Jeff Wall: The photographer recreating everyday moments in his work
© Jeff Wall. Courtesy of White Cube.
A key figure in the beginnings of conceptual photography, Jeff Wall has been taking standalone photos shaped by singular events since the 1970s, rejecting the more common practice of creating a whole body of work. For his current exhibition at white cube mason yard, it shows photos taken over 20 years. “It brings together a way of looking at the world that has continuities and echoes between the images, and I think that makes the images more interesting, even if it doesn’t make them better,” he says. “Watching pictures is hopefully an enjoyable activity.”
Man in front of a mirror (2019) © Jeff Wall. Courtesy of White Cube
Based in his hometown of Vancouver, Jeff is renowned for his mammoth-sized photography and use of backlit transparencies inspired by public advertising. Widely celebrated for marrying photography with elements of painting, film and literature, his work speaks to everyday scenarios but largely without political concerns – instead, he encourages the viewer to fill in the blanks. Previous personal exhibitions have rotated MoMA and the Tate Modernwhile elsewhere his photos have covered records of lively youth and Iggy Pop, the latter an unusually straight portrait for the 1999s Avenue B.
“I feel like if you haven’t seen my work hanging on the wall, you’ve never really seen it,” Jeff says. “I notice people telling me, ‘I didn’t realize a lot about your work until I saw it.’ I think it’s basic and obvious; I work on a certain scale for a reason, and this scale may not reoccur.” This mentality extends to the evolution of the medium, which he says is increasingly driven by media rather than technology. “Newness is not a change in photography itself; it is in the traffic of images or the distribution of images by everyone, which seems to be a new condition in the foreground. I am not not involved in image traffic because i make my photos as objects i know they are reproduced on the internet but you don’t really see my work on screen, you see a reproduction of it.
A woman with a necklace (2021) © Jeff Wall. Courtesy of White Cube
Although his inspiration can come from anywhere, Jeff’s work is largely about recreating scenarios he encounters in his daily life, whether from something he walks by or something that he reads. “I always thought, from the beginning, that a photographer or the art of photography should be as free as any other art form,” he says. “The way a composer of music can start from anything, including a random sound he might have heard, a song he heard someone sing, any kind of input, and then composing music – I think photography should have the same freedom as an art, and not be bound to record what you see on a given day as a reporting activity.”
“It’s always a surprise or an accident,” he continues, describing the genesis of his images. “In that sense, a lot of the things I’ve done resemble what snapshot photography or reportage photography does. Garry Winogrand, Henri Cartier-Bresson, the famous photographers who were the hunters… They also didn’t know what their next picture would be. They captured what they were able to capture, without any preparation, and the things I saw are essentially the same; they are just recomposed in a different way. People think everything is planned in my work, but everything starts with a circumstance, usually an accidental circumstance or a surprise.”
By recreating what he sees, Jeff is able to adjust the world to the right conditions, swapping out certain components that he thinks will make a better work of art. His process for more than four decades, he considers today the search for originality as an essential element of his practice. “Every time I start something new, I have to ask myself, am I really doing this and that over and over again? It’s a question that sounds boring, but it’s fascinating. You’re forced to work in a corner that you’ve put yourself in, over a long period of time, and so this contortion to get out of that corner becomes more and more difficult, but it becomes more and more interesting.
Burrow (2004) © Jeff Wall. Courtesy of White Cube
Sunseeker (2021) © Jeff Wall. Courtesy of White Cube
Event (2020) © Jeff Wall. Courtesy of White Cube
All images © Jeff Wall. Courtesy of White Cube.