Jeff Wall: North & West

Jeff Wall: North & West

Aaron Peck

Reviewed by Maria Tippett

There are many reasons why Jeff Wall’s photographs speak to so many people. They celebrate the ordinary. They are non-descriptive. And they draw on a compositional vocabulary -- from the woodcuts of the Japanese master Katsushika Hokusai to the paintings of the French Impressionist Édouard Manet -- that is instantly recognizable. Though Wall’s photographs have been largely taken in British Columbian where he was born, studied, taught, and continues to reside, there is little of the province’s grandeur to be seen. In fact, most of these photographs could have been taken anywhere on the North American continent.

And yet as Aaron Peck assures us in the short essay accompanying the photographic reproductions in Jeff Wall: North & West, these are not random snapshots. Each photograph is carefully staged. Working like a film director, Wall controls the lighting, the poses, the gestures of his “actors” and tends to every other detail. “Constructing or staging photographs” might have been another title for Wall’s book. Or, “How to make an impact by blowing up a photograph to three by two metres then displaying it in a light box so that it looks like an advertising billboard” might have been another.

Jeff Wall was not the first photographer to create large-scale photographs in tableau form: that honour goes to the French photograph Jean-Marc Bustamante. Nor is Wall the only photographer to have focused on destroyed rooms. Nan Goldin’s series of erotically-charged images of destroyed bedrooms which made the American photographer’s bedroom into theatre pre-dates Wall’s works on this theme.

But in this new book Aaron Peck does not put Wall’s photographs into such an historical context. His mission was to celebrate photographs that were scheduled for display in the Audain Art Museum at Whistler in the autumn of 2015. However the exhibition did not take place because the new museum was not completed on time. But if it had materialized, the twenty-one images on display by Wall would not have been comprehensive. For example, there would not have been one photograph from Wall’s iconographic “destroyed room” series. For that one must turn to more comprehensive exhibitions like, Jeff Wall: 1978-2004 held at London’s Tate Modern in 2005-2006.

So if the reader is not given a comprehensive overview of some of the signature images that have made the sixty-nine year old artist the most sought after photographer in Canada -- and maybe in North America -- what does one get in Jeff Wall: North & West? One sentence from Peck’s rather tortured prose will suffice to explain what he feels Wall’s work is about. “There is a Proustian element to Wall’s project, an attempt to find the visible traces of the past and the present -- not so much to reconstruct it, as Proust attempted, or to offer a definitive representation of a place, but to depict the present, and as a result to portray how, even in the present, the passage of time influences the way we see, because every image produces memories” (7).

Certainly some of the works illustrated here, Monologue (2013), Volunteer (1996) and In Front of a Nightclub (2006), do evoke, as Peck suggests, the past and Vancouver’s past in particular. But rather than “reading” Wall’s photographs as exercises in nostalgia there is surely an alternative way of looking at them. We can appreciate these highly-charged backlit images, not only within the historical context of photography, but as beautifully crafted stills from a film set. If we do this, certainly Wall can be admired for having made photography into an art form that is worthy of being shown in any art gallery in Canada and for having created images worthy of reproduction in publications like Jeff Wall: North & West.

Jeff Wall: North & West
Aaron Peck
Vancouver: Figure 1 Publishing, 2015. 64 pp. $25.00 cloth

BC Studies no. 192 Winter 2016/17