One day in the late 1970s, Jeff Wall was walking down a street in Vancouver when he witnessed a striking scene. For various reasons, he couldn’t photograph it. So he decided to meticulously recreate what he saw on the street in his studio and shoot that reenactment. Such recreations have since become Jeff’s signature photographic style. Today, Jeff’s pictures sell at record prices, and retrospectives of his work have been shown at both MoMA and the Tate Modern. By taking a documentarian’s approach to capturing events that might never have existed, Jeff calls into question our ideas of photographs as evidence, artifact, or ultimate truth.
I sat down with Jeff to discuss his work and his latest exhibition, Portrait. For obvious reasons, it seemed fitting to take Jeff’s portrait, but it wasn’t all that easy. He’s so used to posing, directing, and manipulating his subjects that he seemed a little disappointed that our photographer, Gilda, didn’t do the same. Thankfully, he was gracious about it.
VICE: I just saw your latest exhibition, Portrait. Does classical art still influence your work?
Jeff Wall: Many people are under the impression that everything I do is closely connected to art of the past, but things aren’t exactly like that. I talked about it a lot 20 or 30 years ago, and perhaps this has led people to think that my relationship with art of the past is stronger or more direct than it really is. I’m inspired by so much of art, no matter if it’s old, very old, contemporary; it does not matter whether it's painting, photography, or any other medium. The reason why I'm interested in it is because it shows that at any moment, for example a moment like now, has in itself the potential to become a work of art. My relationship with art of the past is not always the same, and I do not care to define it. Critics and other people have already done that for me, usually through a partial or total misunderstanding of my work or an interpretation of things I said a long time ago, when I was still trying to explain what I do.
Your first series of photographs, Landscape Manual, a small brochure of photos of Vancouver in black and white taken from the window of a car, was taken in 1969, but your catalogue raisonné begins with The Destroyed Room (1978). What happened between 1969 and 1978?
So many things happened! Ok, I'll try to be brief. As a teenager I drew and painted a lot. It was the 60s. There were many upheavals taking place in the art world, from conceptual art to post-minimalism to performance art and so on. All of these things were really interesting to me. It seemed that painting and drawing were a little out of fashion, so in the spirit of the time, I started to experiment. I learned a lot and had a lot of fun. I loved the art of others, but I was not good at anything. I knew that I could not have been a modern painter like Matisse and I soon realized that I couldn’t even have become a conceptual artist like, say, Lawrence Weiner. It was a confusing and difficult period. I was lost and really struggling to understand how to become an artist, but I still continued to experiment with photography and other mediums. It took me over ten years to find my instrument. Slowly, my inclination towards photography took over and finally I happened upon the kind of things I do now, reclaiming what I like about 17th, 19th, and 20th century art. So the art of the past has helped me a lot to find my way in the contemporary world. This comes back to your first question as to why I am so affected by it: I never considered art of the past out of fashion, because I struggled so much with conceptual or post-conceptual art, the styles that were considered in fashion at the time. Thinking about and using the ideas present in other types of art, many times from the past, helped me progress.
Portrait by Gilda Aloisi. Photo courtesy of Galleria Lorcan O'Neill, Rome
But you continue to be regarded as a conceptual artist?
So many stupid things have been said about my work, things that have nothing to do with what I do. I’m not a conceptual artist. I know many conceptual artists and I have developed my work in dialogue with conceptual art, but I take photographs. It’s very different.
What is your relationship with literature? If you were to compare your work to that of a writer, who would it be?
I've taken pictures that are explicitly inspired by the writings of other people, like Yukio Mishima or Franz Kafka, but I don’t think that this can define a relationship with an author. Those were incidents. It could have easily happened to someone other artist or with some other work of literature. So, my relationship with, let’s say, Ralph Ellison - because I took very elaborate pictures based on his book Invisible Man - was still incidental: one day I simply happened to be completely absorbed by the book and the image appeared. The relationship I have with literature is very important. I think that, somehow, all photographers are hybrid creators, novelists on one hand and, on the other, painters. And the photograph, the end result, acts like the combination of a painting and a novel. Walker Evans said: "There is no book that is not a book of photographs.” He thought that the task of a writer was to describe events that could exist as photographs. It is no coincidence that Walker Evans, in the beginning, wanted to become a writer.
