PRINT September 2003


IF THE DIALECTIC OF ARTIFICE AND FACT HAS INFORMED JEFF WALL’S WORK FROM THE start, then his latest pictures tip the balance: away from the excruciating feats of stagecraft evidenced in an image like After Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, the Preface, 1999–2001 (which took Wall nearly three years to complete), and toward the documentary, or “near-documentary,” impulse that remains the other strong attractor in the photographer’s working dynamic. (Two of the four images in this portfolio are, for all practical purposes, “documentary”: observed, and then shot in a session or two at most.) Of course, just how much—or little—Wall fusses to achieve his ends is something he would rather we not think so hard about. For him, the point is the synthesis, the estranging synthesis. In Wall’s recollection of his own artistic self-invention that precedes these pictures [“Frames of Reference”], we discover that the synthesis he was looking for, “what was needed to make pictures with the kind of physical presence I wanted,” came to him (as to others of his generation) at the movies. What was needed, it turns out, were the techniques of filmmaking: collaboration with performers (“not necessarily ‘actors,’ as Neorealism showed”), sets, lights, makeup, and finally, and especially, the juxtaposition of different “manners and styles” in a single work that, to Wall, seemed to defy the very idea of authorial style. While he acknowledges that such factors are not specific to filmmaking, from the movies came the permission that enabled his first large color photographs.

If Wall was seeing his way back to the masters of the classic documentary model (Atget, Evans, et al.), if he was looking beyond the inhibitions of the neo-avant-gardes that for a “long moment” had foreclosed on that model, as on all past art, the documentary tradition—with its album-leaf miniaturism and plain-truth pieties—was still felt as a limitation. Where Conceptualists like Smithson, Ruscha, and Graham—artists who worked with photography but were not photographers in the old sense—appeared for a time to point the way beyond the impasse, the intermedia experiments their efforts begot (“the unconvincing hybrids that are so sadly characteristic of art since then”) seemed to Wall a second cul-de-sac. The movies pointed the way (a new way), beyond the way beyond of the Conceptualists and back through the masters of the documentary tradition to painting (American style, in particular) and, further, to the Old Masters proper.

In summoning the specter of masters and masterpieces, Wall—an artist many will identify more with the break in old-style art photography than with the perpetuation of that tradition or any other—offers just the sort of prod at received wisdom we have come to expect of him. What he takes from the old masters is disarmingly general, “a love of pictures” (Wall sees the arts of photography, film, and painting as a single pictorial tradition), “which I believe is at the same time a love of nature and of existence itself, and an idea of the size and scale proper to pictorial art, and so proper to the ethical feeling for the world expressed in pictorial art.” How to express this love of nature and of existence? Pictorially, usually obliquely, and with as much—or as little—artifice as required.

In the images that follow, Wall once again marshals his signature gambits: peripheries, nonplaces, the extraordinary ordinary. Staining bench, furniture manufacturer’s, Vancouver, finished this spring, reprises the neglected corners of the “diagonal compositions” he made between 1993 and 2000; Woman with a covered tray, the modern-life routine, the super-quotidian detail. In each image what is particular appears concentrated, redoubled . . . until the picture snaps—and snaps us out of our conditioned ways of seeing and into the strange everyday of “beloved existence.” Sometimes it comes all at once (Staining bench and Bloodstained garment he noticed and then simply shot—more or less); other times the extraordinary in the ordinary must be tricked out: Of Boys cutting through hedge, Mountain View Cemetery, Vancouver, the most elaborately engineered image in this suite, Wall remarks, “We spent quite some time choreographing their movements. Two people hopping a fence is a complex ballet, especially when you have to think about it.” And in pictures you do think about it.

Jack Bankowsky