“Photography is still just evolving”

Jeff Wall in conversation with
It’s Nice That

Jeff Wall is an artist who needs little introduction. Renowned for his role in shaping photography as a conceptual art form, he was part of a movement that pioneered large format tableaux images of everything from mundane interactions to elaborately constructed scenes. His practice synthesises photography with notions more traditionally associated with other media, including painting and cinema, and some of his early works make specific reference to the history of image making.

Wall was born in Vancouver in 1946, where he still lives today. He first became involved with photography during the 1960s and by the 70s was well on his way to redefining conceptualism and the photographic image in art. For decades, his pictures materialised as large-scale backlit colour transparencies, a format more associated with advertising in the public realm than art when he first started using them. This medium was, in part, largely to thank for the popularisation of colour photography in both the documentary and fine art world due to its striking aesthetic when exhibited in galleries and museums. Since the 1990s, Wall has expanded his practice, producing black-and-white prints and, more recently, inkjet colour prints.

A major facet of the photographer’s practice concerns what his images show, and how they are experienced. A term associated with Wall is “near documentary”, a self-appointed description of his work which inspects the truth of his images – they appear as documentary photographs but are often, in fact, recreations of moments made after they happen, in collaboration with “actors” or stand-ins. His images should not, he claims, be understood as depictions of a specific moment but instead, they should be experienced. The before and after of the moment are left open to interpretation, the facts are suspended. Ultimately, his practice is one that investigates the effects and meanings of documentary photographs.

With a solo exhibition currently on show at White Cube Mason’s Yard, we caught up with the now 72-year-old artist to find out more about his complex but fascinating ideas surrounding the photographic medium.

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Mask Maker, 2015 © Jeff Wall

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Parent Child, 2018 © Jeff Wall. Courtesy White Cube

INT You started your artistic career as a painter, do you remember when photography presented itself as the best medium to express your conceptual ideas?

JW I was 18 or 19 when I got into photography and, at that time, the medium was very different. It was only used for documentation of other elements. But that didn’t interest me – I struggled with it for a while but found that it really wasn’t for me, and slowly moved away from that idea. I felt that there was something drawing me to the character in the photographic image, it had something in it that painting, a picture painting anyway, might not have, at least not to me. And so then I began to think about what kind of pictures I could make as a photographer. By the 70s I really began to take that seriously – figure it out, experiment with it and so on. By the middle of the 70s, I began to do what I’m doing now essentially.

INT How was the landscape of photography different to today at the time when you began working with it?

JW Well, while photography as art was pretty well defined, let’s say, by the middle of the 60s, it was based upon a documentary style that people like Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand were doing. That’s what was taken seriously as photography. My generation came a bit too late for that – it had already been done so well by those people that it didn’t seem very alive anymore. Some people at least weren’t really drawn into carrying on the tradition of Cartier Bresson and so began to find other interests, including this experimentation that came up around conceptual art.

I really began to wonder about the role of artifice, and how it could come into play in photography. Some of that came from the mass media which had become more and more important already by that time – the cinema, television in some ways – either way, commercial photography had become more interesting. So I think the canonical idea of what should be taken seriously as photography began to get very disrupted by 1966-67. Doors got opened for people to try other things, things that weren’t really acceptable in the older string of references. Well, that was a big change. In a way, I suppose you could say photography got expanded in that decade – between 1968-78 it started to include colour, which wasn’t really very popular or acceptable previously, you had changes of scale which meant more openness towards scaling-up pictures, a more open attitude towards diverting away from strictly reportage methods and allowing other things to happen. A lot of people were experimenting with these ideas in those years. And that kind of led to this sea change in photography by about middle of the 70s, I suppose. The idea of what photography could be as art really became crystallised by 1975-76 but it was a very new thing at that time.

“There was something drawing me to the character in the photographic image, it had something in it that painting might not have.”

Property Line, 2015 © Jeff Wall. Courtesy White Cube

INT Was it really exciting for you to be part of that?

JW It’s hard to say – it seemed like the thing to do, that once the door was opened, I should go through it and see what was on the other side and then if what I found was interesting, I would just keep going. But it was a little bit more spontaneous than feeling you were part of any movement in any defined fashion. There were no real artists or groups doing photography, there was just different people trying things.

