Attentive to the accidental encounters that can inspire an image, photographer Jeff Wall recreates flashes of inspiration obtained from sources as varied as personal recollections to something noticed on the street, to daydreams, and encounters with paintings or photographs. With an idea in mind, Wall goes to exacting lengths to produce the picture, which may include constructing a scene from scratch, factoring in the position of the sun over several weeks, and improvisational rehearsals with performers.
Wall’s pictures include both fantastical scenes—a picnic with vampires, dead troops conversing, a grave flooded by the ocean—and vernacular images of people on the margins of society or in moments of exchange and quiet contemplation. Orchestrating his compositions with the creative liberties that a painter would take, the curious magic and discipline of Wall’s work is that it all takes place in a state of photographic realism where every action, object, and condition is simultaneously artificial and entirely natural.
Often printed on the grand scale of a history painting—exhibited either as backlit lightboxes akin to advertising displays or as crisp ink jet and silver gelatin prints—Wall’s works reveal their poetic potential through portraying empathetic characters, picturing impossible vantage points, and capturing elusive moments.
In the following preview from the Vancouver episode of Season 8 of Art in the Twenty-First Century, artist Jeff Wall discusses why his work shifted toward photography. “I still don’t really know why I’m not a painter,” says the artist. “I stopped painting around 1964 when I was about 19 or 20. The mid-sixties, that was just the beginning of really the explosion of all the kind of new alternative kinds of art.”