Six questions for Jeff Wall

Jeff Wall is finally back in Scandinavia with his exhibition Tableaux Pictures Photographs. Objektiv asked six artists to ask him one question each.

Interview by Nina Strand

   Boxing, 2011, © Jeff Wall 


Boxing, 2011, © Jeff Wall 

Dag Erik Elgin: I’d like to bring up the concept of matiére in relation to your work. To my knowledge, matiére addresses the tactile, haptic totality of organising a painting’s pictorial space in a way that exceeds formal composition. It seems that your work is informed by this approach, and I’d appreciate your thoughts on matiére in photography.

Jeff Wall: Well, if you’re thinking about the textural aspect of painting, the photograph can’t have that. The surface of a photograph can’t ever be touched; it can’t have anything tactile about it. I call it radically invisible – it’s invisible to the point where you see its invisibility – you’re very aware of it. So the only recourse is in the world that you’re depicting, the physical nature of things. Part of composition is to work with the same thing a painter would work with: colour, tone, etc. It’s always interesting what people are wearing, what’s near them, what the sky is like; all of these physical plastic matters are really part of the process of composition. Part of moving the camera to another place is bringing together an ensemble of textures, shapes, elements that do something besides just reporting on that subject. To me, a picture is not only a subject, but also the colour ensemble, the textural nature of things, the patina or lack of patina. All these things are themselves beautiful, regardless of what the thing is about. What it’s about is just another layer, what I’d call its dynamics, its life. We need to be very clear: we’re not painters, we’re not trying to accomplish or imitate painting in photography. I’ve been accused of returning photography to the imitation of painting, which is an old-fashioned way of looking at it. Painting and photography speak to each other; they’re both arts of depiction, they’re both trying to create a depiction with their means. A painting means a painting, but that doesn’t mean that aspects of what we’ve learned from painting can’t help. I learned a lot from the scale of painting when trying to rework photography, not to be like painting, but to please a group of people standing in front of a wall in a way that’s related to what people like in a painting. That’s not imitating painting; that’s being in dialogue with some of its achievements, and this has helped me as a photographer. Many cinematographers who work in films talk about how much they’ve learned from studying paintings. They’re not imitating painting either, but they have learned something from it, as painters probably learned a lot from cinema or photography. We have to work with the medium as it is. I’m very modernist in the sense that I’m working with photography as a medium. It has a capacity to capture special qualities like a marble table, a floor that's worn, in a way that painting only does with great difficulty. The recording of actual nuances of material is something very specific to photography. Even cinema doesn’t capture as much, since it’s always moving. So that in a way is the parallel to the notion of say the haptic or the textural of the painting. Only photography can show us that.

Emil Salto: Can you talk about the way you court chance in your work?

Wall: All the starting points for my pictures are accidental. Things happen that you haven’t planned on happening, as they do for everyone. In Cyclist (1996), for example – that wasn’t planned. I saw a cyclist resting and thought, ‘That’s a starting point.’ So it is chance to begin with, in this framework we call everyday life; it’s an accident. And in the making of the work there are also many many accidents. People have written about my work, very inaccurately, that everything is perfectly planned, and then everything is perfectly executed too. Even if I could plan everything perfectly, I’d have to execute it perfectly as well, and the chances of that are very low. Things change during the making of my pictures; they don’t necessarily end up as planned. That’s why I allow myself time to work on my pictures. I don’t hurry. I allow things to happen in my images that will likely be much more interesting than they would have been if I’d hurried. I try to give myself the opportunity to let the subject go through some transformations. It may only be the way the person is, or where they are, but often something will happen. The picture called Dawn (2001), which is an empty scene – that began as a picture of something happening, but as I worked on it, I didn’t need the people anymore. I let them go. In all the pictures, something changes. If you photograph someone doing the same thing, let’s say mopping the floor, it’s not the same day to day or shot to shot; every time something moves it changes. I like to think what I captured is the decisive moment, even if I had 50 shots at it, or 500. What I’m doing is not that different from others. Photography has a way of being, a way of capturing motion, capturing activity, and it always does that.

Gallery view of Jeff Wall's Stereo

Gallery view of Jeff Wall's Stereo

Verena Winkelmann: My favourite work is Stereo (1980), the picture of a naked man lying on an orange sofa wearing a headset. In the exhibition, it’s shown as a diptych together with an image; the text ‘STEREO’. I think there is something between these images, a third picture. Most photobooks present photographs in series, where each image can function as part of a story. How do you see the photobook? Is it important to you as an object?

Wall: I like Stereo as it is. A lot of people go from wall to book; I’ve just never been motivated. I think there are two or three great photobooks that define what the photobook is so perfectly that I wonder whether anyone can take it anywhere else. To me, the great photobooks are American Photographs by Walker Evans and The Americans by Robert Frank. The two are related: Frank was deeply influenced by Evans when he made his book. Those two guys created something that has never really been matched: it’s remarkable how their work fits with the design and fits perfectly in the book form, so much so that no matter how much you’d like to see an Evans hanging in a frame on the wall, his pictures tend to look more intense when they’re in that book, because the book is in itself such an achievement. A book of photographs is a form that has its own integrity. Unfortunately for other photographers, those two guys did such a good job. Luckily, I never wanted to do a photobook; I wanted my pictures to act more in a physical form. I also like the idea that they’re more public, that more than one person can see them at the same time. I like that open interchange with people standing in a room.

