Why photographer Jeff Wall relies on memory – not his camera – to make his art


Updated December 2, 2021 11:41 a.m. ET

Canadian photographer Jeff Wall says: “I start with not photograph. “That’s right: no snaps, no selfies. He doesn’t like the idea – in his own words, of” Just running for something to photograph. ”

Instead, when he sees something striking, he thinks about it for a while. Then, if he decides he can do something with it, he recreates it from scratch: hiring artists, scouting places and staging the scene for his camera. His art is to move photographs into the field of painting.

The Glenstone Museum outside Washington, DC features a retrospective of Wall’s photographs. Since the 1970s, he has influenced generations of today’s photographers.

It was truly disconcerting speaking with Jeff Wall in a gallery in Glenstone. We were surrounded by his huge color photos. As we spoke, over his shoulder I saw a woman staring at us. Curious! But she wasn’t real. I mean, she was – but in a photograph, enlarged to be as large as us, looking very real. The image was a film transparency presented in a light box, the lighting of which gave the woman the dimensions of real life.

But Wall said, “I don’t like the idea of capture life. So he’s not carrying a camera.

“I don’t have to be a journalist. I can start from anywhere,” he says. “Something that I witnessed, something that I didn’t witness, something that I read or dreamed of. Anything.”

<em>Mimic</em>, 1982, transparent in lightbox

Jeff Wall / © Jeff Wall; Courtesy of the artist and the Glenstone Museum

Mimic, 1982, transparent in lightbox

He sees something – a white man, pulling his eyelid back as he passes an Asian man on the street.

“It’s not a friendly gesture.” He sees them, but, “I don’t photograph them. I’m not that kind of photographer.”

Instead, he lives with the mental image of it, then makes his art. “I like that I didn’t catch it with a device. I just captured it with my own experience.”

Glenstone Chief Curator and Director Emily Rales believes Wall is one of the most influential artists of the past 40 years. “He really pushed the medium,” Rales says. “He did for photography what no one else could, which was to elevate it from photojournalism and street photography to the level of sculpture and painting.”

Jeff Wall started working this way – large-scale, backlit color images – in the 1970s. After 20 years he gave up color and transparency for a while, wanting to do something different.

<em>Volunteer</em>, 1996, gelatin silver print

Jeff Wall / © Jeff Wall; Courtesy of the artist and the Glenstone Museum

Volunteer, 1996, gelatin silver print

Wanting to work in the shade, he turned to the oldest form of photography: black and white. It has documentary quality, but again, it’s not a documentary. He had spotted a man through the window of a nearby shelter, mopping the floor. He held the image in his head for a while. “Something in its peaceful, absorbed quality did this thing again – made me think I could do something with it,” he said.

Wall hired a young man as a model for him. Thoughtful, melancholy, he puts the loneliness, and what one can feel, in black and white.

However, you cannot look at his 2007 color work. Poultry dressing without smiling, although the subject is quite dark.

<em>Poultry dressing,</em> 2007, transparent in lightbox

Jeff Wall / © Jeff Wall; Courtesy of the artist and the Glenstone Museum

Poultry dressing, 2007, transparent in lightbox

In a barn, a family of farmers prepares their chickens for the market. “You will notice that a chicken has fallen into this upside down cone,” he says. This part of the photo makes me moan! Wall continues: “The knife is in his hand. The bucket is below. You know what’s going to happen. I see that all the people on the farm seem to be having fun.

Wall points out that in this family, slaughtering chickens is just part of their daily life. When he saw one of the women laughing, he knew that was the image he would use. “Because it takes the whole picture elsewhere. ”

It becomes a photo of Jeff Wall. Disturbing. Cruel. Amusing. Real.

The art where you are is an informal series featuring online offerings at museums you may not be able to visit.

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