Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Jeff Wall

Photographs by Jeff Wall, from Tate Modern
Jeff Wall, Photographs 1978-2004 at the Tate Modern
Wall is one of my favourite photographers. He was the first photographer I encountered that broke traditional lines of composition, and the first that included non-glamorous, or rather, did not focus on traditionally beautiful characters. He was also the first photographer I encountered who used light boxes and offered such massive prints—or cibachromes.
There was something shocking about seeing Wall’s realism at the Vancouver Art Gallery in the early 90s. This kind of social commentary, The Storyteller, for instance, has since come to seem commonplace, but at the time, it was positively explosive. Perhaps because while I was at UBC working toward my BFA in creative writing, I was also working with a population of "youths at risk" and saw the underbelly of Vancouver like many seemed not to want to. Wall's photographs were a kind of testimony: yes, there were people sleeping under the bridges in Vancouver; yes, there were addicts shooting up behind the tulip beds on West Hastings and Burrard, and Robson; yes, there were twelve year olds out prostituting; yes, the drug problem in Vancouver was out of control; yes, there was plenty of racism in the city. All of these aspects of the city have no doubt multiplied, though I'm not sure how much awareness has...
Wall’s influence on Canadian photography, particularly the strong school of realism in Vancouver, can’t be underestimated. I’m looking forward to the show that includes not only Wall, but the sons and daughters of Wall. We'll see a more dynamic and innovative Canada that's for sure. Though his influence is by no means constrained by our borders.
Wall's newer work
is powerful, though in an entirely different way. In the photograph above, the view of the Vancouver harbour from an apartment (most likely on Wall Street in the city's east end) characterizes the ever-clashing worlds in the shimmering city. However, without the glaring social context, it lacks the power of the earlier work, or even other, newer work, such as the pieces on view recently at the Marian Goodman Gallery. The new work, and even some of the older work, did not seem nearly so shocking to me, now more than a decade into my relationship with Wall--and in the world of reality TV etc.. But it did to the New Yorker I was looking at them with. And through his eyes once more it seemed that someone had lifted the lid off of the dirty secret of my youth: Vancouver is a land of splendor, but not all is splendid, and certainly the splendor is not for all.

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