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Still Creek, Vancouver, winter 2003
His photographs are often carefully staged like scenes in a film, with full control of all details. Wall distinguishes between “cinematographic” （电影摄影）pictures, such as Overpass, 2001, which are produced using actors, sets, and special effects, and “documentary” pictures like Still Creek, Vancouver, winter 2003, 2003, which are compositions found, but unaltered, by the artist. Wall’s compositions are always carefully considered, and often allude, sometimes obliquely, to works by historical artists like Velsaquez and Edouard Manet, or to novels by writers like Franz Kafka, Yukio Mishima, and Ralph Ellison. Wall did post graduate research with Manet expert T J Clark at the Courtauld Institute in 1970-73. Many of his images are large (typically 2×2 meters) transparencies placed in back-lit boxes; Wall says he got the idea during a bus trip between Spain and London where he saw large back-lit advertisements at bus stops. The themes are social and political, such as urban violence, racism, poverty, gender and class conflicts. Since the mid-1990s, Wall has also made large scale black and white photographs, some of which were exhibited at Kassel’s Documenta X, as well as smaller color prints.
Four people carrying luggage and parcels walk away from the viewer. With their backs to us, the figures are anonymous; they might betravellers visiting the city, or nomads moving through it. A subtle palette of cool greys and blues unites the whole, from the clothes and baggage to the surprising forms of a suddenly stormy sky. As the road stretches into the far distance, the picture evokes a mood of pilgrimage, both physical and emotional, or perhaps of exile. Overpass continues the thread of ‘street pictures’ Wall initiated 25 years earlier, but in a more muted key.
Transparency in lightbox 2140 x 2735 mm
Colecci&oactue;n de Fotografía Contemporánea de Telefónica
The large colour-print format that Wall favours requires a camera that is ill-suited to capturing fleeting moments, yet he wanted to explore the documentary style of street photography practiced by a number of photographers, such as Robert Frank or Garry Winogrand. Wall’s solution was to restage such moments, preserving a sense of immediacy by using non-professional actors in real settings. He calls these constructed images ‘cinematographic photographs’. In Mimic, the white man’s ‘slant-eyes’ gesture recreates a scene of racial abuse that Wall witnessed on a Vancouver street.
Transparency in lightbox 1980 x 2286 mm
Courtesy of the Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation, Toronto
© The artist
A typical image of Jeff Wall is Mimic from 1982. It is a colour transparency, 198 cm by 229 cm. In it, we see three people, a couple and a man, walking towards the camera on a side walk. The street looks like a suburb in a North American town, residential area mixed with light industry. The couple, to the right in the picture, is white, and the single man to the left is of asian origin. The woman is wearing red shorts and a white top displaying her bellybutton. Her boyfriend is wearing a denim vest, has a full beard and unkempt hair; they give the impression of working class. The asian man is dressed smarter, with a collared shirt; he gives the impression of being middle class. The white man is making a racist gesture by pulling the skin beside his eye outward so that it appears slanted. The picture appears to be a candid shot that captures the moment of the gesture and the social tensions that it reveals. However it is actually one of Wall’s ‘cinematographic’ photographs that carefully recreates a scene that Wall had previously noticed.
Born, living and working in Vancouver, British Columbia, Wall has been a key figure in the city’s vibrant arts scene for years. Early on in his career, he helped define the so-called ‘photoconceptualist’ paradigm Vancouver has become famous for in contemporary art; he published major essays on the work of his close colleagues and fellow Vancouverites Rodney Graham, Ken Lum and Ian Wallace, and enjoyed a short-lived stint in the city’s prime art rock band UJ3RK5. His tableaux very often take Vancouver’s spectacular mixture of sublime natural beauty, urban decay and postmodern featurelessness (‘Terminal City’) as their generic backdrop.