INT Your use of transparencies and light boxes really set the tone for a new visual language in photography. Could you tell us the story of when you first started working with them?

JW Well, this was in 1977 – I’d already begun to work in a similar way to how I’m working now. I went on a trip to Europe in that year, and began to notice these lighted advertisements in airports and bus terminals – they were appearing everywhere, in America, Canada, but I really noticed them in Europe. In tandem with that, I had been visiting a lot of museums that I hadn’t visited before, so I was seeing a lot of images that I had wanted to see all my life, which was exciting – I’d only ever seen a reproduction of them before then. That really combined with seeing these lighted signs; it made me think that there was some kind of luminosity that was available to this medium that might, not copy what painting does or anything, but just somehow echo the handling of it. Also, these advertisements were large, so I thought that this medium might be a path to trying something new.

At that time, it was just an experiment, a way to try something. When I got back to Vancouver after that trip, I pulled together some images I was working on and made a few trial attempts and I thought, yeah, I can work with this, this is new. It was kind of an intuition that the medium might contain some sort of energy that I could make use of somehow.

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Hillside, Sicily, November, 2007 © Jeff Wall. Courtesy White Cube

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Weightlifter, 2015 © Jeff Wall. Courtesy White Cube

Boy falls from tree, 2010 © Jeff Wall

INT With the power of hindsight, was that quite a pivotal moment in your career? Are there any other moments you can pin down as being as pivotal?

JW You know, I didn’t see many exhibitions for a long time because we lived in a small provincial city. But I did see some good ones nevertheless in the early days that really affected me. In 1962, there was a World Fair in Seattle, which is right near Vancouver, of course. And as part of that World Fair, there were two very large art exhibitions of contemporary art, one American and one European. I went to see those, as a lot of young people who were interested in art in that region did at that time. All the famous artists that you could imagine from all the art magazines that we were reading were there hanging on the wall. Everybody from Francis Bacon, Mark Rothko, Picasso, and Jackson Pollock and so on – remember, this is 1962, so these people are still working, they’re not just names that come up at auction, they were alive and working. And so that was hugely exciting for me and probably a lot of other people because it was a very, very good exhibition. It wasn’t just “some art” but it was actually a serious and curated exhibition – it was amazing to see all this work. That was a real turning point for me, and I’m sure other people who wanted to be artists in that area.

INT Your works have been referred to as recreations of experiences of moments. What, for you, makes a moment resonate enough to recreate it in some way?

JW Well firstly, it might not be a moment, it might be a place. To give you an example, five years ago or so, I was driving along the street on Santa Monica Boulevard in LA and I saw a young black man wearing a mask, one of those masks that cover your eyes, that you often see at parties and so on – a bit like a bandit’s mask but a white one. He was looking at his reflection in the mirror of a store and drawing a pattern on the mask, like a design, a decorative pattern. So he was inventing a, well, a mask for himself. It was a really interesting event and I immediately thought that I could do something with it. I couldn’t photograph him there and then because the circumstances were not right. But also I didn’t need to, I had mentally noted everything I could about him. I then decided I would reconstruct that moment by the usual means that I use – these are somewhat different, but it always involves finding the right person, finding the right place, finding something for him to wear, and getting a mask etc, etc. Then I will make a picture in collaboration with the person I found who looked a lot like the original man. So that moment was fascinating in itself, this relation to himself that he was displaying on the street, it was unusual, fascinating, and revealing.

When people are exposed in the world where they don’t necessarily have a lot of private space, they enact private things in public, and sometimes we see them, sometimes we don’t. Those moments are kind of moments that photographers in the vein of Winogrand or Frank want to capture as they happen. And occasionally they do capture those things. But you can imagine the millions of things that weren’t captured because Winogrand wasn’t there, or he didn’t have his camera. Either way, he missed it. And if he missed, he missed it forever. In my case, I don’t have to miss it forever. I mean, I’ve missed the real moment forever, the actual moment forever, but I haven’t missed the experience. I haven’t missed the possibility of transforming that into a picture by other means. It doesn’t make the same kind of claims as a photograph taken immediately on the street, obviously, but it makes other claims. So that’s an example of a characteristic event that caught my attention but there are other things as well. Each one is somewhat different. There’s no pattern. I’m not looking for anything.