Geir Moseid: I wrote my dissertation on your picture Eviction Struggle of 1988. You revised the work in 2004, calling the new version        An Eviction. Could you elaborate on why you felt the need to make a second version? There’s a change in the casting, the number of spectators, their body language, as well as the video installation that accompanied the piece. Was there a societal change or shift in public perception that you felt needed updating in the work? 

Wall: In 1988, when I was making that picture, it was still in pre-digital times, and that meant that a photograph was something that was captured once, and whatever was on that negative became the picture. That was a very complicated space to photograph. I never felt totally satisfied with the first version. I thought it was good enough to exhibit, but I was never truly happy with it. It was never one of my favourites, and that was very disappointing. I would never have exhibited it if I’d felt it was inadequate. I thought it was pretty good, but I knew that I had a lot of material on other negatives that I unfortunately couldn’t use: different people in the background and foreground who were really good but were unavailable. And then when I started working on the computer, I realised that I could release those people from their captivity on another negative and remake the picture. It took some time, but finally, in 2004, I scanned everything and managed to make a montage out of pieces that I liked better, and I think I changed the picture much for the better. The old one no longer really exists, although reproductions of it exist, but that’s not the picture anymore. I did it because I could; it satisfied something I’d wanted to do for a long time. It was only possible because there were enough things on the other negatives that allowed it to happen. If there hadn’t been, I’d never have done it. Because I knew it was there, my thinking changed once I got a computer.

An Eviction, 1988 /2004,   © Jeff Wall 

An Eviction, 1988 /2004, © Jeff Wall 

Christian Tunge: In the documentary How to Make a Book With Steidl you mention that you have something like 10,000 sheets of colour negative film in a freezer. What happens when you run out? Is that ’The End’? What are your thoughts on ‘The End’?

Wall: No, no, no, they’re still making film! I just bought a lot of film. Suddenly, Kodak threatened to stop making films, something they’ve done so many times now. I don’t think it’s going to happen, but I have enough film to go on for a while. And I will probably buy some more. I use a lot, so I have some holes in my freezer now to fill up. I  keep close watch on it because we’re in a very difficult time with the photo industry. Things are ending quickly; people are deciding to stop producing all of a sudden, for reasons that are obvious enough: the economy of imaging is changing. People aren’t being very thoughtful about it. Film producers aren’t thinking of ways to tone down their production so that they can continue. It’s dangerous times to be a photographer; a lot of things you take for granted may not be around for long. So I have a lot of film. I’m like one of those people who are ready for the Holocaust: if bad times comes, I’ll have food, water and ammunition, and I can keep going. I have my stuff.

Vilde Salhus Røed: When I studied photography at The Art Academy in Bergen in the early 2000s, there was a general distrust of photography among the students. I remember we told each other that it was impossible to take good images anymore. Many of us stopped working with photography, or tried to find alternative ways of working with the medium, methods that were not about taking good images. When I look at your work today, I’m as fascinated as when I was a photography student. I feel a physical and intellectual attraction to your method – to reconstruct an image that already exists as an image or as a memory – maybe because it turns many photographic ideals inside out, and to believe or have faith in a photograph produces a different meaning. I believe in your photographs, and it gives me faith in the fact that it’s still possible to take good photographs. With this in mind, I’d like to ask you to describe your faith in photography, in creating images.

Wall: I don’t have any faith in it because I don’t think it is an object of faith. People do say things like: ‘It’s impossible to make images today because everything has been done’, but it hasn’t been done by them. There’s always a new person who’ll come and do it again, and therefore that thought is one that can come to you at a certain point in your life when you feel that you haven’t accomplished anything of yourself yet and those who have, have sort of closed the door on you. I remember when I was beginning I felt that Robert Frank had closed a door on me, because I really couldn’t imagine making a photobook like that, as I said before, but another door opened at the same time. Circumstances are always like that. Things are constantly evolving and in art there are no rules, because art can be anything. There are no rules, and not everything has been done. Every new generation will encounter the problems of the previous generations from a different place and they won’t be able to replicate what that generation has done. For example, my view of the photobook is probably now completely obsolete; my attitude won’t take a young person anywhere comparable to where it took me in the 1970s. I don't believe there are any worn-out art forms; there isn’t any art medium that isn’t available. But I do think that for individuals certain things will be blocked in your youth, and that blocked space is usually something you desperately identify with and admire, and so it becomes an obstacle and that's the great crisis that everyone faces: that the thing they want to do has already happened. So therefore they’re forced to become themselves again in another way. Many are defeated by that crisis – they can’t find their own thing. You have to face that obstacle; it’s unavoidable. It’s an illusion that all has been done – things are still happening. All you can do is to find your own relation to that obstacle.  

Full interview with Jeff Wall about his exhibition can be read in Norwegian Dagbladet next week. 

Volunteer, 1996,   © Jeff Wall 

Volunteer, 1996, © Jeff Wall