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Jeff Wall’s invisible hand

He carefully stages all his photographs, but they’re looking more spontaneous than ever

George Pendle | October 28th 2015

A pale, bearded man is taking a beating. Two surveyors are hammering flags into the ground in a fathomless desert. A homeless woman looks longingly at an occupied cardboard box. Each of these images is wildly different from the others but they all seem like moments plucked from a larger, as yet unknown narrative, like scenes from movies that have yet to be filmed.

The creator of these tableaux is Jeff Wall, arguably the greatest photographer alive today. His latest exhibition of new work – running concurrently in London and New York – shows why he is a master of the form. His photographs look like documentary snapshots taken on the fly, but in fact they are meticulously staged. The results are images that have the spontaneity of a Henri Cartier-Bresson street shot and the painterly complexity of a Caravaggio.

Take “Listener” (2015, above), the image of the pale, bearded man being beaten up. The sheen of sweat and the ragged expression on his face seem quite unfeigned. Most of the men that surround him have their faces out of shot as if Wall hadn’t had time to frame the picture properly. Only one burly man can be seen clearly as he leans down to hear whatever words are being gasped out of his victim’s mouth. 

Yet its aesthetic delicacy belies its artlessness. There is the beaten man’s gleaming white body, the tormentor’s ear just squeezing into frame, the partially seen man on the left of the picture scowling at us, the viewers. Wall spent months studying how moments of violence are portrayed by both artists and the media, and traced common features into the composition of his photograph. So it is that as much as “Listener” seems plucked from the front pages, it also seems to reference the grandaddy of all artistically portrayed beatdowns, the Stations of the Cross, the series of images depicting the sufferings of Jesus on the day of his crucifixion. The slumped body, the surrounding thugs, the imprecise deserted region. The bearded man in Wall’s photo is even wearing sandals, albeit from Adidas.

To understand Wall’s work it is useful to know what he isn’t. The best-known photographers of the 20th century were documentary photographers: Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Gary Winogrand and Walker Evans all prowled the streets with lightweight cameras searching for what Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment”. This was a moment when reality composed itself into an aesthetically beautiful image. Think of Cartier-Bresson’s famous puddle jumper, caught in mid-air, or the buzzing and blurred snapshots in Frank’s photobook “The Americans”. This type of photojournalism is anathema to Wall, who was educated as an art historian and whose photos strive for the carefully composed depth and fascination of painting. 

“Mask Maker” (2015)

Typically this process begins with Wall seeing an image in his day-to-day life that appeals to him – dappled light falling on a tattooed arm, or homeless people sleeping outside a prison. But while Frank and Winogrand would have tried to capture the image there and then, Wall does not. Instead he meditates on it and if it holds his attention he will recreate it, perhaps “improving” on the location or the blocking of its characters and hiring performers to re-enact the scene. He will photograph it dozens of times and often digitally combine many different images to produce a perfect whole. He can spend months on just one picture. Famously, when he was unable to find the right position to photograph a crowd outside a Vancouver nightclub, he painstakingly rebuilt the front of the club in his studio – gum-spotted sidewalk, weeds and all. Even then he would only photograph his actors at night, to take into account the way a person’s night-time metabolism affects the coloration of the skin. But amid the carefully orchestrated scene Wall still leaves some aspects – the minutiae of facial expression, the exact nature of the pose – to chance.  If artifice and realism are at two ends of the artistic spectrum, he has somehow managed to find the wormhole that links them together. 

His current reconstructions are so seamless that it looks as if no hand has touched them at all. His earlier work was more obviously dramatised and spectacular. In a photograph like “Milk” (1984) a man sitting in front of a brick wall violently squeezes a carton of milk, the explosion of white contrasting with the browns and blacks behind him. “A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai)” (1993), meanwhile, was a depiction of a sheaf of papers being blown into the air, a stunning modern-day recreation of one of Hokusai’s 19th-century paintings. Recently, however, this overt theatricality has taken a back seat to more elusive variations. In “Property Line” (2015) two surveyors mark out a property line in the wilderness. An empty dirt road leads to the horizon; mountains swell in the distance. The two men in Day-Glo jackets are seen from far away marking out the brown-green scrub with pink and red flags. The vastness of the blue sky above them seems to mock their endeavours, but there’s something almost heroic about what they are doing. These are modern-day frontiersmen.

“Changing Room” (2014)

Perhaps the most instantly spectacular photograph on view, and the most like Wall’s earlier work, is “Changing Room” (2014). In a department store a woman is pulling an African pattern dress over the tame flowery frock she’s been trying on. You can’t see her head or arms so lost are they in the folds of her clothes. Only her body below the waist can be viewed clearly. At first glance the photograph looks like a grotesque Max Ernst collage, or like a snake sloughing off its skin. Actually it’s more like a snake pulling its skin back on again – after all, the only reason for pulling one dress on over another would be to steal it. Everything seems to keep changing in this changing room, not least our preconceptions.

Wall’s photographs are full of such disconcerting moments. In the triptych of a gaudy apartment building a sickly green fluorescent light, known as a “landlord’s halo”, illuminates a doorway with an image of Jesus pinned to the door. In “Mask Maker” (2015) a man in a hooded top decorates the mask on his face with a pen, while the blurred image of a superhero on a nearby storefront suggests the transformative power he holds in his hands. Yet in amongst these puzzles and portents one shouldn’t forget how good these photographs look. They’re big and their colours boom. You could gaze at them for hours.

Jeff Wall Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and London, to December 19th

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