this issue contains
>> Pipilotti Rist at the Hara Museum / Ten Years Deutsche Guggenheim
>> Jeff Wall "Exposure"

>> archive


For this reason, it was fascinating to observe in Jeff Wall's major European retrospectives that it was the works he ascribed to "documentary photography" that seemed the least predictable. It was only in the '90s, relatively late in the course of his artistic career, that Jeff Wall also began investigating the descriptive side of photography. Now, the particular aura of a setting - which had always formed the fundamental basis of his staged photographs - became the focus of the image, this time unaltered. Courage was once again called for, because his approach to the authentic and real ran counter to the unequivocal documentary character one generally expected: he reformulated his previous cinematic photography with the new documentary direction in an aesthetically seamless manner.

Jeff Wall, In front of a nightclub, 2006, Sammlung Pilara Family Foundation
© 2007 Jeff Wall

In any case, Dawn (2001), a street corner in twilight, induces the viewer to search for something happening in the image - the story - until one finally accepts that the picture depicts nothing more than a certain concatenation of light, architecture, and nature. At first glance, Night (2001), a large-scale black and white tableau and one of the older works in the Deutsche Guggenheim show, also seems to relate nothing. Yet this turns out to be misleading, because the barely visible homeless sleeping alongside the concrete wall have been staged in what only appears to be a documentary scene.

Jeff Wall, Tenants, 2007,
© Jeff Wall

Jeff Wall's artistic breakthrough went hand in hand with color photography. He discovered both black and white and documentary photography at a late point in his career. Nonetheless, Wall steered clear of the historically determined conventional equation of "black/white" with "documentary." The purely documentary image of Dawn, for instance, was taken in color; the staged image of Night in black and white. This unorthodox allocation of motif to medium also proved to be an immense risk, as can be gathered by the rather reserved reactions to Volunteer (1996), his first black and white work. Indeed, with Morning Cleaning, Mies van der Rohe Foundation, Barcelona of 1999, Wall seemed to want to realize a newer color version of the piece.

Jeff Wall, Cold Storage, Vancouver, 2007,
© Jeff Wall

At any rate, not least due to Jeff Wall himself, conceptual photography had long since become equated with color photography in the mid-nineties. Wall's choice of black and white must have met with incomprehension at first, all the more because the reference to documentary photography associated with it in Volunteer, Housekeeping or Cyclist (both 1996) seemed extremely vague and tentative. Indeed, Jeff Wall cited the Neo-Realist films of Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica as his source of inspiration for these images. This reference makes sense to the extent that Wall photographed his protagonists in the medium shot of the inside room, a classical cinematic perspective.

Jeff Wall, War Game, 2007,
© Jeff Wall

With his new large-scale black and white works, Jeff Wall is on the one hand harking back to his attempts at black and white from the '90s. On the other, these black and white wise shots that take the environments his protagonists operate in and open them up wide to the viewer reach far beyond their film or Neo-Realist references - and further back into photography's history. Wall's homage to classical documentary photography in its North American version of "Straight Photography" now seems evident. War Game, for instance, the photograph depicting a black boy watching over his prisoners, immediately calls the work of Gordon Parks to mind, whose career began in the Depression era. In this sense, it might be more than a coincidence that it was Gordon Parks who asked Ingrid Bergmann if he could photograph her during the shooting of Stromboli (1949). She considered him to be a photographer whose visual aesthetics were closely related to Rossellini's. War Game, which can now be discovered in the Deutsche Guggenheim show, is one of these icons. The work definitely counts among the flawless, sharp-witted images that will capture our imagination for some time.

[1] [2]