. An organized sequence of photographs might be described as a narrative if it encourages connections and associations among the individual parts. And the two are not mutually exclusive, as an orchestrated grouping may contain photographs that are narrative in character. The question of whether or how photography can narrate has been a source of fascination from the beginning, but there is no definitive answer. The demands on narrative are never stable: our individual needs and expectations of it morph across our lifetimes, while the modern era that gave birth to photography is itself as changeable and precarious. In all the arts, narrative protocols are subject to mutation and rupture.

The stillness and muteness of the single photograph may well reduce its narrative potential to allusion and suggestion, but a sequence or grouping never fully overcomes this condition either, even with the accompaniment of words. When photographs are put together, the spaces between—the jumps in time, place, angle, or motif—can be as significant as what is pictured. In this sense the lucid but fragmentary character of photography places it closer to poetry than prose.  That is to say, closer to ‘narrative’ as adjective than ‘narrative’ as noun.

With this in mind let us turn our attention to Wall’s interest in the photograph as singular picture. In general, Wall accepts the laws of perspective and geometry as determined by the camera’s lens. The naturalistic coherence of the camera’s view is reemphasized by the unity of Wall’s compositions. That is to say he makes unified pictures of unified spaces. At the same time however, Wall has repeatedly explored the possibility of a picture containing multiple points of view.  While it’s true that any photograph containing a person contains at least the hint of another point of view, what is striking about Wall’s pictures is how richly they explore this phenomenon.

Mimic (1982) was Wall’s first image staged outdoors. He had witnessed a casually racist gesture in the street and decided to re-enact it for a photograph.  A Caucasian man and girlfriend are walking slightly behind an Asian man. On the edge of each other’s fields of vision the white man makes a loaded gesture as his middle finger pushes back his eyelid. Wall selected the street and the players, rehearsing the scene before shooting it. Achieving convincing narrative gestures in photographs is notoriously difficult. He has tried everything from paying people to perform things over and over for long periods before attempting to shoot, to filming rehearsals on video then freeze-framing the ideal gestures and replicating them on location. [iv] The title ‘Mimic’ can be read at any number of levels: photography as a ‘mirror of nature’ mimics the world; photography mimics cinema; the white man mimics the Asian man; models mimic actors who mimic real people; Wall mimics the event he saw; the central gesture is a depiction of the unthinking mimicry of a reactionary ideology; and for the gallery the image is printed actual size, mimicking the scale of the viewer’s own body. Wall has pursued levels of clarity and precision beyond what we usually see in reportage or street photography. He uses a large format camera that can record scenes in great detail but is slow to use. Mimic could only have been staged, not just because of the detail but also because of the point of view. The camera sees everything that is important here, in focus and without blur. Moreover the three people act as if the photographer and his bulky equipment were not there right in front of them.  Such disavowal of the camera’s frontal presence is standard in mainstream narrative cinema because it inherited the implied ‘fourth wall’ of realist theatre.[v] Things appear to happen as if there was no audience, even though they are performed for the audience. In cinema and theatre the sweeping along of the spectator in the unfolding of the drama before them is what suspends the disbelief. (This is why the ‘breaking of the spell’ beloved of avant-garde cinema and theatre tends to involve stopping that flow, shocking audiences out of their daydream, often by having players look directly at them). The stillness of photography is of course denied that voyeuristic unfolding. Photography can suspend the world but not the disbelief.  Consequently the staged narrative photograph that pretends the camera is not present, that depicts action in the realm of fiction, never quite achieves cinema’s naturalism. It is always haunted by movement and estranged by its own fixity.

Photographs arouse curiosities they cannot contain and ask questions they cannot answer. Wall accepts this, playing formal unity of his pictures against the fragmented stories they suggest. After “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue (1999–2000, plate 110) is Wall’s response to an encounter he has called an “accident of reading.”3 Ellison’s episodic first-person novel, published in 1952, about what it was to be African American at midcentury is peppered with descriptions that have the arresting force of snapshots. The prologue describes how the narrator, in the course of a riot, fell down a garbage chute into a basement, where he set up his home and wrote the novel you are about to read. The narrator notes that the room has 1,369 light bulbs, illuminated with electricity siphoned from the building above, but otherwise his description of his surroundings is not very long. The whole novel took Ellison seven years to complete, while Wall’s photograph took about a year to realize. It shows what the writer might have accumulated in that space. It is not a snapshot but a carefully worked out picture. Are we in the register of realism or hallucination or somewhere in between? Is this literature, photography, cinema, theater, or all of them?  But how does one depict a person completely alone? Wall places the man deep in the pictorial space, drying his bowl while he looks at his manuscript notes. His profile is only just visible to the camera, and the viewer. At the heart of this extravagant theatre is an absorbed man, depicted as if unwatched, as if not subject to the gaze of anyone.  The point of view, if we can call it that, is almost spectral.

This spectral view is pushed to an extreme in Search of Premises (2008). Although a forensic examination of a home is the event we see here, the narrative implication is that either a previous event has led to this search, or the search is an attempt to avert an event in the future. We have no idea what those events may be and to some extent they are as real or unreal as the scene being depicted. The domestic space is sparsely decorated although a child’s painting on the wall in the stairwell suggests this may be a family home (or that the occupant wishes to give that impression). The men conduct the search in practical clothes with specialised equipment. In the foreground a pair of generic sports shoes stand in for an absent person who, if they were here would be blocking our view of the searchers. Next to the shoes is a belt and pair of trousers. Perhaps a person has been stripped and is being ‘searched’ in an adjacent room. Clearly this is not a reportage photograph or a police ‘scene of the crime’ document. Even so the searchers are behaving as if they do not notice they are being photographed. The result is an image in which the gentle and introspective feeling of the picture is at odds with the high seriousness of what is being depicted.

 Changing Room (2014) presents us a scene with a point of view that is doubly spectral. We are in the changing room of a clothing store where a woman is in the process of putting one dress on over another, perhaps in an attempt to conceal and then steal the first. We are looking at the depiction of a possible crime, from within the space that is both private and yet public. Moreover, a viewer will soon realise that Wall has depicted the scene from the impossible viewpoint of the changing room mirror. We see what the woman could see herself if her vision was not blocked momentarily by the secretive act of putting on the second dress. The mirror’s view is somewhat voyeuristic but it might also represent the gaze of her repressed conscience: “Why am I doing this? And am I prepared to face the possible consequences?”

Time and again Wall has explored multiple points of view within the single picture, heightening the representation of drama through the drama of representation.

[i] László Moholy-Nagy, Telehor no. 1, 1936, unpag.

[ii] August Sander, letter to the photographer Abelen, January 16, 1951, cited in August Sander, Citizens of the Twentieth Century, ed. Gunther Sander (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986), p.36.

[iii] Victor Burgin, ‘Photography, Phantasy, Function,’ Screen, 21, n. 1, (spring), 1980.

[iv] The former method was used in the making of Volunteer (1996), a photograph of a tired man mopping the floor of a community centre, the latter in the making of Eviction Struggle (1988) and Outburst (1986), a photograph of a sweatshop boss exploding with rage and an employee. See ‘Posing, Acting and Photography’ in David Green and Joanna Lowry (eds.) Stillness and Time: Photography and the Moving Image (Brighton 2006).

[v] Of course the convention goes a long way back in the history of art. Think of the odd but pictorially natural way in which the disciples are sat along just one side of the table for the Last Supper.

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