In the gallery, Jeff Wall's lightboxes have a commanding physical presence. One of Wall's larger lightboxes can cover most of a good-sized wall. They can be overwhelming, gigantic, in relation to the spectator's body, Wall's backlit panels inflate the humble photograph to a grand scale.
Wall's After Invisible Man (1999-2000) stands over 8 feet tall and is almost six feet wide. Structured like a Baroque painting, the photograph advances in spirals, bringing us to the image's emotional center, forgoing clarity of line in favor of volume and mass. We cannot read it as one gestalt whole, as we might read Cartier-Bresson's "decisive moment." We have only the figure, lost in his mysterious task, and his equally illegible environment. Wall gives us a photograph that reads with the intensity and complexity of an Old Master painting.
We react to Wall's photograph as we might react to a painting. This is no accident. Throughout his career, Wall has referenced painting -- especially European Old Masters -- as both a source and a foil for his practice. Wall's approach to photography can best be described as "painting with photographs." The SFMOMA's current retrospective provides visitors with a bird's-eye view of Wall's career, allowing us to track Wall's development of this painterly photography. We watch as Wall refines his understanding of the photograph, first pushing at the boundary between painting and photography, then pulling back.
The lightboxes' sense of monumentality and their "unnatural" gigantism were both calibrated moves, part of Wall's desire to forge a new direction in photography. Wall developed his signature style during conceptual art's heyday. He began in a completely different place, creating small, intimate pieces similar to Dan Graham's "Homes for America" or Robert Smithson's "Monuments of the Passaic." He then dabbled in film, working on several experimental pieces that were never completed. Wall supposedly "stumbled" upon his signature lightbox style while riding a bus in Barcelona. The year was 1977, and Wall felt blocked. He had just quit making films, because he didn't think he was a "good collaborator." In Europe, Wall toured the major museums, paying special interest to Old Master paintings -- Velazquez, Manet, Degas, Goya -- seeking to push his photography in the same direction, to be "painterly" and not graphic.
"In the 1970s," Wall has said, "I felt I had to stay away from what I then saw as a beautiful canon of photography... epitomized to me by two books: Walker Evans's American Photographs and Robert Frank's The Americans." Wall's desire for a painterly aesthetic derived from his desire to snatch photography away from the snapshot, away from straight photography's modernist mainstream, in order to forge a more relevant form.
Wall rejected straight photography's injunction that the photograph should be a straight, unadulterated document of reality. He preferred to treat each image as a director might treat a film still. Images could be staged. The film could be manipulated. And indeed, Wall took full advantage of his tools. Without digital manipulation, photographs like "A Sudden Gust of Wind (After Hokusai)" (1995) would not have been possible. These staged scenes always carry a certain tension between realism and idealism, as if Wall were uncomfortable with the idea of carrying painting's potential for idealization and subjectivity over into photography's realm.
Yet real as Jeff Wall's details might appear, they, too, are dramatized. Part of Wall's mise-en-scene, they form the foundation of the photograph's psychological drama. And here we return to the Old Masters' carefully groomed canvases. Wall's photographs move away from treating the photographic image as a series of fragments, pulled from the world, to treating the photographic image as an integrated whole, a collection of carefully orchestrated, psychologically motivated parts. Under Wall's hand, the photograph takes on some of painting's emotional charge, concerned less with documenting reality than with psychology, narrative, and emotion.
Jeff Wall is at SFMOMA through January 27,2008.