Film, staged photographs and Jeff Wall

Context & Narrative Part Five
Constructed Realities and the fabricated image

 Film, staged pictures and Jeff Wall

Exercise : Goodfellas [accessed 21/01/16]

My pattern notes are attached.

Goodfellas notes

I was surprised how much information I managed to gather about the main character in such a short space of time. Of course, I was probably looking more closely than I would normally but, even so, the piece creates an impression of a young man who is quick-thinking; smooth and slick. He is a hail-fellow-well-met kind of person who is at ease; well-known and important in his habitat. Someone who is going places and yet unconfident enough to want to be impressing a new girlfriend. He chooses the ‘underground’ route where doors open silently for him and the redness of the walls there connote blood might be shed and evil prevail. This is a night world where he feels at home.

At first I queried “Why film” but then this is a wonderful example of how a scene can be constructed to tell a story – the colours, angles and range of viewpoints. I think I probably appreciated this more having analysed a photograph for Assignment 4 and seen how carefully it was composed.

Three photographers in particular – Jeff Wall , Gregory Crewdson and Cindy Sherman are famous for staging scenes that look as if they are still images from films. Jeff Wall first

Research Point – Jeff Wall

Wall’s image Insomnia was included as a resource in Part Four of the Handbook (p. 104). I did not write about it then because I had previously contributed comments to a WeAreOCA post in 2012. I also attended an OCA Study Visit to the Exhibition Seduced by Art at the National Gallery in December 2012. I researched Wall’s work beforehand, including watching two YouTube videos, and wrote about his work the Destroyed Room which was one of his earliest conceptual pieces of work. My blog post for that can be accessed here . In summary, what came out of that for me was realizing the depth of Wall’s artistic knowledge, the extent of research that underpins his work, artistic and literary, and the way he collaborates with his models and team. Wall also tended to create images that allude to what is outside the scene, behind the edges of the frame. In general he creates very large photographs, using a large format camera, and produces large scenes/diaoramas that are often stitched together in post processing. ‘Large scenes are participatory – they thrust the image out into the spectator’s perceptual space. The scale suggests that what we see is more than just a picture on a wall; it is a window onto a real ‘scene’ (Kingsley, 2012:24). I will comment further on this below.

I have acquired the large book Jeff Wall: The Complete Edition (2009, reprint 2015) that contains a selection of essays and interviews by critics and commentators together with essays by Wall himself – all illustrated by reference to many splendid photographs that cover over 30 years of Wall’s distinguished career as an artist and academic. I can’t do justice to them here so will pick out a few aspects that particularly interested me.

An essay by Thierry de Duve (2012:28) compares Wall’s work with a variety of paintings. An early photograph The Storyteller (1986) as seen here  is compared with the painting Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe. by Edouard Manet 1863 here,  stating that the painting comes immediately to mind in terms of the use of perpendicular and triangle. Two groups of people and a sole individual are separated and brought to attention through the use of electricity lines and a bisecting motorway bridge. However, what also interested me was the title given to the image. This title tells me how to regard the image and where to look  -bottom left corner, two men and one woman on the grass with the woman in front of the men, apparently speaking and gesticulating with her hands. I wouldn’t have immediately assumed she was telling a story; wouldn’t go so far as that, but Wall has now ‘instructed’ me to look at it in this way. To me this creates a ‘closed’ narrative and it would take me some time to make a leap into making a story to myself of what is going on.

I would far rather conjecture what is going on in the whole scene and why these people are sitting in that particular place. Perhaps that was intended – Wall wanted me to look at the trio first and then for my eyes to wander. In fact my eye was first caught by the man sitting alone on the bottom right of the image. Why is he alone? Indeed, why are these people there in the first place? Is it Wall who is the storyteller, not the woman? I am already beginning to build a story, thus disproving, the comments made by Tod Papageorge in an interview with Alec Soth on 11th July 2007 here . Papageorge refers to an earlier discussion on the blog regarding the set-up picture. He states that his argument against them is that they leave to much to the imagination of the photographer ‘ ….. a faculty that, in my experience, is generally deficient compared to the mad, swirling possibilities that our dear common world kicks up at us on a regular basis’.

