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

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

11:41am Dec 02, 2021
Picture for Women, 1979, transparency in lightbox
Picture for Women, 1979, transparency in lightbox
Jeff Wall / © Jeff Wall; Courtesy the artist and Glenstone Museum
  • Picture for Women, 1979, transparency in lightbox

    Picture for Women, 1979, transparency in lightbox

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

  • Mimic, 1982, transparency in lightbox

    Mimic, 1982, transparency in lightbox

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

  • Volunteer, 1996, silver gelatin print

    Volunteer, 1996, silver gelatin print

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

  • Dressing poultry, 2007, transparency in lightbox

    Dressing poultry, 2007, transparency in lightbox

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

Updated December 2, 2021 at 11:41 AM ET

Canadian photographer Jeff Wall says, "I begin by not photographing." That's right: no snaps, no selfies. He doesn't like the idea — in his words, of "Just running around for something to photograph."

Instead, when he sees something striking, he thinks about it for a while. Then, if he decides he can make something out of it, he recreates it from scratch: hiring performers, scouting locations and staging the scene for his camera. His art is to move photographs into the realm of painting.

Glenstone Museum outside of Washington, D.C. is showing a retrospective of Wall's photographs. Since the 1970s, he's influenced generations of today's photographers.

It was really disconcerting, talking with Jeff Wall in a gallery at Glenstone. We were surrounded by his massive color photos. As we spoke, over his shoulder, I glimpsed a woman staring at us. Nosey! But she wasn't real. I mean, she was — but in a photograph, enlarged to be as big as we were, looking very real. The picture was a transparency on film displayed in a lightbox, whose illumination gave the woman the dimensions of real life.

But Wall says, "I don't like the idea of capturing life." So he doesn't carry a camera.

"I'm not obliged to be a reporter. I can start from anywhere," he says. "Something I have witnessed, something I haven't witnessed, something I read, or dreamed. Anything."

He sees something — a white man, pulling his eyelid back into a slant 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, and then makes his art. "I like it that I didn't catch it with a device. I just capture it with my own experience."

Chief Curator and Director of Glenstone Emily Rales thinks Wall is one of the most influential artists of the last 40 years. "He really pushed the medium," Rales says. "He did for photography what nobody else has been able to do, which is elevate it from photojournalism and street photography to the level of sculpture and painting"

Jeff Wall began working this way — huge scale, color images lit from behind — in the 1970s. After 20 years, he gave up color and transparency for a while, wanting to do something different.

Wanting to work with shadow, he turned to photography's oldest form: black and white. It has a 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 carried the image in his head for a while. "Something about his peaceful, absorbed quality, again did that thing – made me think I could do something with it," he says.

Wall hired a young man to model for him. Pensive, melancholy, it puts loneliness, and how it can feel, in black and white.

On the other hand, you can't look at his 2007 color work Dressing Poultry without smiling, although the subject is pretty grim.

In a barn, a farm family is preparing their chickens for market. "You'll notice that a chicken has been dropped into that cone upside down," he says. This part of the picture makes me groan! Wall continues: "The knife is in his hand. The bucket is below." You know what's about to happen. I observe that all the farm folks seem to be having a great time.

Wall points out that, in this family, slaughtering chickens is just a part of everyday life for them. When he saw one of the women laughing, he knew that was the image he'd use. "Because it takes the whole picture somewhere else."

It becomes a Jeff Wall picture. Disturbing. Cruel. Fun. Real.


Art Where You're At is an informal series showcasing online offerings at museums you may not be able to visit.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript

NOEL KING, HOST:

Glenstone, a modern art museum outside of Washington, D.C., is showing massive photographs by the Canadian artist Jeff Wall. He has said of his method, I begin by not photographing. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg went to see a retrospective of his work.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: It was really disconcerting. In a gallery talking with Jeff Wall, over his shoulder I saw a woman staring at us - nosy. But she wasn't real. I mean, she was, but in a photograph, enlarged to be as big as we were, looking so real because the picture was a transparency on film, with light coming from behind in a light box. But Wall says, I don't like the idea of capturing life, so he doesn't carry a camera.

JEFF WALL: They're not obliged to be a reporter. I can start from anywhere. I can start from something I have witnessed, something I haven't witnessed, something I read - anything.

STAMBERG: He sees something disturbing - a white man pulling his eyelid back into a slant as he passes an Asian man on the street.

WALL: It's not a friendly gesture.

STAMBERG: What he's seen stays with him. He thinks about it for a while. Then, if he decides he can make something out of it, he recreates it - hires performers, scouts locations and stages the scene for his camera and then makes his art.

WALL: I like it that I didn't catch it with any kind of device. I just captured it with my own experience.

STAMBERG: Chief curator and director of Glenstone Emily Rales thinks Wall is one of the most influential artists of the last 40 years.

EMILY RALES: He did for photography what nobody else has been able to do, which is to elevate it from photojournalism and street photography to the level of sculpture and painting, really.

STAMBERG: Jeff Wall began working this way in the 1970s. After 20 years, he gave up color and transparency for a while and turned to photography's oldest form, black and white. It has a documentary quality. But again, it's not a documentary. Spotting a guy through the window of a nearby shelter mopping the floor...

WALL: Something about his kind of peaceful, absorbed quality, again, did that thing. It made me think that I could do something with this.

STAMBERG: Wall hired a young man to model for him - pensive, melancholy. It puts loneliness in black and white - how loneliness can feel. On the other hand, you can't look at his 2007 color work "Dressing Poultry" without smiling, although the subject is pretty grim. In a barn, a farm family is preparing their chickens for market.

WALL: You'll notice that a chicken has been dropped into that cone upside down.

STAMBERG: Oh.

WALL: The head comes through the bottom of the cone. The knife is in his hand. A bucket is below.

STAMBERG: But the thing is, they're all having such a good time.

WALL: Well, they were having a good time at this moment.

STAMBERG: It's a family. Slaughtering chickens is just part of everyday life for them. When he saw one of the women laughing, Wall knew that was the image he'd use.

WALL: Because it takes the whole picture somewhere else.

STAMBERG: It becomes a Jeff Wall picture - disturbing, cruel, fun, real. Five decades' worth of Wall are at Glenstone Museum in Potomac, Md.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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