Week 10: Jeff Wall Interview: Pictures Like Poems

Jeff Wall critically discusses his approach to photography in this film, suggesting we look “through” photographic images rather than “at” them, as we are caught up in   a “beautiful illusion” that the camera creates.  Throughout the film, Wall reflects upon the characteristics and qualities of being an artist that contribute to the work he makes:

  • Observing – being observant
  • Participating / Choosing – Happy either to participate in things or to stand back from them.
  • Accepting – of the way things are, and open to change
  • Enjoying looking, “liking the appearance of things”
  • Receiving – Not searching, but being receptive and open to accidental discovery
  • Open – Not super-emotional to the situation, rather open to the possibilities
  • Empathising

Wall notes that we require something of an attention shift to accept that we are looking at a photograph,and suggests that photographs without any text or verbal description are appreciated in a different way; ”as a poem”.  He acknowledges that photography is an occurrence, whereas his photographs are as much about absence as presence; occurrence (something happening) and non-occurrence (e.g. a place).

“Photography must happen, and it itself is the happening, it is something that happens, so there is always a happening or something that takes place and what the camera sees, may be either of the two, the difference between them is always sort of conditional, because both equally lead to interesting pictures. […] they’re just different types of picture”

He tends to use to the term artist throughout the film, not photographer, and critiques his own artworks as successful, justifying their presence based upon the responses of others: “I believe it does have a place because I feel like I’ve made some pictures that people like and I can accept as works that I’ll stand behind.”

Of the snapshot, “which is usually a picture taken quickly without any preparation, without any organisation and without any collaboration” Wall discusses the quick mechanism of the camera as key, describing it as the “fundamental type of photograph” to which all other photographs relate.  He expresses dissatisfaction with his own experiments with the snapshot, and works instead in what he describes as a contemplative way.  Wall also believes that there are no rules, and though he refers or relates to normative ideas of photography in his work, he but does not adhere to the expectations of the norm describing some of his works as almost snapshot or almost documentary.

“[…] there’s no rules, no limitation but the degree to which they might resemble a candid photograph is a, kind of, line of comparison, that is always useful. I use that line of comparison quite often. I don’t conform to it. I don’t obey it, but I refer to it, so my pictures all, or let’s say almost all, have this relation to this normative centre of photography”

The intent of Wall’s work is to make art, working in a large scale and situating his images within galleries. He expresses a changing and developing relationship with photography over time, and is keen to use his work in a timely way, believing that “the art is of now, it’s appreciating it now, it’s now. […]  I think that good art and artists strike always in the present.”  His rationale seems to be one of contributing in a subtle way to social change, aware that he is making work for an audience and the potential impacts of that, and expressing a kind of responsibility to the viewer when a visual work is experienced:

“[…]  it did something to your attitude, your social attitude. It can’t be legislated or fixed or even defined or you might not even be aware of it, but I believe that art does that to us and that it actually filters back into the practical world.”

“Public attitudes have changed a lot because of education and so on, and the spread of democracies. The arts have had a huge role play in the shaping of the sensibility, the ability to see people as much more unique”

Jeff Wall Interview: Pictures Like Poems
Louisiana Channel, Published on 8 Apr 2015
Available at: https://youtu.be/HkVSEVlqYUw
(Accessed 5 April 2019)