Hillside near Ragusa, 2007 © Jeff Wall. Courtesy White Cube

“We’re still discovering what this blend of actuality, reportage, performance, reconstruction and composition is as an art form.”

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Daybreak (on an olive farm, Negev/Desertis/Israel), 2011 © Jeff Wall. Courtesy White Cube

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Mother of pearl, 2016 © Jeff Wall. Courtesy White Cube

INT So it’s not always an oddity or something unusual? It could be complete mundane?

JW Yes, it could be any circumstance. Because as you say, it doesn’t have to be an oddity. The one I described is a bit of a novelty but they don’t necessarily have to be.

INT In terms of the importance of language associated with your work, could you maybe touch on how you like to talk about your images – or how you like other people to talk about them? For example, you don’t use the word “staged” in relation to your images.

JW Well, that’s just me complaining about the way people talk. It’s not really that important. Except that the thing about “staged” is, of course, my pictures are “staged” in the sense that I do the things that people assume you do when you stage something. The problem with the term is it implies there’s a stage and what that suggests is that there’s a known body of approaches and techniques.

By now, I guess I do have a certain known body of approaches and techniques. But I try not to use them very much or reuse them again each time I start something, even though it might end up the same old place. So I like to not use terms that feel like they’re defining a mode of doing something. If something is overbearing, I just try to avoid it. I mean, it doesn’t really matter. People can use the term, it doesn’t mean anything. I just don’t like it because I feel it’s a little cut and dry. I feel like we’re still discovering what this blend of actuality, reportage, performance, reconstruction and composition is as an art form. You know, photography’s not very old. So it hasn’t really worn through a lot of its mysteries, if it ever will. Painting is 2000, some would say 20,000, years old – we’ve been seeing hand-painted drawn images for millennia. And so the things that we didn’t know about, say, drawing with charcoal, we kind of know a lot about now. Photography has only been around for a little fragment of that time, and it’s actually quite a complicated medium meaning there are still things about it that we haven’t got any idea about yet. It’s still in the young stage of being elaborated.

© Jeff Wall. Photo © White Cube (Theo Christelis)

INT Do you have any kind of inclination into which direction photography might continue to go or how those things might continue to overlap?

JW Not particularly – one of the things that emerged and was very new in the 1970s and 80s that a lot of people in my generation were involved in, was what we call the tableaux form, which means making photographs valid, in the same kind of scale and circumstance that only paintings had before. They hung on walls and were any scale they needed to be, they were in colour; they simply jumped off the published page into the physical world, the way paintings and sculptures did. That was something really quite new but it only happened in fits and starts. There had been billboards and advertisements, but artistically, it hadn’t really been opened up. And that’s only a couple of decades ago. What that means is that photography is still really just evolving. Maybe we already know what the next “thing” is because it doesn’t take 1,000 years to figure it out and get a feel for it, I don’t know, but I don’t think that photography is that clear yet. The blending of accident, actuality, pre-calculation, etc is so fluid that another person, our group of people, will just do in a different way – just like you can’t predict another style of painting will emerge.

INT Your current show at the White Cube, as with a lot of your previous exhibitions, doesn’t have a theme. What makes a collection of images “right” to be exhibited together for you?

JW Just good luck really, because I don’t work in groups or series of pictures, I just do them one at a time. Gallery shows are usually a way of showing the public what an artist has done recently and, of course, they’re for the market as well. We need to put our pictures up in the world, show them, and see who wants them. Some people are very good at making gallery shows that are unified out of a group of works that have a lot in common, for example, a painter might make a whole series of eight-foot square paintings on a certain motif or something like that. And they kind of look perfect together. I don’t do that, I just go onto the next image without any real sense of them having to fit together and so previously I’ve done shows that don’t look very good, even though I like to think that all the pictures in them are pretty good pictures. The problem is they just didn’t have anything to do with each other other than being made in the same year or two years. And so, for me, it’s always luck if I’ve made pictures that somehow feel nice together and make a good show. In this case, I think they sort of work together in a haphazard way. It’s just good fortune this case that the show has some sort of coherence.

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© Jeff Wall. Photo © White Cube (Theo Christelis)

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© Jeff Wall. Photo © White Cube (Theo Christelis)

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© Jeff Wall. Photo © White Cube (Theo Christelis)

Jeff Wall is on at White Cube Mason’s Yard until 7 September 2019.