Documentary, performance and fictions -Jeff Wall

I’ve heard of Jeff Wall, I’ve seen his work but have never really THOUGHT about it. Now I have to do a little bit of reflection, so I better resolve that…

The factual bit…if you can trust websites!

Jeff Wall, born September 29, 1946, is a Canadian artist best known for his large-scale back-lit cibachrome photographs and art history writing. His photographic tableaux often take Vancouver’s mixture of natural beauty, urban decay and postmodern and industrial featurelessness as their backdrop.
Wikipedia (yuk)

‘The only way to continue in the spirit of the avant-garde is to experiment with your relation to tradition’ (Artnews, Nov. 1995, p.222).

His reconstructions are said to contain references to art, the media, and socio-economic problems. Apparently since 2006, he has exhibited prints rather than back-lit transparencies. An example of his more recent work would be Approach, (2014) which portrays a homeless woman ‘standing by a makeshift cardboard shelter in which we spy the foot of what could be a sleeping vagrant.’ This is based on reality, being shot under a freeway where the homeless gather, but it is still partially a fiction, although Wall at the time wouldn’t reveal how staged it is. O’Hagan asked unanswered questions: Is this an actual homeless woman, or an actor? Is the shelter real, or was it built by Wall’s team of assistants to resemble one?

The reasoning behind his styles and method?

…he aspired instead to make photographs that could be constructed and experienced the way paintings are. ‘Most photographs cannot get looked at very often. They get exhausted. Great photographers have done it on the fly… I just wasn’t interested in doing that. I didn’t want to spend my time running around trying to find an event that could be made into a picture that would be good’… He also disliked… small prints. ‘I don’t like the traditional 8 by 10. They were done that size as displays for prints to run in books. It’s too shrunken, too compressed. When you’re making things to go on a wall, as I do, that seems too small.’

[On Velázquez, Manet,Jackson Pollock and Carl Andre] ‘If painting can be that scale and be effective, then a photograph ought to be effective at that size, too.’

May be I need to be a bit more intelligent, or educated in the world of art…(probably no may be needed there) but on reading up about The Destroyed Room (1978) I just think ‘really?’

jeff wall the destroyed room_0

A big bit of copy paste here with my own interjections….if you can follow that “The Destroyed Room,” shows a strewn heap of women’s clothing in a ransacked room that a careful observer can detect (and is meant to detect) was constructed as a set for the photo shoot.  – ok yes I can follow that…Equally clear, in this tableau of violence directed against a woman’s possessions, is the tip of the artist’s hat to the feminist art criticism of that time. …Not so sure about that one but I’ll take it….However, what even a well-educated viewer might have missed, without Wall’s printed exegesis, is the reference the photographer was making to a great 19th-century painting, “The Death of Sardanapalus,” by Delacroix.


Ok, there is mess, and a bed, diagonal composition…and an ‘ish’ similar colour palette, is the dancer Sardanapalus surveying the mess? I dunno… you lost me there… I obviously don’t do subtle!

I then found this, which I could identify with more…

Wall made the picture in 1978, which was the year his wife, Jeannette, left him for another man. (After that relationship ended, Jeannette returned to Jeff, bringing with her a third son, whom they have raised together.) To construct the scene in the picture, Jeff used Jeannette’s clothing. “I borrowed her clothes because we were still on good terms and she had the good clothes,” he told me. For all the talk of allusions to Delacroix and feminist art criticism, I wondered if the most crucial piece of subtext for “The Destroyed Room” might revolve around a spurned husband’s rage. “You’re probably right, but it doesn’t feel right to me,” he said. “I don’t remember feeling particularly angry at that time.”

jeff wall picture for women_0


A better example for me is Picture for Women (1979), based upon Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. 

Onwards with the coursework…


Read the article on Jeff Wall in Pluk magazine. Briefly reflect on the documentary value of Jeff Wall’s work.

The article, more-or-less, details some of the information covered by my research, plus commenting on the ‘impossibly real’ photographs, the ‘intricate fakery,’ and the intense amount of work involved in producing ‘such artifice whilst simultaneously masking it.’

I found his work to be skillful, thoughtful, intelligent; he had an innovative approach and it smacks of authorship, but what do I think about the documentary value of his work? I think it is very tenuous, or was very tenuous as his more recent work does not speculate on events as much as it did, then it was more a social commentary than documentary based on fact. In 2007 he stated: ‘I don’t find my own experiences very interesting…I find my observations interesting. Maybe that’s why I’m a photographer. Maybe an observation is an experience that means more to you than other experiences.’

I think he summed it up better than I could so will leave it there.


Arthur Lubow [Accessed 08/04/2017]

Lucas Blalock %5BAccessed 08/04/2017]

Sean O’Hagan %5BAccessed 08/04/2017] %5BAccessed 08/04/2017] [Accessed 08/04/2017]


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