Continuing with my review of the book, Wall has often used transparencies in light boxes as the presentation mode. Reference is made to this in an essay by Boris Groys who points to the way in which Wall’s works glow in an Exhibition and the fact that ‘Glowing produces an aura’, even though Benjamin stated that modern art has lost its aura because it can be reproduced. Wall’s originals glow in a literal sense, like the haloes of saints glow in icons. However, it is a modern light and it is distributed very evenly . ‘It is the light of the modern enlightenment which leaves nothing in the shadows and shines through everything, makes everything visible’ (Groys 1996:55). The evenness of the light in Wall’s photographs has really struck me. It contributes towards ‘the uncanny’ in the way it can make room interiors appear similar to the shadowless light of a clouded sky and is different from Grergory Crewdson’s use of light, with it’s darkly lit and shadowy scenes that become almost like science fiction films.

Wall refers to cinematography in the final essay in the book (Wall 2005:259).

“A motion picture film is really a long strip of material on which many photographs are printed ‘the images are projected at such a speed that we cannot perceive them properly and think we are looking at ‘moving pictures’. But we are, in fact, looking at a large number of still photographs, and looking at them in a very peculiar way. That suggested to me that what is normally called ‘cinematography’ is something that can result in a still photograph; it didn’t have to result exclusively in what we call a ‘film’….’Cinematography’ also suggests that there is no dominant style in photography. It easily includes reportage or documentary but is not dominated by it. ….the cinematographer does not have to choose between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction…..”

A long quote but it links very well with the notion of documentary being a story about the truth. It also links back to an earlier interview with Arielle Pélenc (1996:48). They were discussing the violence that has sometimes been depicted in Wall’s images and Wall explained that he has rejected the role of witness or journalist, of ‘photographer’. Because he thinks this

‘ …… objectifies the subject of the picture by masking the impulses and feelings of the picture-maker. The poetics or productivity of my work has been in the stagecraft and pictorial composition – what I call the ‘cinematography’. This, I hope makes it evident that the theme has been subjectivised …. The [images] do not refer to a condition or moment that needs to have existed historically or socially; they make visible something peculiar to me. That is why I refer to my pictures as prose poems.”.

I had seen mention before of this reference to prose poems and puzzled over it. Whilst a prose poem lacks the line breaks found in structure of line breaks found in poetry it does use the techniques of poetry such as rhyme, repetition, alliteration, metaphor etc. How though could the term prose poem be applied to photography? I can see this possibility in a series – the pacing and flow of images, some used as punctuation to arrest the eye, use of colour and tones etc. How can this be applied to a single image though? I found a clue in an online version of an essay in New Left Review Museum Poetry and Museum Prose (Julian Stallabrass (2010)) that examines the career of Jeff Wall. The lengthy essay refers to the way in which Wall utilizes Lightbox transparencies to increase contrast and chromatic vibrancy. Whilst large photographs taken with a large format camera ‘… are well suited to giving a compelling, apparently comprehensive view of the mundane taken from a distance that is both physical and emotional’ Wall has been able to overcome these restrictions with his digital montage works. These techniques have enabled him to focus on incident and provide the semblance of a candid/decisive moment, albeit in a staged image. Stallabras refers later (p. 102) to Wall writing in 1991 that digitization furthered a ‘visual poetry or prose poetry’ which conflicts with the indexical aspect of photography. That moves me a little further but not by much so I will continue to explore this. Any suggestions welcome.


Postscript: I am continuing my exploration in ‘prose poem’ and have reminded myself of a video of Jeff Wall Pictures Like Poems on the Louisiana Channel where he talks about photographs and description – “Most people think that photographs are simple because they are accompanied by a lot of description, verbal. Take away the verbal description and get into the pure picture then you have to relate to it as a poem”



Chevrier, J-F. et all (2009) Jeff Wall: The Complete Edition. London:Phaidon Press Ltd.
De Duve, T (1996) “the Mainstream and the Crooked Path” in Chevrier, J-F. et all (2009) Jeff Wall: The Complete Edition. London:Phaidon Press Ltd. pp 10-36
Groys, B (1996) Life without Shadows in Chevrier, J-F. et all (2009) Jeff Wall: The Complete Edition. London:Phaidon Press Ltd. pp 55-63
Kingsley, H (2012) “An Axis Between Old and New” in National Gallery (2012) Seduced By Art: Photography Past and Present. London:National Gallery. pp 9-25
National Gallery (2012) Seduced By Art: Photography Past and Present. London:National Gallery.
Pélenc, A (1996) “Correspondence” in Chevrier, J-F. et all (2009) Jeff Wall: The Complete Edition. London:Phaidon Press Ltd. pp36-55.
Wall, J (2005) “Cinematography: A Prologue” in Chevrier, J-F. et all (2009) Jeff Wall: The Complete Edition. London:Phaidon Press Ltd.

Accessed 25.1.2016