Look at the big pictures of a pioneer to see why size still matters
A retrospective reveals Jeff Wall to be one of the most adventurous artists of his generation, writes Richard James Havis
For Canadian photographer Jeff Wall, big is always better - and it's been that way for almost 30 years. Today, many photographers work with large-scale colour prints that mimic the size and authority of oil paintings. Wall has been showing giant colour slides illuminated by slim light boxes since 1978.
Wall pioneered the art of concept photography and has been described as one of the most adventurous artists of his generation. An exhibition of 40 of his works is at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).
'This retrospective spans his career from 1978 to the present,' says MoMA director Glenn Lowry. 'It's a distinctive assembly of ambitious and challenging pictures. Since 1978, Jeff has worked principally with large format photographs presented as transparencies in light boxes.
'His photographs draw on a wide variety of sources that include 19th-century painting, conceptual art, narrative cinema and modernist photography. It's truly innovative work.'
Wall's approach grew out of the concept art theories of the 60s and 70s. He arranges his subjects the way a painter does his models. He often works with big scenes and a large, choreographed cast. His Dead Troops Talk features dead Russian soldiers coming back to life on a battlefield in Afghanistan to have a chat. An Eviction is a panoramic view of a man being dragged out of his home. A Sudden Gust of Wind, based on a woodcut by Hokusai, features a group of men watching a stream of wind-blown paper fly through the sky. Wall manipulated the elements digitally for five months before achieving the result he wanted.
Wall, 60, who was born in Vancouver, got off to an early start as an artist. As a teenager, he contributed cartoons to a local Canadian newspaper and painted huge canvases in a backyard shed that his father had converted into a studio. By the time he turned 20 in 1966, he'd become something of an expert in the new wave of conceptual art that was sweeping the art scene. He began painting seriously, and exhibited a work at MoMA in 1970 as part of a general show about concept art. Then he made a conscious decision to give up painting altogether.
'He wasn't happy with what he was doing, and decided to stop making art,' says Peter Galassi, MoMA's chief curator of photography, who put together the show. 'After a couple of years off, he decided that filmmaking was the art of the future. But none of his film projects materialised.'
Wall began work again six years later, and embraced photography as his medium of choice. 'He wanted to build a whole new avant garde from the foundations of the old masters - from the great paintings of figures in action,' says Galassi. 'He thought that it would have been reactionary to start painting again, so he turned to photography.'
But it was photography with a difference. Wall invested stills with the techniques of filmmaking.
'He also took ideas from the paintings of the old masters, from neo-realist cinema, and from a very rich and diverse constellation of intellectual and artistic sources,' says Galassi. 'But he has never been interested in restoring the past. He's interested in what modernism still might become. His erudition has spawned experimentation, and a willingness to take big risks.'
Wall, who has studied and taught art history, is a very theoretical artist. Asked about one of his pictures, he says he doesn't 'know what it means, only what it shows'.
He has previously talked about the influence of the past on his work. 'I think that Modernism ... overemphasises the rupture, the break with the past,' he told Martin Schwander. 'The emphasis on discontinuity has become so orthodox that I prefer to concentrate on the opposite phenomenon. Another aspect is that the photographic image, by its physical nature, is figurative, and so is linked objectively to all figurative traditions - traditions which necessarily preceded both photography and modern art.'
When he's staging a scene for a photograph, Wall says he thinks of himself as a film director setting up a shot: 'Why is my art like cinematography? Mainly because it's collaborative. Filmmaking is a very collaborative art, but photography is usually less so. I have to collaborate with a lot of people for my pictures, like a film director.'
The careful staging means that Wall's work contains many details. He encourages viewers to spend time looking at each of his pictures, so stories reveal themselves.
'Pictures at their best are hard to see,' he says. 'That's what makes them interesting. If you can see everything at once, you just consume it quickly and move on to the next one. There's nothing wrong with that. Some pictures have a functional intent - they're meant to give you the information quickly. But it takes more time for my work to reveal itself.'
Jeff Wall, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Ends May 14