One way to think about the photography of Jeff Wall as it has evolved over the decades is to see it as a dismantling of the “decisive moment” as defined by the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and the photojournalists inspired by him. The heroic cult of photojournalism rests on the quest for “truth” and depends entirely on the illusion that photographs are joined to “reality,” a reality unseen until its revelation in the pages of a magazine or on a television screen. This is the photography that insists, that instructs, that tells us what to feel about war, famine and other catastrophes that the media requires for hourly consumption.
Jeff Wall’s photography, on the other hand, insists on nothing: its concerns are limited to the expansive questions of how and why we see what we think we see, what we feel we see; in short: what we see. His is a photography of enactment, and precisely for that reason compels its audience to grasp the enactment at the same time as or even before it proposes to offer a particular subject. As such, his images of war, eviction, argument, work, poverty, etc., are composed for the closest scrutiny and the longest view, and once you have seen them you never forget them.
Jeff Wall: The Complete Edition (Phaidon), at seventy bucks, is the book bargain of the season. It is a huge volume, with 184 colour images of the artist’s work and several essays refreshingly free of artspeak. Wall himself writes lucidly about photography and art; his essays and interviews are endlessly readable. When I opened the book for the first time it fell open at page 248, to a double spread of a graveyard scene: The Holocaust Memorial in the Jewish Cemetery, 1987, in which people are seen looking at the Holocaust Memorial; and then you look more closely into the landscape and you discover more people throughout the graveyard, inhabiting it for as long as you study the photograph. When I read the notes, I realized that this was the graveyard that I was to visit the next day, to bury a friend—whose resting place, I could now see, belonged among other things to the history of art.
Wall writes: “a picture of a cemetery is a ‘perfect’ type of landscape. The inevitably approaching, yet unapproachable, phenomenon of death, the necessity of leaving behind those who have passed away, is the most striking dramatic analogue for the distant—but not too distant—viewing position identified as ‘typical’ of the landscape. We cannot get too distant from the graveyard.”
Read Patty Osborne's meditation on Jeff Wall's photograph Mimic from Geist 77.