Since the late 1970s, Jeff Wall has made a significant contribution to establishing photography as an art form in its own right. He is regarded as the founder of "staged" photography: his motifs initially appear to be snapshots, but his mostly large-format photographs, composed in a complex and subtle way from a large number of individual shots, are predominantly completely constructed visual worlds. By combining photography with elements of painting, cinema and literature - an approach he himself describes as "cinematographic" - he restages fictitious realities, memories of what he has experienced and seen in an elaborate process.

In conversation with curator Martin Schwander, Jeff Wall talks about beauty, morality and his personal artistic style.

Martin Schwander: Is the aesthetic category of beauty relevant to your work?

Jeff Wall: Yes, I’ve said from the very beginning that I always wanted to make beautiful pictures in the most conventional sense of the term. “Beauty,” however, means something rather complicated. When we use the term, we don’t mean pretty things, or well-designed or pleasing things. We mean a kind of coherence in an artwork that is super satisfying to the eye and to the mind, exciting to see, to experience, and full of energies and meanings we don’t necessarily understand. The experience of art is always the experience of the goodness of the work, its quality, the quality of its artistry, its composition, and its conception. “Beauty” is the outcome of the level of artistry.


MS: Does art have a moral purpose?

JW: The most immoral thing an artist can do is knowingly make something artistically inferior because that usually means compromising with values outside the artistic process. So, inherently making the best work you can is already a morality and an ethic. And it has to do with acting as freely, and as judiciously, and as skillfully, and as responsibly and as imaginatively, and as energetically as you can—nothing less than that. So—as I said just now—in terms of how to behave in the world, it can serve as a model for other activities. This is, again, a very old idea: that artistic, creative work allows people to realize their aims in an emancipated way that could be useful in understanding how to do other things. And therefore, it has an inherent value on that level. So that ethic is important and can be detached from art and applied to other purposes. Looking back at your nearly two hundred images, one finds that unlike many artists of your and subsequent generations who work in the medium of photography, you have not developed an easily recognizable style—a kind of signature style.


MS: What, in your view, constitutes the unity of your work?

JW: Since the lens has only one basic “style,” anything more distinctive has to come from something else. That basically means “everything else”! “Style” as such is one of those almost ineffable terms. It’s more palpable in the other arts; we get the idea of Vincent van Gogh’s or Constantin Brâncuși’s style. That has to do with autographic touch. In photography that effect seems to come from the acceptance of various routines—specific ways of doing basic things. Hilla and Bernd Becher are an obvious example. They wanted their pictures to resemble each other and developed a way to make that happen. I want my pictures not to resemble each other much, on every level. I probably have a compositional style of some sort. I probably have a recognizable look, but it’s hard to put your finger on what it really is. There’s the objective element we discussed earlier that I really want to keep in my pictures. So, for example, if there’s an anomalous element in the area I’m photographing, I’ll leave that in and not try to avoid it or eliminate it somehow; I will try to integrate some sort of disturbance into the composition. Maybe one of the aspects of what could be my style is an almost heavy sense of harmony that includes, in principle, everyday clutter. I like to include things that don’t easily or necessarily harmonize. I like to find the right place for my camera, so that it makes a very well-composed mview; but that right place usually has to show a number of distracting, random elements that the composition,in itself, might be better without. Once they’re included, though, it always turns out that the composition, and the picture, is much better with them. As I said, I really don’t want my pictures to resemble each other. But when I see them together in exhibitions, they seem to. And I can’t say how or why.    


You can find the unabridged interview in our publication Jeff Wall.

Among the more than fifty works collected in the catalogue for the large-scale solo exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler are Wall's iconic large-format slides in light boxes as well as black and white photographs and colour prints. These more recent images, which represent the entire spectrum of his oeuvre, enter into a dialogue with works from the time of Wall's artistic beginnings and reveal a wide range of references in terms of content and form.

Jeff Wall | Hatje Cantz

You can find an overview of current events with Jeff Wall in this article on our website.
Veröffentlicht am: 09.02.2024