Friday, March 2, 2007

Wall wars

This Sunday's unusually long, front-page profile of photographer Jeff Wall by Artur Lubow in the NY Times Magazine has sparked a firestorm of commentary (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, for starters). With the cover teaser "Where Jeff Wall has taken the photograph" superimposed on the artist's silhouette against one of his massive images, the piece was clearly meant as a definitive statement; Wall is positioned as champion of an important historical stepping-off moment for the medium.

This tends to draw a line in the sand for photographers who can't find a way to connect to his pictures.

I've been hearing about Wall's importance for years and have looked at whatever pictures of his I could find online & in magazines. My reaction has always been puzzlement. THIS is what they're all talking so excitedly about? I knew a little about the theoretical ideas that inform his work &, after reading the article, I know more (the guy is a spellbinding talker). I decided to go to MOMA & see his work the way he means it to be seen.

Yes, the pictures are techinally impressive. If only for the notion of creating huge lightboxes for the wall, Wall deserves a lot of credit. But big & detailed as they are, the images are still bloodless & bland. In the article Wall says, "“Believing in the specialness of what you are photographing is a disaster. Then you think the photograph will be good because of what’s in it." So the boredom is deliberate, a way of signaling that we shouldn't be dazzled by subject matter or all the machinery of illusionism.

One of his preoccupations is connecting photography with the great Western tradition of figurative painting. For instance, his "Picture for Women" references Edouard Manet's "A Bar at the Folies-Bergere". In both images a woman stares into a mirror in which a large room is reflected and a man gazes at her. The wit of the picture is that in Wall's picture the woman looks commanding -- in the Manet she's deferential, if not defensive -- & the man, played by Wall himself, looks worried -- in the Manet he's predatory. And the Wall picture has something else: a large view camera placed in the center between man & woman. Instead of a sumptuous chandeliered Paris nightclub behind it, roaring with life, it's set in a generically austere photography studio lit by bare bulbs. Devoid of colorful bottles, flowers, fruit, tophats, jewelry, it's also deliberately empty of visual pleasure. OK, point taken, though I don't believe a viewer should be expected to conjure up a historical painting to enjoy it. And not a bad point either, as any photographer who has been dismayed by the way some viewers go instantly, it seems relentlessly, to the content of a picture, as though that was all it was or could be. But isn't there a way to make the point without some kind of monastic denial of the visual world?

Most of the work in Wall's show seems oh-so-seriously intent on making similar didactic points. When he creates "story" pictures -- an eviction in a neighborhood, say -- he's deliberately cheesy, campy, a B movie quality that says, This isn't real; it's a construct; I know it & now you know I know it. Or when he photographs the mundane corner of a garden & deliberately overexposes in harsh midday light, he seems to be saying, "You thought you were going to enjoy some sensuality, huh?"

I know photographs aren't real. I've know for a long time. Why does Wall have to keep insisting on it?

And why does he so often select the homeless, the drug addicted, the mentally ill, the socially marginalized to deconstruct? I understand that making obvious "semblances" (his word) of homeless men or American Indians may be a legitimate critique of "socially conscious" photography that too often is a kind of liberal trophy hunting. But how does this square with Wall's supposed "artistic and political radicalism"? With infinite subject matter available, why would a self-avowed politically correct artist want to signal to an audience that suffering isn't real?

Frankly, the guy is all over the place conceptually & in terms of execution. To be fair, I guess this indicates a willingness to try new approaches. Some of his later work corresponds to this somewhat surprising quote in the Times piece: "I’m a more affectionate person than I thought I was. I like trees or I like people’s faces. That’s one reason I think my work has changed. I realized I wasn’t interested in filtering my affection for things through certain levels of mediation."

Several of the works -- an exterior of a nightclub with kids milling around & one lovely image of two women in a living room with a view of a harbor, for instance -- have some real human attraction. You actually want to know more about the people in the story (yes, I know they're not real). So...he seems to be moving in a promising direction (from my point of view).

