Jeff Wall, O.C. (born Vancouver September 29 1946) is a Canadian photographer best known for his large-scale back-lit cibachrome photographs and art-historical writing.
Jeff Wall received his MA from the University of British Columbia
in 1970, with a thesis titled, "Berlin Dada
and the Notion of Context," and did postgraduate work at the Courtauld Institute
from 1970-73, where he studied with Manet
expert T.J. Clark
. Wall was assistant professor at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design
(1974-75), associate professor at Simon Fraser University
(1976-87) and taught for many years at the University of British Columbia. He has published essays on Dan Graham
, Rodney Graham
, Roy Arden, Ken Lum, Stephen Balkenhol, On Kawara
, and other contemporary artists. Many of these texts are collected in the New York Museum of Modern Art
's recent, Jeff Wall: Selected Essays and Interviews
Life and Work
Wall experimented with conceptual art while an undergraduate student at UBC, producing such works as monochrome paintings made of layers of transparent varnish directly applied to a gallery wall, and the photo/text composite Landscape Manual
(UBC Fine Arts Gallery, 1970), which was informed by his close study of the "magazine pieces" of artists like Dan Graham and Robert Smithson. Wall then made no art until 1977, when he produced his first backlit phototransparencies. Many of these pictures are staged and refer to the history of art and philosophical problems of representation. The photographs' compositions often allude to historical artists like Velázquez, Hokusai, and Édouard Manet, or to writers such as Franz Kafka, Yukio Mishima, and Ralph Ellison.
Wall's work advances an argument for the necessity of pictorial
art. Some of Wall's photographs are complicated productions involving cast, sets, crews and digital postproduction. They have been characterized as one-frame cinematic productions. Wall distinguishes between unstaged "documentary" pictures, like Still Creek, Vancouver, winter 2003
, and "cinematographic" pictures, produced using a combination of actors, sets, and special effects, such as Overpass
, 2001. His signature works are large transparencies mounted on light boxes; he says he conceived this format when he saw back-lit advertisements at bus stops during a trip between Spain and London. Since the mid-1990s, Wall has also made large scale black and white photographs, some of which were exhibited at Kassel's Documenta
X, as well as smaller colour prints.
Jeff Wall talks about his piece Milk.
“In Milk, as in some of my other pictures, an important part is played by complicated natural forms. The explosion of the milk from the container takes a shape which is not really describable or characterizable, but which provokes many associations. A natural form, with its unpredictable contours, is an expression of infinitesimal metamorphoses of quality. Photography seems perfectly adapted for representing this kind of movement or form. I think this is because the mechanical character of the action of opening and closing the shutter-the substratum of instantaneity which persists in all photography-is the concrete opposite kind of movement from, for example, the flow of a liquid.”
Mimic (1982) typifies Wall's cinematographic style. A 198 x 226 cm. colour transparency, it shows a white couple and an Asian man walking towards the camera. The sidewalk, flanked by parked cars and residential and light-industrial buildings, suggests a North American industrial suburb. The woman is wearing red shorts and a white top displaying her midriff; her bearded, unkempt boyfriend wears a denim vest. The Asian man is casual but well-dressed in comparison, in a collared shirt and slacks. As the couple overtake the man, the boyfriend makes an ambiguous but apparently obscene and racist gesture, holding his upraised middle finger close to the corner of his eye, "slanting" his eye in mockery of the Asian man's eyes. The picture resembles a candid shot that captures the moment and its implicit social tensions, but is actually a recreation of an exchange witnessed by the artist.
Born, living, and working in Vancouver, British Columbia, Wall has been a key figure in the city's arts scene for years. Early in his career, he helped define the so-called Vancouver School and he has published essays on the work of his close colleagues and fellow Vancouverites Rodney Graham, Ken Lum and Ian Wallace. His tableaux very often take Vancouver's mixture of natural beauty, urban decay and postmodern and industrial featurelessness as their generic backdrop.
In 1996 Jeff Wall was to replace Bernd Becher as head professor of the photography department at the Düsseldorf Academy, but was confronted by a former Becher student who pointed a loaded gun at him. He immediately resigned.
, he was awarded the Hasselblad Award
. In 2006, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada
Jeff Wall was named an Officer of the Order of Canada
in December 2007.
In April 2008, Wall was awarded the Audain Prize for Lifetime Achievement, British Columbia's annual award for the visual arts.
The cover image of Sonic Youth's compilation album The Destroyed Room: B-sides and Rarities is Jeff Wall's 1978 photograph The Destroyed Room.
The cover image of Iggy Pop's 1999 album Avenue B is a portrait photograph of Pop by Wall.