Jeff Wall: Exposure – Deutsche Guggenheim (2007)

Exposure, an exhibition commissioned and curated by Deutsche Guggenheim, a collaboration between The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and Deutsche Bank AG, for presentation Nov 3rd 2007 through Jan 20 2008.

This particular exhibition of Jeff Wall’s work comprised of 5 of Wall’s colour works but also incorporated 4 newly commissioned Black & White works exclusive to this exhibition.

Dr. Essen Von Heydebreck, Deutsche Bank AG, describes Wall’s ‘talent’ as,
“…the ability to make something visible that we have previously been unable-or unwilling- to see.”

A quote that references the idea of photography as a tool of discovery and representation, one which sees for us and on our behalf and that Wall is in some way a prophet or soothsayer revealing to us some king of secret behind reality that only he and his camera can see.

Thomas Krens, Director, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation , builds on this premise with his description of the exhibition.
“The exhibition will aptly demonstrate Wall’s continuing interrogation of the history of photographic representation and specifically the legacies of documentary photography and neorealist film.”
Furthering the idea of discovery, which we often associate with documentary, alongside the connotations of photographic truth that the phrase relies on for authority.

Exposure, whilst now a nearly 15 year old exhibition, is memorialised in this exhibition catalogue which brings together the works selected for the exhibition alongside the foreword and preface by, Dr. Heydebreck and Thomas Krens. The bulk of the catalogue is made up of two essays, Jennifer Blessing’s ‘Jeff Wall in Black and White’ and Katrin Blum’s ‘Passing By-Thinking’.

Whilst I will be focusing this essay on the writing attached to the exhibition, I will reference the images in kind but not in detail, each image deserves it’s own essay whereas the focus here is on the contextualisation of Jeff Wall’s work in a way which I find problematic and by extension, as this catalogue will no doubt have passed through his hands, Wall’s work as an artist.

‘Jeff Wall in Black and White’

Jennifer Blessing opens the catalogue with an extensive write up of Wall’s career, referencing his work along the way in order to build up a picture of who the artist is and what to expect from his new work, in a way to guide us to interpret the collection of images as intended, and outlined by Thomas Krens.

Blessing make frequent reference to the ideas of realism and documentary. Taking Baudelaire as a major influence on Wall’s work specifically his call for art to turn to the everyday in order to discover the answers and question of life. Even going so far as to specify that the naming of the exhibition as ‘Exposure’ is in reference to both the act of taking a photograph and also the revelatory action of exposing some unknown fact, “…the struggle of individuals in straitened economic circumstances…”
A apt topic for the practitioner of ‘vernacular photography’, commas used intentionally.

Blessing, whilst harnessing philosophical ideas in outlining the intent of the work and of the exhibition , falls back on technical terms for the descriptions of Wall’s work. Her focus is on his preference for the ‘long shot’ to ensure a subject in framed in a place as well as showing their physicality. Taking cues from basic ideas of contextualisation and by comparing his work to neorealist Courbet and the mundanity of Manet, Blessing describes Wall as a master of trade who heightens the everyday in ways which raise questions and narratives for the spectator to explore. Emphasising the time Wall puts into creating each image, painstakingly recreating and re-enacting observed scenes for several weeks before the final picture is taken and followed up with several more weeks perhaps months of digital stitching and editing to bring together several different images into a large scale vivant.

I, however, began at this point to actually question my previous admiration for Wall’s work as I felt a distinct disconnect between my love of works such as ‘The Destroyed Room’ (1978) and ‘A Sudden Gust of Wind (After Hokusai)” (1993).

That disconnect being based in the idea of taking a recreation of a scene and declaring it representative of the everyday whilst simultaneously claiming authority over the situation and choosing to present it in a style which echoes documentary to a select audience of spectators who are physically, emotionally and financially separated from the scene depicted.

Passing By-Thinking

Katrin Blum follows Blessing in the praise of Wall as an artist. Again here we echoes of the documentary approach describing Wall’s work as scenes of “how things are”.

Blum feels that Walker Evens is a relevant comparison here, quoting Beaumont Newhall “Much of what Evans photographed was squalid, but his interpretation was always dignified.”

For “Overpass” (2001) Blum likens the scene to something from Robert Frank’s “The Americans”, primarily the idea of travelling and movement that Frank suggested as an American lifestyle or trait.

All points which I understand sound very appropriate for Wall’s work yet I feel they make better critiques than praise.

Having enjoyed Wall’s work previously I was looking forward to reading this catalogue, mainly to see a collection of his work brought together in a curated way, as Wall intended, but also to read the essays which accompany the work. Such essays typically add to the experience of viewing the body of work , yet here they read as if the team involved felt the need to justify the work and their decision to select Wall for the project. Rather simplistic descriptions of technique and a surface level understanding of theory fail to expand the reading of the images, at least in a positive way.

The main issue I have with the write up about Wall’s work is the consistent theme of representation and documentary. Whilst I understand the perspective, Wall does present scenes which depict individuals often overlooked in art and in a style which signifies documentary and therefore truth, this premise overlooks the fact that Wall constructs his images. There is an valid argument that to construct and image in this way is to question the idea of what representation and documentary actually is yet each of the referenced images, ‘Men Waiting’ (2006) as example, lack what Barthes would call the ‘Punctum’, the disturbing inclusion of a juxtaposition or action which influences or disrupts the reading of the image to challenge our initial perceptions. Rather Wall has declared his vision alone validates the existence of the image, in essence saying “I have seen this therefore it is true”.

