Exercise: Jeff Wall

Brief

Read the article on Jeff Wall in Pluk magazine. Briefly reflect on the documentary value of Jeff Wall’s work.

Response

I looked at Jeff Wall for Context & Narrative last year, and managed to get to see an exhibition of his around the same time. Much of my pertinent opinion of Wall is contained in that earlier blog post, but to summarise here: his work generally leaves me cold.

Part of me admires the effort he goes to, most of me wonders why he bothers. As a comparison, I find much more to enjoy in the work of that other big name in constructed photography, Gregory Crewdson. So it’s not that I have a fundamental dislike for the genre, just that I find Wall mostly overrated (there are exceptions: I really liked Insomnia, 1994, and some of his other work that is influenced by earlier art, especially paintings, is interesting).

JW-MIMIC-700
Mimic, 1982 by Jeff Wall

However, when his work is described as “near documentary”, he sometimes loses me. It’s too far removed, for the most part. When it is a recreation of a specific witnessed event, such as Mimic (1982), I can get on board, as it’s based on a real thing that happened.

But as per my personal interpretation of documentary photography, once an image moves into the realm of ‘something that could have happened’, it crosses a line and ceases to have significant documentary value.

I’m not pointing this out to be a purist – it’s more a case of my view being that that if one is going to invent a pseudo-documentary scene, that there should be some kind of point – communicating a message, evoking an emotion, something.

A View from an Apartment (2004-5) took weeks of meticulous planning and involved people living in the space… and the end result is a very big so what? It’s incredibly clever and well-executed (and visual interesting from a point of view of having the whole scene, inside and out, looking sharp), but… what is it saying? I’ve read a whole essay on this photograph, in Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs (2005), and I’m none the wiser.

T12219_10.jpg
A View from an Apartment, 2004-5 by Jeff Wall

In summary, I find the documentary value of Wall’s work to be quite minimal. Some of his work is interesting in a documentary sense, but most of his typical work is bewilderingly over-engineered and ultimately quite shallow.

Sources

http://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/pluk_JeffWall.pdf (accessed 01/08/2016)

Howarth, S. (ed.) (2005) Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs. London: Aperture

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