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How photographer Jeff Wall's pictures duplicate 'magic' of large-scale paintings


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now a five-decade survey of a photographer who has helped change the perception of his art form.

Jeffrey Brown goes to Glenstone Museum outside of Washington to look at the unusual process behind large-scale works.

It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

JEFFREY BROWN: Scenes of interior, hidden life, scenes of almost cinematic drama, but pull back from the frame and the first thing you notice about Canadian artist Jeff Wall's photographs is their sheer size.

JEFF WALL, PHOTOGRAPHER: Because I was so interested in other art forms like painting and, to some extent, film, it seemed to me that photographs were too small, that something in them, in the medium wasn't being released by the conventional formats. And it was exciting.

JEFFREY BROWN: An exhibition now at Glenstone, a contemporary art museum outside Washington, D.C., shows what Wall has done since the 1970s to change the conventions of photography, what photographs aiming to capture, how they do that and, yes, their scale.

Glenstone's director, Emily Wei Rales:

EMILY WEI RALES, DIRECTOR AND CHIEF CURATOR, GLENSTONE MUSEUM: I think of them as works that straddle different categories. These things are on a scale that you would associate more with cinema in some cases or advertising displays.

They're big. They're brilliant. In some cases, they have light shining from behind them. So the colors are supersaturated, and they glow.

JEFFREY BROWN: Glenstone is a private museum, fully opened since 2018. It's a 300-acre campus of rolling pastures and woodlands, with interconnected gallery buildings, art and nature, sometimes art in nature, as with sculptures by Jeff Koons and Richard Serra.

Its spacious galleries showcase individual artists such as Robert Gober and other leading figures in contemporary art.

EMILY WEI RALES: We like to focus on artists who we consider disrupters, artists that really changed the way people thought about art, were innovative either in their ideas or their approach or process or technique. Jeff Wall certainly falls into this category.

JEFFREY BROWN: We were there as the exhibition was being installed, a chance to see the enormous and heavy works being lifted and mounted into place.

Wall's photographs often have their own built-in light source, a so-called light box, that creates a vivid, lit effect, and also turns them into three-dimensional objects, almost sculptural. He's not an artist who walks through the world with a camera at the ready. Instead, he says, he spends a lot of time not photographing.

JEFF WALL: I do see things in the world, like any other photographer does. But I don't need to capture it with a machine. I can capture it with my own memory and then engage later in what I think of as a process of reconstruction or construction or composition that leads to the kind of picture I want to make.

JEFFREY BROWN: Note the word picture. Wall prefers that term, seeing his work in the tradition of large-scale paintings. A different technology, but the same focus on pictorial composition.

Sometimes, as in The Destroyed Room from 1979, he directly riffs on an old master painting, here, Delacroix's The Death of Sardanapalus. A famous woodblock print by 19th century Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai became the inspiration for Wall's 1993 work A Sudden Gust of Wind.

JEFF WALL: I thought how modern it was and how instantaneous it was. There's something photographic about what he's captured. And so it just struck me quite immediately that this was one of those moment where I could do something with that.

JEFFREY BROWN: But there's nothing immediate about Wall's process. He found a location, brought in actors -- he mostly works with nonprofessionals -- used a wind machine, and went day after day to shoot, as always, with film. He then used early digital imaging technology to place all those flying papers, even a hat.

The process took months.

JEFF WALL: I did make one innovation, which is I made this guy sort of enjoying -- his hat has just been blown...

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, he's got a happy look at the wonder of all this.

JEFF WALL: Well, he lost his hat.


JEFF WALL: Whereas, in the original, they're not happy about losing their hats.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, Wall's works are always intricately constructed and composed. He uses the term near documentary for photographs of people at work or a home eviction in progress, and also when they look deceptively simple as, in more recent works like the diptych Summer Afternoons and three-paneled Staircase and Two Rooms.

Who are these people? Is there a story here? Wall has his own take.

JEFF WALL: I don't write the story. I erase the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: What does that mean?

JEFF WALL: It means the process of picture-making is the exact opposite of narrating. What you're doing is, you're stilling the narrative. You're ending it. You're congealing it.

JEFFREY BROWN: You're stopping it.

JEFF WALL: You're stopping it, which means essentially you're un-writing it. It's the viewer that will come back in real time and rewrite the narrative.

JEFFREY BROWN: Again, the scale adds to the effect, with almost life-sized figures.

JEFF WALL: The figures or the objects are the same size they would be if you're looking through a pane of glass into a real space that extends your own. Life scale is a kind of magic.

JEFFREY BROWN: It's part of the drama of it, isn't it, that I'm looking at somebody who's almost my size?

JEFF WALL: I think so. And I think it has itself a kind of impact that is unique. You can almost feel like you're hovering in someone's life in a way that you can't really do actually.

JEFFREY BROWN: Composition, light, and beauty, even when the scale and subject are smaller, as in one of the most recent works here titled Mother of Pearl.

Jeff Wall's exhibition is on view into March 2022.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Glenstone Museum of Contemporary Art in Potomac, Maryland.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Provocative. A lot to think about there.

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