I begin by not photographing.
Since 1978 the Canadian artist Jeff Wall (born 1946) has produced around 120 photographic works. The works in colour are large-format transparencies mounted in aluminium boxes and lit from behind. The black-and-white pictures are traditional photographs on paper.
The effect of the light from the lightboxes combines with the unusually large format to pro-duce an almost magic presence. Only gradually does it become clear that, in contrast to
the surfaces which glow with such promise, the scenes depicted – mostly from everyday urban life – are unspectacular.
Jeff Wall’s work is part of the tradition, shared between photography and painting, that concentrates on the depiction of contemporary life. The ‘everyday’ is the starting point for Jeff Wall’s images. His stage is often Vancouver, a city that, in contrast to the old Western metrop-olises like Paris and New York, is typical of the ‘new present’ of a late industrial and multi-cultural society. Against this backdrop, it becomes possible to understand not only Jeff Wall’s interest in the history of photography and its conventions of representation, but also his engagement with the cinema of the 1960s and 1970s and with modern painting. He has developed his work in relation to painters like Manet, who, even before the rise of photography, exemplifies the ‘peintre de la vie moderne’, a term coined by Charles Baudelaire in the 1860s.
Jeff Wall’s photographs are not snapshots. Wall has used the term ‘cinematography’ to characterize his approach. In his search for a credible way to depict everyday life Jeff Wall is attempting to develop a pictorial form through an interplay between documentary photography and cinematic staging and illusion.
Jeff Wall’s photographs do not moralize. They do not present a fixed meaning, but rather emphasize the instability and contingency of the meaning of pictures. For all their visual perfection and physical presence, they are in essence fragments that leave things open and unexplained. Jeff Wall’s photographs are fascinating because each of them seems to contain a particular and unique history that remains enigmatic while appearing familiar.
This exhibition of Jeff Wall’s oeuvre includes around seventy photographic works dating from 1978 to the present and is the largest ever organised. Several of these works are already icons of contemporary photography. Others are rarely exhibited and little known. And several are exhibited for the first time ever.