Your pictures seem to capture a kind of standstill, the
moment before something happens, or after something has happened. You deny
the narrative element in your work.
People say my pictures are
very narrative. It's something that's commonly said about them. But I
think they're no more narrative than anybody else's pictures. Because I
think all pictures have that quality. You know, what a picture really is
is that phenomenon that renders the moment before and the moment after
invisible. With a picture, it is decisively that thing; nothing else will
ever be seen of it. And what's beautiful about that is that it erases
everything else; it cancels everything else out. Everything is gone; the
picture alone remains. So what's wonderful about that is that the viewer
is totally free to write a novel in his or her own mind about what the
picture means. That's what pictures are.
Wall, Passerby, 1996
say the meaning is completely up to the viewer. What about the titles of
your works? Don't they softly direct the story?
When I look
back, I think these titles were a bad idea. They should never guide the
viewer like that. But we all make mistakes, we all do things we shouldn't
do. I would like to change the titles of some of the pictures.
That doesn't matter. It's a bit too late now, and most
people don't remember the title, anyway. That's something I've always
noticed when people talk about my pictures. They tend to say "That picture
with that guy ..." And I think that's good. Forgetting the title is a way
of making the picture your own. Because if you look at the title, you're
reading the guidebook, not the picture.
On the one hand, you
deny the narrative aspect, and on the other you precisely reconstruct
moments: a process that probably has its own storyline.
when I work for a week on something, or a month, I do it because things
change as I work. I discover things that I wouldn't have known about the
subject, about the place, about the time of day. Things I wouldn't have
known if I'd worked more quickly. What I like about the process is that
it's slow. I think of it as the process a painter enters into when he or
she starts painting. In the end, the result is completely different from
what the painter thought it was going to be in the beginning. I allow
myself some of that freedom.
Wall, Overpass, 2001
you stay true to the moment you've witnessed?
If I were like Cartier
Bresson or Gary
Winogrand, then I would always have my camera and I'd always be out
hunting for subjects. But that's nothing I ever felt I wanted to do, and I
probably wouldn't be very good at it. But I didn't want to miss out on
life, and so I involve this notion like a cinematographer, and I
reconstruct. And the reconstruction is both; it's as faithful to the event
as I can make it. I feel I should be free to do things such as change the
place, the season, the time of day.
interact with the people that model for you, for example with the children
in the picture War Game?
This is a good example for one way of
doing things, but it's not the only way. When I decided to do this
subject, I found a group of boys at a school nearby, and the
administration allowed me to hire the kids to work with me. I got them to
play these war games and let them make the games up themselves, as far as
they wanted to. I videotaped them a lot and watched them play. At some
point, we decided we needed to build a fort, something to defend. So I
said: "We need a fort!," and one or two of them built it. We reconstructed
it with the same elements every day. I worked for three weeks on it, three
weeks of shooting. Things happen when you improvise; I watched and
isolated the elements I wanted. And then there was this moment with a few
captives, a guard, and some other boys edging away, and this was the most
interesting moment in the play. So I began focusing on that. But I didn't
direct the kids at all, except for when I said: "quit shooting… "I'm gonna
fine you if you don't stop squirting those kids, Gennaro." In the end, I
fined him five dollars. It took quite a few days to get some good material
on them. But in the end they were really great.
Jeff Wall, War Game, 2007
What kind of relationship do you
develop with adults?
In this picture here, Men Waiting, I
didn't direct any of these people at all, they were perfect just as they
were. All I did every once in a while was to move them to another place. I
had a very good relationship with these men. I was paying them, but I
tried to treat them all really well, because I needed them. They almost
always feel this. The people who work for me usually have a pretty good
Do you have to identify with the people you photograph in
I'm not saying I don't, but I don't want to make too
big of a thing out of it. I'm not one of them. We never see each other
Why did you choose black and white photography for this
ensemble for the Deutsche Guggenheim?
There was no really
prominent reason; I felt like doing more black and white photography,
because I quite like it. When the Deutsche Guggenheim asked me to do
something, I told them it was very hard for me to promise "I'll do this or
that," because I never have any plans. I just hoped I could make a group
of pictures that spoke to each other and felt like a kind of ensemble,
while remaining independent. And it wasn't necessary for them all to be
black and white. I tried it, and I was lucky to succeed. And then I tried
the same pictures in color, as well. There were reasons for them to be in
black and white, but it's kind of hard to explain them all.
Wall, Men Waiting, 2006
Try it anyway: what would have
happened if War Game had been in color?
when I did this picture in color, there was just too much green in it. The
mass of green was distracting. I realized that it wasn't inherently a good
subject for color. So I made some tests in black and white. The grey tone
of the grass unified everything, whereas the green didn't unify, but tore
the image apart.
You speak about too much green, but what about
the proposition of the pictures? A black-and-white aesthetic is usually
connected with documentary photography. You are obviously interested in
depicting a particular social environment.
People ask: "why
don't you photograph in your own social milieu?" But this always presumes
that they know what my social milieu is, that I myself know what my social
milieu is. Of course I do in a certain way, but experientially, it's not
all that clear. Obviously, I must have some interest in these aspects of
the world. I can't deny it, because I often like to photograph there. For Tenants,
I wanted to do a work outside the city, and then I found an apartment
building whose architecture intrigued me. It's probably the worst
apartment building in the city. But I'm not concerned with addressing
social issues; this doesn't really interest me.
So what is it
that interests you about the poorer parts of society?
all, many of the things that happen there aren't all that unpleasant. The
poor parts of society are interesting, full of life-there are many
positive things to be found. Maybe people are just more interesting when
they're struggling harder. At least they're more interesting to me. They
bear the marks of failure, suffering, of conflict, of success, of hope-all
of this blended together is kind of fascinating. Whereas when someone
succeeds, it's all a bit one-dimensional. What I liked about these men
waiting for work was not that they had no money, but that they had so much
energy, that they were ready to go. That they're available. They had so
much willingness to do something, this is what intrigued me. Yes, they're
poor, because otherwise they wouldn't be there. But that's not the whole
of their story.