I guess the real question is not, is Jeff Wall a good artist? He's certainly a good artist. The question is why is this method, the photograph as a record of fearsome theoretical ratiocination & obsessive compulsive process, showered with money & renown while photography that interacts directly with the real world is consistently pushed to the outer darkness?

12 comments:

Ron Diorio said...

Tim, I think you will soon be an influential blogger of art and conscience.

You wrote "Yes, the pictures are techinally impressive. If only for the notion of creating huge lightboxes for the wall, Wall deserves a lot of credit. But big & detailed as they are, the images are still bloodless & bland. In the article Wall says, "“Believing in the specialness of what you are photographing is a disaster. Then you think the photograph will be good because of what’s in it." So the boredom is deliberate, a way of signaling that we shouldn't be dazzled by subject matter or all the machinery of illusionism."

I think our friend Lionel may have hit the nail on the head - painting is an additive process - you start blank and build - that is what JW is doing following a tradition that meets the creation point empty where for me most traditional photographs start full.

At the end of the day people will be dazzled but Wall will never have the same notice as say da Vinci simply because as a builder from nothing Leonardo captured in a smile what Wall would never choose to include.

You should check out alexsoth.com, I think you will find it interesting.

Christine (CA) said...

Interesting critique, Tim. Yes, I’ve read several pieces about Wall and there was a good discussion of his work in the Utata group on Flickr. I’d like to see his work in person and large, partly because of the hype, and partly because I’m fascinated by anyone who has the kind of passion about their work that he so clearly does. I’ve only seen small images online but a few are very interesting to me, e.g., the portrait of Adrian Walker, Sudden Gust of Wind, and the one of the apartment with a view. Yes, his work is laden with overt references and I’m sure he is a poster boy for art school photography departments because of his at times pedantic determination that we know whose shoulders he stands on. I’m glad to see the quote you used, ending with “I realized I wasn’t interested in filtering my affection for things through certain levels of mediation." I like that he thinks and grows, is restless, and is still becoming.

I think it’s awesome that he’s captured the world’s attention and I’ll be interested in seeing where he goes next. I think he’s in it for the long haul. In some ways his work reminds me of a good research scientist’s journal articles. Each article is the culmination of rigorously controlled experimental protocols and painstaking analyses, compulsively referenced, and proofread by 3 people several times before submission. These are not, however, where the true art and soul of science are usually manifest….those qualities are found in the chapters and books that come later in a career, and in the lectures and other communications. Yet the beauty of a groundbreaking construct, theory, or even revelatory description emerges from dull, dreary stuff, often produced like so much product in a factory.

I don’t mean that Wall’s work is dull, dreary, etc., but his pieces are his work with all the self-consciousness that implies. I’m betting he has some pieces already that are less weighed down by intellect and more affectionate. I’m betting there will be more in the future. I’m betting they will be wonderful.

Your final question is why “photography that interacts directly with the real world is consistently pushed to the outer darkness? Is that true? I don’t know enough here. Who are the 50 (or even 10) most “successful” living photographers? Are they all doing staged or otherwise unreal photography?

Ron Diorio said...

Posted this today on my blog - from the Guardian

Here is a tick-list of criteria for commercial success: a reasonably prolific oeuvre (beans or Blochs, dealers need a constant flow of stock); membership of an art movement; recognition in art history; artwork in public galleries; backing from powerful collectors such as Charles Saatchi. One might add: high quality art. But the market does not judge art; it merely rides the reputation merry-go-round. Good art is art that sells.

Thought it relevant to this conversations

Michael David Murphy said...

Well said, T. Watch that Winogrand typo up top!

Tim Connor said...

Christine, you wrote: "In some ways his work reminds me of a good research scientist’s journal articles. Each article is the culmination of rigorously controlled experimental protocols and painstaking analyses, compulsively referenced, and proofread by 3 people several times before submission."

I think that observation is fascinating. Since you ARE a research scientist, I know you know what you're talking about.

Re your question about the accuracy of my contention that "photography that interacts directly with the real world is consistently pushed to the outer darkness:" I can't defend it empirically. It's an impression.

