Jeff Wall in conversation with professor Thierry de Duve at Louisiana

Katrine Holmgren & Kirstine Schiess Højmose

On the opening day of Jeff Wall’s most recent exhibition Tableaux Pictures Photographs – Works from 1996-2013 at Louisiana,  Wall himself and art theorist Thierry de Duve had a public conversation at the museum about Wall’s work, in particular questioning how to define ‘staged’ photography. Wall insisted that his work isn’t staged, but somewhat a collaboration between himself and the people appearing in his work.

Thierry de Duve began the talk asking about the staged aspect of Wall’s work. Wall explained:

‘I don’t stage, I work with people. I always disliked the term ‘staged photography’, maybe because it implies the presence of a stage, stage apparatus, and then the institution of the stage; all of the helpers, and what we imagine behind the stage is necessary for the illusion to come into existence, it has a kind of heavy quality to it. Staged Photography is conditioned by the idea of a set, which in my opinion refers to cinematography, and a situation which requires a script. Reportage/press photography represents the opposition to the staged photograph. The reportage image implicates no relation between the photographer and the subject, in my work there is a collaboration between the photographer and the subject.’

The fact that the people in Wall’s work are conscious of being observed by the photographer creates a tension between the real and the staged in his work.

De Duve continued by talking about the staged aspect of Wall’s work, while Wall tried to shift the direction of the conversation. Wall’s work represents actual real things that happened, and he captures these events. He sometimes reconstructs scenes and situations, and when he has no access to the actual place, instead he replicates it. Wall continued by saying that the world vanishes into the photograph – the image stays, while the world changes.

‘The other day a world press photo prize was taken back from a photographer because it turned out he had altered the photo … they said that no collaboration can take place between the subject and the photographer, which is the cardinal rule of reportage. When I photograph someone in the street … then I am a reporter, if one of the people who is passing by should notice me and acknowledge me by smiling or making a silly face at me, we’ve entered into a collaboration. And at that point we have entered cinematography. For me the term staged doesn’t explain the process that I went through.’

In the interview, Wall referenced an interview with Marlon Brando on The Dick Cavett Show on June 12th, 1973 – in which Brando famously said ‘we are all actors’. Wall continued:

‘We all see, and therefore we could potentially all be, an artist; we experience the world visually, which is also part of what makes photography complicated. The discussion about whether it’s false or fake is not interesting – everything is potentially fake and we all act in our everyday life. Everytime we don’t tell someone exactly what we think, it’s an act, it’s what we do in order to survive.’

Wall continued that he doesn’t enjoy talking about the making of his work, and stated: ‘there is too much focus on the practical process today in art, which is not particularly amazing in itself. The interesting part is not the story about how the artist made the work, but how you experience it and what it makes you think. Receiving knowledge on how something was made can be distracting, and as a result be somewhat the only thing you see. Art is about existence and appreciation of the existence in order to enjoy and appreciate the moments.’

De Duve continues, that Wall’s work often starts out an intervention in a real situation, and that without directing the characters in his work, the artist allows a situation to unfold, that reflects on the ‘real’ situation he has intervened in. For example he asked some boys to ‘play war’ and they build a little fort using whatever was available at the location. As everybody got drawn into the situation (Wall and the boys), the work changed. Repetition is the keyword here Wall stated:

‘When you work with the same people for several days, and every day repeating the same action, everything change as the collaborators are feeling more relaxed about performing in an interventional scenario. I draw inspiration from directors such as Robert Bresson, who made his actors do the same thing 50 times, he breaks down the notion, the urge to perform, and it turned into something else, and that something else is what is recorded, and that record is documentary. I documented this change of behaviour, that is why I don’t like the term staged.’

At the starting point the work was stuck in interpretations on the politicly correct, but it is very much about humanity and not political messages. Wall thinks that maybe the viewer has changed, and look at art differently now. We don’t know photography as well as we know older art forms, photography is a later art form that in many ways arose from other art forms such as painting. He plays with tableau as a pacifying art form, leaving the beholder overwhelmed.

“The tableau has its roots in pictorialist photography and according to Jeff Wall could be seen as an attempt by photographers to unsuccessfully imitate painting:

“Pictorialist photography was dazzled by the spectacle of Western painting and attempted, to some extent, to imitate it in acts of pure composition. Lacking the means to make the surface of its pictures unpredictable and important, the first phase of Pictorialism, Stieglitz’s phase, emulated the fine graphic arts, re-invented the beautiful look, set standards for gorgeousness of composition, and faded.”

Pictorialism failed according to Wall because photographers lacked the means to make their surfaces unpredictable. However Photography did have the ability to become unpredictable and spontaneous. This was achieved by making photographs, related to the inherent capabilities of the camera itself. And this Wall argues was a direct result of photo-journalism and the media/culture industries.” Wall, Jeff (1998). “Marks of Indifference: Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art”. In Janus, E. Veronica’s Revenge: Contemporary Perspectives on Photography. Zurich: Scalo.


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