Jeff Wall

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A photographer whose name always seems to be cropping up at the moment is Jeff Wall.

Described by the Tate Modern as “…one of the most intriguing and influential artists working today”, Wall is best known for his grand back-lit tableaux. These are large in every sense of the word; they take up a lot of wall space (up to 2m x 3m), they are grand in conception and they are a long time in the making.

His work can be thought of in two distinct strands, cinematographic and documentary.

The former often reflect or are motivated by other works of art. Both this and his working methods are illustrated by “A Sudden Gust of Wind”. This is based on “Yejiri Station, Province of Suruga”, a woodprint by Katsushika Hokusai, but moves the scene to modern British Columbia. Using actors, he took more than 100 photographs over the course of a year. These were later digitally montaged to produce the final picture.

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“After “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, the Preface” is a pictorialisation of the preface of Ellison’s book:

“I live rent-free in a building rented strictly to whites, in a section of the basement that was shut off and forgotten during the nineteenth century.”…

“My hole is warm and full of light. Yes, full of light. I doubt if there is a brighter spot in all New York than this hole of mine, and I do not exclude Broadway.”…

”In the hole in my basement there are exactly 1,369 lights.”

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“The Mimic” is another staged shot but instead of recreating a work of art, it is recreating a moment of racial disharmony Wall had earlier witnessed. But the approach is similar in that he used actors and staged the shot.

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The style of this thread of his work is very cinematic. He uses actors, props, lighting etc in much the same way that a film director would. This is reflected in the large backlit manner of presentation which is akin to watching film on the big screen.

His work is not always the result of such painstaking effort. “Dressing Poultry” was the result of two and a half days working in a barn at a small farm close to his home city of Vancouver. The rapport he developed with his subject is clear from the expressions on the faces of the workers.

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The same sort of approach was adopted with “Fieldwork” where he observed an archaeological dig over a number of weeks. The hope was that the people would become so accustomed to the camera and photographer that they would be effectively invisible.

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He did not limit himself to colour for his big transparencies as “Passer By” shows.

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His documentary offerings seem quite ordinary in comparison. Not surprising as his stated aim was: “I am interested in getting these pictures to look like they could have been snapshots, partly because that is the way photographs are expected to look,” Wall told the Times (London). “Moreover, most very beautiful and successful photographs have looked that way.

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In a conversation with the Daily Telegraph in 2007 prompted by the opening of his exhibition at the White Cube, Wall says. “All I can do is make my picture, and meanings will flow out of it. But I can’t control them.” He is more interested in the aesthetics of his images, “I’m aware that the subjects I choose do have meaning,” he says, “but over the years I’ve found that understanding these meanings is less important for me. My burning issue is how to make the next picture good.”

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