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The State for Staged Photography

Jeff Wall Retrospective and Symposium at the Tate Modern

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Jeff Wall Retrospective and Symposium at the Tate Modern


by Tim Ridlen

The vogue of photography in the art world may have come and gone, but the influence of Jeff Wall over the past twenty five years is only recently being weighed. Tuned into this is art history, theory, and criticism professor Michael Newman, who taught a fall 2004 course on Wall and organized the symposium for the Jeff Wall: Photographs 1978-2004 retrospective at Tate Modern in London that occurred this past December. The line-up of speakers at the symposium was impressive: in addition to Newman was, most notably, Laura Mulvey (Birkbeck College) and Michael Fried (Johns Hopkins University) as well as David Campany (University of Westminster), Steve Edwards (Open University), Regis Michel (Chief Curator at the Louvre), Briony Fer (University College London), and Sheen Wagstaff (Chief Curator at Tate Modern). The structure of the discussion was not overly complicated; each of the speakers was given half an hour to talk about one of Wall’s photographs, with group discussion in the middle and end of the day-long symposium.

Wall’s retrospective opens with The Destroyed Room (1978) and Picture for Women (1979), his earliest and perhaps best-known works, and ends with his most recent digital composite photographs. With the exception of his large black-and-white work from 1996, all of the photos are backlit transparencies–Wall’s trademark. The artist’s constructed scenes and their uncanny nature are evident in photos from the first half of the eighties, such as Mimic (1982). Mimic marks Wall’s engagement and practice of staging seemingly normal events to photograph. In Mimic, one man seems to be confronting another with a gesture that is intended to mimic his ethnicity (Asian). By carefully composing a scene that appears to be real, one that is based on an event that Wall claims to have seen, Wall asserts control over reality that was before counter-intuitive within the medium of photography.

These were just some of the issues that the symposium speakers had the challenge of engaging. The first half of the discussion was spent unpacking “the deathliness of all staged photography,” as Campany put it, and the “technologically uncanny” character of such precision in large-scale photography, in Mulvey’s words. There was no shortage of admiration for Wall, but Campany was sure to point out, “I made the distinction in the beginning between the admirable and the likeable.”

This may have been the closest thing to a critique of Wall, until Michel raised three key points. First, Wall’s use of the medium is a fetishization of the art object, despite his attempted critical appropriation of the commercial light boxes. Second, Wall aestheticizes and neutralizes politics. Here, Michel makes the distinction between seeing and showing; Wall seems to show an injustice while pretending not to see it. Third, Michel drives home the Baudrillardian argument that the excess of illusion and staging is literally obscene and sucks the life out of the human body itself. This is the argument that Wall’s puppet mastery with a camera isn’t socially liberating, but rather enslaving. While it is easy to suspend one’s critique on these matters, it was a relief to hear someone so convincingly bring them to light.

Fried was an interesting and obvious choice as a speaker for this symposium. Wall has expressed interest in Fried’s writing on absorption and theatricality, but more importantly Fried is soon to come out with a new book on photography since the Bernd and Hilla Becher. For those familiar with Fried’s writing this might sound surprising for the champion of high modernism, most well known for his infamous critique of minimalism in Art and Objecthood (1967) and his subsequent retreat into the previous century. Fried has notoriously stuck to his critique of minimalism.

Fried takes head on the topic of his own resurfacing, and the turn that art took in the late sixties:

That I personally was appalled by this didn’t make the least difference to the outcome. It’s hardly surprising then that I’m deeply interested in the new photography, which I see as having reopened a question, a problematic, that appeared to have been closed, for all I knew, permanently.

The crux of Fried’s praise for Wall is that dialectic between, “not theatricality, but to-be-seenness,” and the apparent absorption, as Fried would have it, or in Wall’s words, “restless passivity” of the subjects photographed.

What might be concluded from the discussion, polarized by Michel and Fried, is that contemporary photographers have to deal with Jeff Wall as an overarching force in recent photography, especially as digital technology becomes commonplace. The foregrounding of the seams, so to speak, in a staged or composed photograph collides with the indexical “truth” of photography and a history of “belief” in the image.

The symposium can be found in full on the Tate Modern website at jeff_wall_symposia/.


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