Conventional wisdom has it that large-format, tableau photography – as embraced by many of the most prominent art photographers of recent decades – is a means to fictional ends. That is, it stands opposed to factual modes of reportage and documentary, for example. But the work of Jeff Wall, one of the most successful photographers working with staged tableaux, undermines and obscures such demarcations and divisions.
© Jeff Wall
A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai), 1993, © Jeff Wall

A new monograph – Jeff Wall, The Complete Edition – amply demonstrates that the staged collaboration and the documentary record can be made to occupy the same ground. His View from an Apartment (2004-2005) is a case in point: at one level it purports to depict an inconsequential moment of domestic mundanity, in which two women occupy a room overlooking the harbour and skyline of Wall’s native Vancouver. One appears absorbed in a magazine; the other looks to be folding some ironing. The paraphernalia and detritus of a lifestyle concordant with a particular standard of living, or consuming, have accumulated – CD’s, DVD’s, piles of magazines, bottled water, framed prints, fresh coffee, a remote control and a mobile phone. Were this an interior photograph by Gregory Crewdson, say, we might assume that each item had been carefully and deliberately selected and positioned within the composition.

© Jeff Wall
View from an Apartment, 2004-05, © Jeff Wall

View from an Apartment, though, results from a practice in which Wall has cultivated the emergence of the accidental and the contingent alongside the prepared and the premeditated. He found the room he wanted to use, and the view he desired to include, and then asked one of the women to inhabit and furnish the space according to her own wishes. Only later did he begin to make photographs of her daily activities and routines, after using a video camera to record what he described as her ‘patterns of movement’. The image, then, fuses, and problematises,  the staged, the accidental, the tableau, the snapshot – and the fictional and the factual.

© Jeff Wall
Concrete Ball, 2002, © Jeff Wall

As with most of his works, the View is a Cibachrome transparency mounted in a light box – a photograph, then, but not one that can be reproduced; it is also an individual photographic frame bathed in light, but light that emanates from inside the image. Many commentators have interpreted this mode of presentation as an oblique response to the effects of billboard advertising; Wall now prefers to maintain that it derives from a desire to stabilise the impermanent colour fluctuations associated with the transparency film. Either way, it is of a piece with his interest in pursuing an exploration of the medium’s technical, aesthetic and representational possibilities. As Mark Lewis writes in one of the Complete Edition’s scholarly essays, ‘So a ‘snapshot’ could in fact turn out to be a digital composition, made slowly over time, just as an ostensibly staged large history tableau might be revealed to be a lucky ‘snapshot’. All of these confusions, all of these possibilities, are simply photographic in nature. Part of the aesthetic invention of Wall’s work is to articulate or acknowledge them as choices for the making of a work.’

© Jeff Wall
Fortified Door, 2007, © Jeff Wall

The Complete Edition provides an impressive overview of all aspects of Wall’s work, including of course the cinematographic set pieces for which he is famous, the less familiar ‘straight’ Vancouver cityscapes, and the more recent black and white prints. His own writings are represented by a selection of essays – ‘Unity and Fragmentation in Manet,’ ‘Photography and Liquid Intelligence,’ and ‘Cinematography: A Prologue,’ amongst them. (Perhaps the often-cited ‘Marks of Indifference’ and ‘Dan Graham’s Kammerspiel’ were thought too familiar for inclusion).

Wall’s earliest memory relating to photography is of making line drawings from Robert Frank’s The Americans; and he has said that the pictures of Walker Evans and Eugene Atget appeared to him to be unsurpassable. This volume pays tribute to the richness and diversity of his attempts to think photographically beyond documentary.

Jeff Wall: Complete Edition – Thierry de Duve et al.

Publ. Phaidon Press