Most of the shooters I know or know about,the ones who find, rather than create, their subject matter, are struggling. But Jeff Wall, according to the Times mag, owns 4 buildings in downtown Vancouver, employs 2 full-time assistants & others "as needed," hires dozens if not hundreds of actors, construction people,set designers & technicians, takes up to a year to make a single piece, etc etc. He's rich from his art.

As for the market for street shooters: Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand & that ilk are popular & their prints sell, but for thousands, not the $1 million a Wall goes for. Anyway, most of them are dead. Interest in this kind of work seems restricted to the past, generally before color, certainly before digital. For instance, ICP is currently showing Martin Munkacsi & Cartier-Bresson's scrapbooks. And that's great, but the small camera form is treated as distant, quaint, irrelevant. Munkacsi & C-Bresson are treated like Old Masters.

There still seems to be interest in photojournalism, but in that case content really IS the main point, as it should be. So you get exhibits & some critical consideration of the established practitioners like Mary Ellen Mark or Jim Natchwey, but mainly in the context of their message. And making a living as a photojournalist seems to get harder every day.

You ask a good question. I hope somebody with a better overview of the photography market than me will chime in.

Christine (CA) said...

I found what was nagging me.
Every Sunday Greg (ItsGreg) does a "Sunday Salon" discussion thread in the Utata group on Flickr. (I believe you need to join the group to see the discussions but that takes a single click.)

In January he spotlighted Richard Renaldi who is apparently successful and does work a bit like yours on some levels.
http://www.flickr.com/groups/utata/discuss/72157594465440967/?search=sunday+salon

Renaldi's website is huge.
http://www.renaldi.com/portfolio/index.html

Check out his Projects pages

Here's another from a Sunday Salon thread: Bruce Davidson.
http://www.flickr.com/groups/utata/discuss/72157594287877098/?search=sunday+salon

I'm betting these folks don't make the same kind of money Wall makes, but they do have some recognition for "real" photographs.

Tim Connor said...

Christine, I wasn't trying to make a global distinction about which kind of photographers are successful & respected (I should know -- hopefully this blog will teach me -- not to traffic in melodramatic hyperbole like "...pushed to the outer darkness"). It's not a simple either/or approach nor is it a question of format. Bruce Davidson started in the 1950s with the leica aesthetic but his biggest success was "East 100th Street," portraits from E. Harlem made with a tripod & view camera in the late 60s -- arguably the heyday of the 35mm street shooter. He has continued shooting to this day, but his reputation was made in the 60s & 70s.

What I was thinking is expressed by Tod Papageorge in a (great!)Bomb Magazine interview. He said: "Now ideas are paramount, and the computer and Photoshop are seen as the engines to stage and digitally coax those ideas into a physical form—typically a very large form."

I did not mean that's bad. As you know, I'm a huge fan of Gursky, Burtynski et al. But I don't think that kind of work is the only valid artistic use of the camera & it does seem to me disproportionately celebrated & rewarded right now. I don't wish to take attention away from anyone but I'd personally like to see less gorgeous set-up tableaux & more complicated & mysterious spontaneous captures from life.

Christine (CA) said...

Tim, the interview in Bomb Magazine is fascinating. I love his links to poetry and this line that follows your "Bang" quote is fantastic:

"All of the failed pictures you've ever made, all of the other photographs you've ever loved, even songs and lines from poems walk with you too, insinuating themselves into your decisions about what you'll make your photographs of, and how you'll shape them as pictures."

When things are right and good, this is exactly how it feels.

Ok, I'm hooked on your blog. As you know I have very little art background but I'm hungry. I've learned a whole bunch just from this article and comment stream already. Keep it coming. What's next?

Ted said...

