Any Answers: Jeff Wall

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This article was published in issue #7888 of British Journal of Photography. Visit the BJP Shop to purchase the magazine here.

Reconstructing scenes from everyday life and realising them as vast prints or lightbox images, Vancouver-based artist Jeff Wall is a pioneer of conceptual photography – though he prefers “near documentary”.

A key influence on the Düsseldorf School, his work has been exhibited around the world. His latest work, Recovery, is a startling change of direction that echoes a “great moment in Western painting, defined by Seurat and Matisse, who revolutionised art with colour”.

Below, Jeff Wall considers the influences and life-changing moments that have shaped his career.

I had good taste in art when I was 10. My parents had a subscription to an art book publisher, and we would be sent something every month. I’d look at them, and I felt I always knew, I could always tell, what was good. I have never had to learn it.

I was always drawing and painting in my youth. But I drifted away from it for no good reason. Maybe I never felt that I had anything to contribute as a painter. I lacked confidence in it. But I felt more positive in the darkroom. I took to it, and felt like I got it.

I was a reluctant avant-gardist. In the 1960s and 70s, I didn’t abandon the idea that good art was good. I didn’t really buy the idea that quality didn’t matter in art, or that a figurative painting was bourgeois. I knew all those arguments first-hand. I just didn’t accept them.

I fell in love with the granular surface of a photograph. Some people say, ‘Photographs are all surface. Paintings have this depth and texture.’ I get what they’re saying. But photography has this swarming molecular grain, which I find so beautiful. When photographs are large, you get the sense that you’re being vaporised into grain.

I’m not interested in narrative. My pictures are a web of narrative impulses that people have and need. But none of my pictures have scenarios. Scenarios suggest narrative lines. Films have scenarios, and I don’t make films.

My photographs are compositions. Francis Bacon once said, “I like to bring as many figures together as I can without there being any narrative.” I totally agree with him. It’s a great way of articulating the aim of pictorial art. I don’t want people to be able to say what’s happening straight away.

I never intended to take big pictures. But grand-scale tableaux became a feature of the 1990s. A photograph designed to occupy space on a wall, rather than a page, opened a photographic vision that wasn’t that available beforehand.

That was a real transformation. It had an energy that carried everything else along with it. That’s over now. Photography is going to a different place.

The picture is very elastic. It can’t be defined. It’s fluid. It’s endless. Any circumstance can be made into a picture. Any place, any population, can be resolved in some way in a picture. It just absorbs. The art form itself doesn’t change that much. It’s simple, it’s open, and it’s inexhaustible.

I have created pictures of people, but I don’t pretend they’re portraits. I don’t really believe that portraiture can reveal something about a person. It can tell you something, give a sense of someone, but it’s not a form of knowledge. It’s an impression without factual content. It’s just a feeling. I don’t think it’s very important.

I worked on Recovery for a long period of time. Some people find it baffling. They ask if I’m working with paint now. No. Something was hand-made in order to make that vision. But I’ve made plenty of artificial works before. This is just another one. It takes the form of some sort of painting, but it’s not. To me, it’s a phantom.

Artists don’t have to do anything. There are no rules. But there’s an enormous energy pool of vastly sophisticated molecules of knowledge and experience that one can tap into.

Most people are dissatisfied with where their culture is going. They don’t like the fact that artists decorate it and make it look good. That’s totally valid. And yet we can’t help to admire it. And to not admire it is ideological. There’s no future in that.

Some of the greatest paintings are Arcadian. They’re all looking for this fairy-land, perfect, utopian place. The idea remains fascinating and resonant to me. What is Arcadia today?

Photography is beautiful because it’s intangible. It’s invisible.

I don’t think I’ll ever stop working. I enjoy it too much. I wouldn’t want to stop. I can relax for a month. But since I don’t have a job, I can’t retire.

Tom Seymour

Tom Seymour is an Associate Editor at The Art Newspaper and an Associate Lecturer at London College of Communication. His words have been published in The Guardian, The Observer, The New York Times, Financial Times, Wallpaper* and The Telegraph. He has won Writer of the Year and Specialist Writer of the year on three separate occassions at the PPA Awards for his work with The Royal Photographic Society.