Representation

Representation, for me, has also been troublesome not only in it’s lack of inclusion of diverse individuals but also the agency of those who are represented. By taking those subjects and displacing them, arranging them and repeated recomposing them in a location which Wall has selected, such as with ‘Men Waiting’ the artist is not giving agency but rather removing it in a power dynamic which is heavily weighted to the creator, especially knowing he paid those models to work for the scene. To then publish this image without any punctum is to claim it shows “how things are” whereas it actually shows “how ‘Wall sees’ things are.”

‘A sudden Gust of Wind (After Hokasui)’ is a fine example of Wall constructing an engaging realist image which, at first glance, is documentary is then elevated by the surreal actions of the subjects. The punctum here is not dismissing the agency of the subjects but heightening the style, questioning our perceptions of reality and what we perceive, playing on the constructed nature. Something which when used appropriately would justify the use of constructed scenes and ‘actors’ in the representation of under privileged individuals. ‘

War Game’ (2007) I feel works well for that exact reason. We see a scene “how things are” but are drawn to the game the young subjects play, are they hostages to the one with the gun? Do the others run away in fear? Or does the smile we see between the bed frames a sign of the fun the have? It’s a scene that could easily, as with ‘Men Waiting’, have been a snapshot as passing by but the inclusion of these details results in a more engaging image, one which is fleeting and difficult to find. I still question the need to construct such an image and the agency of these involved but I feel the result somewhat justifies the means.

Similarly, ‘Cold Storage, Vancouver’ (2007), finds it’s own punctum in reality. The scene is of a storage freezer in the process of being defrosted and cleaned, the process leaves a cloud like shape of ice across the ceiling, it takes a mount to realise what it is. The ice is somewhat dreamlike, as low clouds across the periphery seems unreal in the concrete scene, adding serenity and naturalness to a harsh brutalist, and made structure. it’s sublime in the truest sense, the simpleness of the scene belies any of the work Wall put into the image but that fact does support the idea of “how things are” and Wall’s talent as a photographer.

However, as much as some work justifies the process, ‘War Game’, and that some work is interesting in it’s stillness and ‘actual’ documentary, ‘Cold Storage, Vancouver’, it is the setting of the exhibition that taints the whole experience of Wall’s work.

Exposure

Ironically I feel that the title of this exhibition is somewhat close to the truth. Rather than taking the given interpretation of the title, that of the act of photographing something or to reveal something unseen, I prefer the idea that exposure is the process of revealing something for what it ‘really is.’

The exhibition premise is that it will “make something visible that we have previously been unable-or unwilling-to see” yet the photography makes nothing visible except Wall’s vision.

To claim to show something unseen one must show that which was unseen not a facsimile of that. Whether Wall claims this or not isn’t the question, the fact the forward was approved shows whether Wall proposed that idea or not, he didn’t discredit it.

The idea that the images show us something previously unseen is to support the myth of photographic truth and objective artistic vision. Wall has seen these things and merely recreated them in his images is not the objective perspective the exhibition would claim to uphold in associating Wall’s work with documentary and realism. Ignoring the inherent issues around photographic truth regarding colour treatment, angles, compositions etc we now have to deal with memory as another factor of distortion. Wall would no doubt claim this to be part of the question he puts forward but in adopting and adhering to the signifiers of documentary so tightly he poses that question only to those who know his process and understand art theory. A personal opinion which I support by highlighting his frequent reference to historic paintings, see ‘The Destroyed Room’ (1978) and Delacroix’s ‘Death of Sardanapalus’ (1827), essentially excluding his own photographic subjects from being able to ‘legitimately’ critique the work they are involved in.

Wall has always been, I feel, a photographer who has required a certain level of knowledge to really dig into his work, however I also felt that several of his works are accessible on different levels, something I admired as a nuanced and thoughtful approach to the work. It is though with a heavy heart that I feel Wall’s oeuvre is one which appeals to the curators more than the audience.

To construct images of working men on a street corner, with the intention of showing at an exhibition based on the idea of representation , which is funded and supported by one of the worlds largest and controversial banks and finally have it exclusively displayed in said banks own gallery which is conveniently located in the actual office of the bank is somewhat hypocritical.

I’ve addressed the issues of photographic truth and the power dynamics of hiring those you want to represent whilst transporting them to a controlled ‘set’, and the fact this essentially strips the subject of agency but to then present that scene to to elite of the social hierarchy is such a strange disconnect from the issues that are the focus of the exhibition that I question Wall’s actual intent. Is Wall trying to show the spectators of the work the standards of living they are in part responsible for? Is that intent the reason for the lack of real statement? Or is Wall just fulfilling his commission, drinking the coolaid and believing that his unique vision is somehow devoid of subjective influence? I can’t answer that question, only Wall knows his intent and if we are to take ‘Death of the Author’ as guidance, admittedly Wall is not dead, we can only pass judgement for the evidence we are presented with.

Death of the Photographer

I’m going to preface this final section with the statement that several of Wall’s works are still influential on my practice and understanding of photography. But, after reading this exhibition catalogue I do now question Wall’s intent. Regardless of opinion on Wall’s technique and practice the association of this exhibition with Deutsche Bank Ag simply undermines any good intentions. To restrict and limit access to the work to the eyes of the very people who created the situations we see in economic depravity whilst not taking the opportunity to really raise questions around their involvement is pandering at best and pure consumerism at worst. Where once Wall was an aspirational figure for me, having pushed his work above others who work in a similar vein, I now feel somewhat further disillusioned with higher echelons of art photography who seem to have fallen into the trap of creating work which perpetuates the elite ideas of working class life in art that is made for the consumption of the elite of social hierarchies who can go on to tell their friends how charitable and in touch with the world they really are.

The sad truth being that often the photographers who work hard to truly represent their circumstances, cultural and social, are the ones who are forgotten.

Close

Thank you for reading this blog post!

If you enjoyed reading about photographic critique you may also enjoy my other work, you’ll find more at…

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