22 May 2007

"... one would hardly consider him a photographer" (Jeff Wall)

"Milk" (1984) © Jeff Wall

A few months back I posted on the Jeff Wall craze. At the time I pointed out why I thought that, in Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag seemed so drawn to Wall's work, namely that in terms of size, lighting, being staged, and so forth, it is so thoroughly influenced by painting. In the new issue of The Nation philosopher/critic Arthur Danto has an essay on the Wall exhibition at MoMA in NYC. The essay, entitled "Cinema Studies" begins like this:

"While there is little question that photography is the central medium in Jeff Wall's arresting works, one would hardly consider him a photographer. For one thing, he makes use of certain strategies that derive from cinema, so that he describes his typical works explicitly as cinematographic, rather than documentary, photographs. For another, though the characters, as we may call the men and women he photographs, clearly belong to the same world his viewers do, their formal relationships to one another seem based on conventions of painting, especially nineteenth-century French painting."

It seems to me that I was right, in part, about Sontag. Wall is really a 'painter,' but she would also find his "cinematographic" leanings attractive too. As Danto says, "one would hardly consider him a photographer." And that, at bottom, is why he is among the very few "photographers" about whom Sontag has much good to say.

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Blogger Mary E.Carey said...

HI Jim -- Mary Carey from Pittsfield here. I was very sorry to hear from Cindy that your son had died. My thoughts are with you. This is an impressive blog; I'm looking forward to spending some time reading it. My son Nicky is a huge Wilco fan; will show him what you've got here. Best of luck to you and your family.

22 May, 2007 07:19  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

But, of course, he is a photographer. Although I understand perfectly what Danto means, Wall's works are photographs, not paintings or films. Although we may rightly call them "cinematic" or "painterly," that fact is ineluctable.

(Not as ineluctable as real life, of course, so let me say how sorry I was too to read of your loss.)

22 May, 2007 13:35  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


Thanks for your kindness.

I agee with you about JW; my own interest rests, in part, with matters of convention/genre blurring enterprises. So while there is something about Wall's particular works that I don't quite like (I need to think about what it is that bothers me), I very much like the fact that he proceeds by ignoring standard categories (e.g., documentary vs. art) altogether.

22 May, 2007 14:20  
Blogger tim atherton said...

There's been a discussion going on about this review in a number of places.

My response, echoed else where, is that it's as much about the inability of the critic to see photography as much more than just "straight" photographs - some extension or other of the "documentary style" and that as soon as it moves beyond that, it's if they can't accept that it's photography any more, but that it's "more like painting or more like cinema" - well, no, it's not either, it's photography (which is different from saying cinematic or painterly). It's simp0ly the critic is echoing a view of photography that's far too limited and narrow.

It's as if photography moves a step or too in certain directions it oversteps the bounds and - golly, gee whiz, it's not that boring old staid photography any more, let's call it something else, more deserving. (and - phew - that makes it much easier for us to call it art as well)

Well, dammit - no - it's photograph! Photography just happens to be bigger than they seem to be able to imagine.

(and most of these thing they talk about with relation to Wall's work do indeed have a long history well within the tradition of photography itself)

I see the same thing in many of the recent reviews of the Gursky show as well. An inability to simply say - wow - apparently photography's much bigger (no pun intended...) than we realised.

22 May, 2007 16:27  
Blogger Stan B. said...

I don't like Crewdson, Wall or blue cheese- simply a matter of taste. And trying to explain why is perplexing at best. Perhaps because the above incorporate the staged conventions (and pretensions) of advertising photography. Perhaps because deep in my inner most being, I can detect that these "artists" have hijacked my sacred, chosen medium as just another tool in their vast artistic repertoire to be used as a quick and easy means to a commercially successful end. Perhaps not.

I'm not a big Chuck Close fan, but those recent daguerrotypes kick butt! I think Andres Serrano's super saturated color portraits are flatter than proverbial pancakes. I also think his Piss Christ is a unique creation of beauty and wonder.

Most photographers, like most artists, copy, use and exploit eachother's language. When you go outside that realm, you're either extolled or vilified. Small wonder...

22 May, 2007 20:03  
Blogger moi said...

Happy Birthday Jim!
I hope the day goes as well as possible.

23 May, 2007 09:38  

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