Jeff Wall: Innovating the Past. Camille Zimmerman. Mini Biography.
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Jeff Wall, a graduate of the University of British Columbia, was trained as an art historian rather than a visual artist. After finishing his Master’s Degree, Wall stopped making art and began working as an Art History professor at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and Simon Fraser University. In fact, Wall did not even begin to rekindle his pursuit of the visual arts until seven years later in 1977. Once he began creating again, Wall started to experiment with installations, but is still best known for his incredibly large, staged photographs. Wall’s work takes influence from both well-know artwork and literature, as well as his own past life experiences.
Although a well-respect photographer in the art world, Jeff Wall’s work can hardly be classified among typical photographs. Wall disliked the traditional role of photography, and his work has continually rebelled against the characteristics generally found in photography. Two main things separate his work from the ‘typical’. The size of Wall’s work is much larger than traditional photography, and purposefully recalls the epic size of painted masterpieces such as works by Francisco Goya and Diego Velazquez. In an interview, Wall commented that he never liked the extremely small scale of most photography and he wanted to make a different statement than could be achieved through the constricting size of documentary photographs. “’I don’t like the traditional 8 by 10,’ he said…‘It’s too shrunken, too compressed. When you’re making things to go on a wall, as I do, that seems too small.’” (nytimes.com). Wall instead wanted to “make photographs that could be constructed and experienced the way paintings are…[that] engaged the viewer on a lifelike human scale” (nytimes.com).
Arguably the most important characteristic of Wall’s work is that it consistently rejects photography’s obsession with documentation. According to Wall, he was never interested in having to wait around in order to capture a fleeting moment; he would rather construct an event from memory. Wall has self-defined his own images as being “cinematographic”; meaning that his photographs are completely staged using actors, costumes, sets, and props. In an interview, Wall described his artistic process in the following way: “I begin by not photographing…if I see something on the street outside, I don’t photograph it” (Jeff Wall- “I begin by not photographing”). This attitude likely comes from Wall’s art historical educational background. Entranced by the imposing size and drama of old school painting, Wall takes direct influences from works by artists such as Gustave Caillebotte, EdouardManet (an artist who Wall studied extensively at the Courtauld Institute), and Katsushika Hokusai among others. Some of his work even references well-known authors such as Franz Kafka and Ralph Ellison.
“That is why I fight my battle with Monopolated Light & Power. The
deeper reason, I mean: It allows me to feel my vital aliveness. I also fight them for taking so much of my money before I learned to protect myself. In my hole in the basement there are exactly 1,369 lights. I've wired the entire ceiling, every inch of it. And not with fluorescent bulbs, but with the older, more-expensive-to-operate kind, the filament type. An act of sabotage, you know. I've already begun to wire the wall. A junk man I know, a man of vision, has supplied me with wire and sockets. Nothing, storm or flood, must get in the way of our need for light and ever more and brighter light. The truth is the light and light is the truth. When I finish all four walls, then I'll start on the floor. Just how that will go, I don't know. Yet when you have lived invisible as long as I have you develop a certain ingenuity” (Ellison, 6).
Although Wall is quite well-received in the art world, his work does stir up quite a bit of anger among some viewers. Nothing in Wall’s subject matter seems to be controversial in any way, it’s actually his mode of production that angers some people. Wall’s work has often been criticized for being too artificial or for missing the point of photography (that point being realism). This criticism can range anywhere from a benign misunderstanding of Wall’s purpose (“Being quick-on-the-draw is part of the fun of street photography!” –vidkid5678) to more personal accusations that Wall is a sellout or no better than a big-budget filmmaker. Wall doesn’t seem too troubled by these criticisms, as he feels that art, even photography, doesn’t have to adhere to rules. “What an artist could do with photography wasn’t bounded by the documentary impulse…Painting could be topographical realism or it could be angels — in the same medium. Why couldn’t photography do the same?” (nytimes.com). This attitude is likely why I can relate so well to Wall; I am also a student of art history and (for better or worse) that is the educational lens through which I view most issues. Wall does, however, admit that realistic photography has its own unique merits which aren’t really present in his own works; but he still insists that both types of photography are worthwhile and neither should be ignored: “You have to accept the fact that it is not a snapshot and can’t have those qualities,” he said. “It is a semblance of life occurring on the fly, but it is a semblance. A semblance has its own value.” (nytimes.com).