I show pictures by Wall and others in that formal sequence (i.e. Crewdsen et al!) to my students because they are unfamiliar with the scene but I've seen maybe four originals from 4 or 5 years ago and then only for a few minutes. Usually I summarize much of what has been said here...large scale, backlit transparencies, the current thing, etc. I don't get into your argument with art history and its relationship to global capitalism. The late George Kubler (The Shape of Time) shaped by biases 40 years ago and damned if I haven't entirely shaken him off. The links you've provided to other crits is wonderful. Christine is right, your blog is a valuable resource.

sylvia said...

One of the articles you linked to said:

"In each case it seems to me that the hunted image as opposed to the contrived image presents the more complex narrative and is richer in meaning, more open and more mysterious."

I was not familiar with Wall's work and have been going through the images having read your blog post. And I think the above comment is spot on. That's not to say that I think Wall is "wrong" for composing his scenes for a photograph -- just that I see this as less interesting . I can't quite justify it and I suspect that if he painted the same scene (so now we have his view, his touch, his texture, his colours) I would like it more again.

On the other hand, I don't begrudge him success as a photographer because the scenes are not "real" -- it feels like some of the articles are leaning towards some sort of snobbery/blame. The one concern in my mind is the assumption of pre-composition and post-editing via photoshop. At some point, "real" photography, seat of your pants spot the image and grab it photography, could become devalued. I have a deep respect for images where I can see the person's ability: he was in the right place, he's got a good eye, he understands the technical aspects, he knows his camera, he got the shot.

I hate the idea of this skill getting lost.

Tim Connor said...

Added comments posted on my Flickr page.

From ojoblanco:

read your log entry and i have ambivalence about the issue. i only started the sunday mag article about wall but was too busy with things to get too far with it.

as to the part that catt55 says about wall's purposely positioning his images to be viewed as unique art objects (to up the ante on their value through creating the unique object, which in fact is a denial of one of the main material facts of photography--it's reproducibility), that strategy i have always found to be utter bullshit, not having anything to do with art as passion or expression, only with art as a business. catt55 might be right that maybe we're screwing ourselves by not taking similar or like-minded strategies, but nonetheless we're doing what we love and need to do. (and as she says, she ignores the art hype and i think that many of us share that strategy with her)

on the other hand--and like i said this is from just starting the ny times read, tho' also from your blog entry--there seems to be a divide that is being expressed between modernist and post modernist photography. and this is where i have to express ambivalence with your position, even as i find that my practise is more on the side of your position.

i do feel that the postmodern and/or conceptualist approaches to photography are quite valid and quite intellectually compelling. for those of us who make images that express a joy in the sensual world, or a repulsion of the social relations as found in contemporary society along the divide of the economic and political power paradigm, etc. (especially in regards the people ignored and disenfranchised by capitalism, neocolonialism, etc.), the postmodern or conceptualist approaches might feel cold and intellectual, stripped of the beauty and the guts of life. but in fact many of the photographers and artists that choose those approaches are doing work that is quite political (at least in a philosophical and intellectual way).

i think there's a place in photography for both the modernist and post modernist practises, an argument to be made in terms of the validity of either.

From colorstalker:

Lester, I wasn't arguing against post modernism but against the critical & art buying establishment's inability to do just what you're doing -- accept the validity of different approaches. They seem to believe that only one approach should be recognized at a time, that the other is interesting history at best.

From ojoblanco:

sorry for my misreading. (i just don't spend enough time reading in general. i browse and respond, not the best strategy, of course..)

the business/art institution branch of art has decided, i suppose, that post modernism has superceded modernism, just as the avant garde movements in the late 19th and early 20th century seemed to supercede renaissance perspective and realism in general. and the institution makes plenty of money from the modernist photographic work that they've rendered as "interesting history." it is a sad state of affairs for the rest of us on the outside, for sure. (unless the critics at some point decide that there's a new interesting "movement" that some of us are fortunate enough to find ourselves within...)

Will said...

Fascinating. I've been recently exploring Wall's work, but try as I might, I can't find the images compelling. I can appreciate them esoterically, but I have no urge to return to them over and over.

Given Wall's critical acclaim, it seem to be more my failing than his.

Whatever the case, it is what it is.