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Jeff Wall

Canadian Photographer

Jeff Wall Photo
Movements and Styles: Conceptual Art, Modern Photography

Born: September 29, 1946 - Vancouver, Canada

"Just as in the cinema you wouldn't think that a realistic film is any less filmic than a musical fantasy. They're both part of the cinema. And I see that this is the same in my work, they are different genres that I am interested in and I move between them."

Summary of Jeff Wall

Known as both an artist and art historian, Jeff Wall is a Canadian photographer and writer whose work simultaneously showcases and challenges some of the most dominant assumptions about art and art-making. Since in the late 1970s, Wall has created large-scale photographs that recall the imagery, subject matter, construction, and display methods of both pop culture advertising and cinema and the celebrated masterpieces of art history. His early photography shares qualities and themes with Conceptual art, as well as aspects of Appropriation art of the 1970s and 1980s, by investigating the assumed, required elements of fine art and borrowing narrative and visual details from outside the established art world genres. In his wall-sized, brightly lit photographs, Wall combines opposing concepts in the same image, confronting viewers with questions of fabrication and authenticity, spontaneity and artistic process. Much of his subject matter comes from moments that Wall has witnessed, read, or heard in his own life. But, rather than exactly replicating those moments, Wall recreates these scenes to his own liking, changing visual and physical elements as he pleases and depicting the scenes as frozen moments in the middle of an event. Through his photography, Wall attempts to allow the meticulous craft of fine art to enter the imagery of the everyday, all while indulging his own visual and narrative desires and inviting viewers to indulge in their own as well.

Key Ideas

Wall carefully stages the scenes he photographs, intricately designing every detail to achieve his desired visual effects. Ironically, the final images often appear to be mid-action, spontaneous, and candid moments. Although a photograph traditionally captures a single moment in time, Wall's photographs also document the culmination of a time-consuming and laborious process to produce an artistic vision that intentionally obscures the creative process itself.
In Wall's earliest photographs of the late 1970s and 1980s, clear references are made to some of the most famous paintings in the history of art since the Renaissance. Wall admits that in nodding toward the titans of early modern painting, such as Delacroix and Manet, he was "trying to continue an idea of historically and theoretically informed production." At the time, many contemporary artists were rejecting the presumed grandeur of fine art painting in materials, style, and subject matter. Quite uniquely, Wall uses modern-day items and scenes to compose his photographs, but designs these compositional elements in ways that clearly hint at earlier landmarks, showing reverence to both art history and to contemporary artistic interests in the same space.
Rather than emphasizing the intimacy that photographs can carry through their small sizes and abilities to capture fond, personal memories, Wall challenges this intimacy by making his photographs large in size and displaying them in light boxes. The surprising scale of the photographs, along with the intense brightness of the images, commands the viewer's attention in the way that big, illuminated advertising signs do in modern life, from bus stops to billboards. The visual intensity of these photographs can elicit a diverse range of responses from their audiences, as viewers are thrust into the private lives and spaces of the people in the photographs or into environments that range from war-torn to idyllic.
Detail of Jeff Wall's <i>Picture for Women</i> (1979)

"I saw the Velázquez, Goya, Titian - I loved it and wanted to be part of it somehow," Wall said of his 1977 trip to Spain, "Every time the bus stopped, you were looking out the window, and there was a sign in a light box. I began to think, It's luminous, Velázquez was luminous, I'll try it" So he created large photographic transparencies placed within a light box, lending the monumentality of the old masters to his subjects whom he described as "men [who] have been thrown on the garbage pile."

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