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Back to Photography's History:
Jeff Wall's Exhibition "Exposure" at the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin

After the major retrospectives in Basel, London, and New York, the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin is now showing a selection of Jeff Wall's most recent black and white photographic works juxtaposed with earlier pieces. Brigitte Werneburg on Wall's return to American photography from the Depression era and his quest for the perfect image.

Jeff Wall, Milk, 1984, The Museum of Modern Art, New York,
© 2007 Jeff Wall

The major Jeff Wall retrospective of 2005/06 at the Tate Modern in London and at the Schaulager in Basel clearly showed how vast the arsenal of Wall's works has to be to yield the dozen or so completely flawless, sharp-witted images that occupy our fantasy afresh each time we encounter them. And it's been like this for decades now: Mimic (1982), an apparent snapshot of a provocation that is as random as it is unfriendly, counts among the icons of recent art history that are firmly rooted in collective memory. Or Milk (1984), the image of an indefinable situation in which a young man is squeezing milk out of a carton, causing it to shoot through the air in a magnificent arc. And then there's the view into the lodgings of the Invisible Man (1999-2000) from Ralph Ellison's novel of the same name. It took Jeff Wall some courage to do this work, as it required him to venture into the artistically risky field of illustration.

Jeff Wall, After "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue, 2001,
The Museum of Modern Art, New York,
© 2007 Jeff Wall

But what discoveries can we expect from Exposure, Wall's latest show at the Deutsche Guggenheim, which unites selected older works with four new works by the artist, who was born in 1946 in Vancouver? We certainly can't fail to notice the courage and firm resolution required to overcome the risk of failing in the quest for the triumphant, perfect image. As the works before them, the new works do not aim at surface provocation. Yet they challenge prevailing expectations nonetheless, recalling as they do the beginnings of Wall's career, which began with the photographic panel picture.

Jeff Wall, Men Waiting, 2006
© Jeff Wall

In the four large-scale black and white works Men Waiting (2006), Tenants (2007), War Game (2007), and Cold Storage (2007), Jeff Wall once again implements photography to renew a pictorial tradition whose crisis it brought on of its own accord. Instead of turning to painting, he addresses the legacy of photography from the Depression era, the long queues of the unemployed as we know them from the images of Margaret Bourke-White and Dorothea Lange. Or he frames a reference to the bleak row houses that Walker Evans discovered behind a movie poster featuring Carole Lombard in Love before Breakfast. Soberly, and even randomly, Wall reintroduces the tradition of social documentary photography, whose crisis in the '60s and '70s articulated the problem of straight photography unleashed not least by conceptual approaches such as his own staged photography.

Jeff Wall, A view from an apartment, 2004-2005, Tate, London
© 2007 Jeff Wall

The first photographs that made Jeff Wall well known in the early '70s were shocking in a quiet, but lasting way. They were staged and provocative by virtue of their narrative approach, which - as was to be expected - was a poor match for the conceptual photography of the time that represented standardized everyday structures by ordering them in sequences of equivalent parts. Jeff Wall was always interested and involved in the theoretical investigation into contemporary aesthetics. Closely informed about the current state of discourse, he now called this conceptual approach into question with his own alternative concept. Each of his photographs portrayed a unique and valid pictorial story. In clear reference to the large canvases of traditional painting, each picture was meant to stand on its own.

Jeff Wall, A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai), 1993, Tate, London,
© 2007 Jeff Wall

And it was precisely this autonomy that made it vulnerable. At first, it was the references to figurative painting of the late 19th century and classical narrative cinema that were called into question - also and particularly because it was during this very time that cinema grew aware of itself and its own historicity and had developed anti-narrative forms similar to those in modern literature and contemporary art. Jeff Wall always took care that the given plot in these staged works, which he termed "cinematic photography," remained obscure. In the 1987 image of the same name, what "agreement," for instance, was arrived at between the man in the Chevy Impala and the longhaired youth leaning against the car? But puzzles don't always help to counter-act the stiffness of certain ideas. Tested formulas and recurring mannerisms become all the more evident in the images, which are always fastidiously arranged and in which no detail is left to chance - such as in The Storyteller (1986), probably one of his most famous works. Based on the frequently quoted Dejeuner sur l'herbe of Édouard Manet, the work portrays indigenous Canadian natives having a picnic under a highway overpass.

Jeff Wall, Concrete Ball, 2002,
© Jeff Wall

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