Review – Jeff Wall

Brief:- In preparation for Assignment Three, we need to say a few words about staged photography. In advertising and cinema you find a highly artificial, constructed form of photography. Often multiple elements are layered in a final composite. Great care is taken with the arrangement of elements to guide the interpretation of the photograph. The term mise-en-scène, simply means ‘putting in the scene’ and refers to the placement of objects in space. Imagine a totally blank, empty studio. You want to create a scene in the studio depicting a small ancient dwelling inhabited by a hermit in the Sinai desert. You’ll need a lot of light to represent the sun. You’ll need a sky backdrop and plenty of sand and sandstone to create the dwellings. You’ll also need to research and find ancient artefacts that would have been used by an ascetic person. You’ll also need a hermit (actor). This is the way a movie is made, but it’s common to advertising and art photography too and is called ‘staged’ or ‘constructed’ photography. Key practitioners are Jeff Wall and Cindy Sherman. Jeff Wall goes to great lengths to create what sometimes appear to be ‘documentary’ street scenes that reflect a telling human situation. Cindy Sherman consciously played with the identity representations of women in movies by photographing herself in different female roles. Her later work makes use of prosthetic make-up, costume, props and sets to emphasise the ways women were represented in historic paintings. Take a look around the place you live. In what ways does the place and the objects in it say something about you? You may not have built it, but you probably chose most of its contents, painted walls, carpeted floors, etc. You placed every item in that space. This is personal miseen-scène. In staged photography you’re telling a story, a fiction that may have a connection to something real or true, however staged it is. All movies, plays and fictions, however far they depart from everyday reality, have a kernel of truth in them.

Jeff Wall (b 1946)

Wall,-J;-1984;-Milk;-ATFig. 1. Milk (1984)

Description of visual elements

Window with stairwell inside, bricks which make a wall, green bush. pavement sloping to the left, light from upper left of the screen, shadow cast where brickwork juts out from the main wall, the photo frame is slightly smaller than the man if he were to be standing, man sitting on floor, no socks, shoe has no laces, looks dejected, sitting slightly hunched with one knee bent under, body leaning into second knee which is upright, forearm rest on knee milk is moving out from a carton to the mans left, spilt milk flying through the air, leather jacket, hair looks greasy but tidy, shadow cast over most of his face so that his expression is not easily seen, clothes look in good condition as do the shoes, one sleeve is rolled up and hand on that arm is in a fist.

My interpretation:- There are two visual discrepancies that highlight that this is a staged photo – the tidiness of the crop and the condition of the clothes and the shoes. These are just too crisp.

The staging suggests that the man is homeless and is sitting in a good, relatively affluent area. The partial view of the building on the left of the image, with the bush outside hints at the area being an office based area rather than commercial or retail. The building becomes a prop, as does the very clean wall behind the man on the floor. The lighting has been used to hide his face so that his expression is hard to read, and the mans greasy hair is also a prop, it’s used to create a narrative. It’s meant to do so in conjunction with the mans clothing (which doesn’t work for me), and the uncovered arm, with the hand clenched into the fist is building upon the narrative to show that he is angry. The flying milk may suggest that the guy is angry at having his photo taken and has shaken his arm in protest. Maybe he will get up and attack the photographer, or it could be that the fist and the sudden jerk of the hand, which has led to the milk being spilled, are a warning of aggression which is relaying “stay the fuck away from me”.

 

Wall, J; 2015; Listener; ATFig. 2. Listener (2015)

Description of visual elements

Six men surround a man who is kneeling on the floor, one is in full frame and is leaning over the man, dominating him with his height, very close crop with little background, other than the top left of the corner, where there is a quarter circle shaped blue wall. There are six men around the edge of the frame, only partially visible. Despite being on the edge of the frame they are in very close proximity with the guy on the floor. They are wearing  jeans, t-shirt, trackies and one is wearing chinos, the guy on the floor is wearing brown trousers and no top. The ground is barren, dry, dusty, and the guy on the floor has bits of straw on his trousers. He is wearing sandals and the others are wearing plimsoles, trainers and workman’s boots. The man on the lower left of the photo is looking towards the camera, his arms are folded over his chest. The other guys have their arms and hands in quite open and relaxed manner. The sun is almost directly overhead and the shadows are short.

My interpretation:- There is an air of menace and aggression in this scene. The guy on the floor is being towered over, dominated by the man next to him, oppressed by the overhead heat, and surrounded by the other men in a very close space. The straw on his trousers says that he has been on the floor in other positions and he may have tried to crawl away from his assailants at some point. He is being shouted at or spoken to very aggressively, although the man to his right doesn’t have closed fists. The open relaxed posture of the other men is a relay which says that they are relaxed and comfortable with violence. This relay keeps the oppressive aggression within the frame. The context of a dry barren wasteland is the stage that says the guy has been taken to this place so that the confrontation cannot be stopped by others, there is a purpose and intent to the confrontation. Is the guy going to be assaulted? is he going to be left there? Is he going to be killed? I don’t think he is going to be killed. The close proximity of the camera, which is being allowed to photograph, tells me that this assault is a warning to others not to cross this gang. That they know the guy on the floor will not be reporting the assualt. The man on the floor looks uncomfortable but I also think that he looks very relaxed, he doesn’t look afraid, and this is a visual discrepancy to me. The clothing of the men looks clean and relatively new. They are involved in some form of organised crime which gives them a good income, but they remain dressed in the manner of their peers, in their neighbourhood. They operate in the area that they live and probably grew up. Small time organised crime.

 

I find myself left with the impression that it is very difficult to show emotion in staged photography, and even with people as skilled as Wall there are visual discrepencies which can be noticed.

Illustrations

Figure 1 Wall, J; 1984; Milk [Silver dye bleach transparency; aluminum light box]; AT: http://uk.phaidon.com/agenda/photography/picture-galleries/2010/march/30/the-world-of-jeff-wall/ (accessed on 03/06/2018)

Figure 2 Wall, J; 2015; Listener [inkjet print]; AT https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/nov/03/jeff-wall-photography-marian-goodman-gallery-show (accessed on 03/06/2018)

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