I asked about your relationship with the literature because your photos show an important quality of narrative: The viewer can easily imagine a story, a plot.
Evans always considered himself a novelist. When he realized that he would have never lived up to a master like Gustav Flaubert, he changed course and became a photographer to have the chance to write, somehow, his novel. He did it in a documentary style; mine is a cinematic one. Many photographers have a very strong bond with the literature and consider themselves, in some way, writers. I think I'm one of them.
Your photos depict some aspects of reality better than many documentary images. Do you think that you would be able to achieve the same result with a snapshot?
I've done it several times. I do not have a method. If it were possible, I would only take snapshots. What I do when I elaborate my constructed images is not the opposite of snapshot photography. Photography is a large and complex medium, and there is not just one way of doing it. There is no conflict between snapshot photography and any other kind of photography. It is a kind of continuum. In my digital assembling, which consist of 10, 20, sometimes 50 pictures, snapshot images play an important role. The relationship between various approaches to photography is never defined and people who try to define it always end up doing something less successful. I have every kind of camera – I have a digital one, I have a camera phone, I have an analog one as well – and I use them all. If I decide to be Cartier-Bresson, I do this. If I want to be Steven Spielberg, I do that. The photograph allows you to be anyone and, in a sense, to steal an identity, even if only for a few minutes.
You often portray encounters between social classes. Have you ever been tempted to give some political overtones to your photographs?
I think they already have an important element present in political perspectives: They portray human relationships. And all human relationships are, in some way, political. The main subject of many of my photographs is the comparison between individuals, between people in conflict, people who have been abused by others or by society. I work through intuition. If I see something and it strikes me as a possible photo, I know that the reason lies in my relationship with that social material. I do not try to define that relationship. I just think, “Here is a photo. It contains something,” and I take it from there. In every photo there is something special, but that something is not always definable. I like that. It is something that you can find in all interesting art: A social reading is there but you can’t quite put your finger on it and say exactly what it means. This is what makes it interesting.
It seems that your series, Dead Troops Talk (1992), has various potential political interpretations.
According to some, Dead Troops Talk contains the moral lessons of the 19th century painting The Raft of the Medusa. Susan Sontag wrote that it could be interpreted as a photograph against the war and as a commentary on war photography in the media. In my case, the most obvious meaning is that men love war. Maybe they find it exciting and but lose it as soon as they are involved. Maybe they hate it. Maybe they are afraid. Perhaps they dream about it, Perhaps they simply love talking about it. In that picture, the fantasy was that these guys who were killed in action, were in a kind of hallucinatory state. You see them coming back to life. What would they say? The photo does not say anything about the war in Afghanistan, and I don’t think that it insinuates something about the Soviet Union. But in a sense, it is telling us something about all these issues, about history and so on. I'm not denying that these issues are part of my imagination, but I don’t know how to provide a political answer to the question. I think the picture keeps me from doing so. When you take a picture, it stops you from explaining certain things in a certain way, and perhaps it leads you to have a different approach that is difficult to define.
Men seem to be a recurring theme in your work. Would you agree?
Yes, they do. I don’t know. I don’t interpret my work. In the past, I thought I could, but now I think it's a kind of an illusion. People are attracted to things. Maybe you're attracted to things that I don’t even know about. Can we easily define ourselves and say exactly who we are? I don’t think I can. And now I'm so old, I really don’t care to.
Two last questions: Do you like the world you portray? Are you emotionally involved in your subjects?
Yes, I am, but I don’t know what adjective to use for them. Let's say you're shooting a photo of a boy who is seeking shelter from the rain. I feel affection for the boy's face, I love the rain, and I like the look of the raindrops on his jacket. Whatever the subject, when it becomes a photo, I look at the whole picture with a certain kindness, and this feeling is part of what makes it beautiful. It can be an immediate sensation or one that builds slowly. This emotion is like the ocean and everything floats in it.