The Canadian artist’s near-documentary photographs present worlds we don’t quite live in. He considers them an antidote to today’s proliferation of images.
Sitting at a round table in his dining room, 74-year-old Canadian artist Jeff Wall says; “Since being a child, I’ve always wanted to know how the world you look at is replicated in an image.” This fascination with perspective and replication explains why he uses a camera for his work. But Wall, educated in art history at The University of British Columbia, has had his works exhibited by some of the art world’s most venerated institutions by doing things differently to other photographers. He creates views into worlds that are almost, but not quite, the one we live in.
Wall’s photographs use elaborately designed sets composed with a sculptor’s eye for scale and texture, and scenes composed with a film director’s knack for relaying character. He uses actors stage designers and actors who often leap into motion at his request just as the shot is taken. His works bear closer resemblance to 19th-century classical paintings than ordinary reportage photography and he remains famous for his old pieces, which were printed onto vinyl and backlit like bus-stop advertisements.
Wall bristles at the suggestion that these photos are staged. Discussing one of his best-known works, “Parent Child”, in which a toddler lies curled up on the pavement, her father standing over her, he explains that this is a moment he saw in a photo and wanted to recreate. He paced up and down a street and thought about how he’d construct the shot. “I see something happen, I transpose it to a favourable setting, I populate it with the appropriate people and I make it happen again,” he says. To Wall, comparing this to staging is like trying to compare truth and accuracy: they might sound the same but in artistic terms they’re not.
Walking this line between fact and fiction, a mode sometimes called “near documentary”, has earned Wall credit for expanding the possibilities of photography. He also stands out for focusing on single images rather than arranging his works into series or books. “I just make them one at a time,” he says. “I think of my pictures as sort of like big cats: they don’t like another cat being too near them.” It’s a slower kind of image-making that he sees as an antidote to the oversaturation of pictures around us today.
That said, all good artists are open to change. The photographs in Wall’s forthcoming exhibition with Gagosian in October were nearly all composed and shot in Los Angeles, giving them a tighter theme. “There’s a lot to see here,” he says of LA, where he lives when he’s not in his native Vancouver. “This is an interesting cluster of cities that contains a lot of things to photograph. I’m attracted to it.”
Glenstone, a private museum in the suburbs of Washington is slated to exhibit 30 or so of his photographs in November. It has the largest collection of his works, including some of his earliest and most notable: “The Destroyed Room” from the 1970s; “Dead Troops Talk”, his 1992 photograph of the imagined aftermath of a fictional attack in Afghanistan. “It’s a look back,” he says of the show. As for his view to the future, he doesn’t plan on taking his eye away from the camera any time soon.
1946 Born in Vancouver
1970 Finishes studies at the University of British Columbia
1973 Leaves his studies at The Courtauld
1978 First postgrad gallery exhibition
2005 Major retrospective at London’s Tate Modern
2007 Awarded Officer of the Order of Canada