Jeff Wall

In exploring aspects of art photography and how, sometimes, good art is made by ignoring many of the skills demonstrated by this module, I found myself reading about the Pictorialist movement, from the late 1800s.

This style was based upon paintings from the same era, which often depict everyday scenes, such as a rural idyll, with peasant workers, toiling in the fields.

Two most notable photographers from this field of photography are Henry Peach Robinson, and Henry Peter Emerson. These two, while both conforming to the norms of Pictorialism, were at opposite ends of the spectrum, in terms of methodology.

Robinson used sharp focus, from the foreground to background, in posed scenes, often using multiple exposures which were composited in the darkroom, to achieve lighting effects that would be impossible with one exposure. In modern terms, this was very similar to using high dynamic range in photo editing software.

Emerson, on the other hand, used a shallow depth of field, photographing actual workers in the fields, to achieve a more natural looks.

The final goal for both, however, was the same: To create a visually pleasing image. It may or may not have represented the real world. It may or may not have contained some social commentary. But it had to be beautiful, and draw the viewer into the scene, so they imagine themselves experiencing it in the first person.


This initial Pictorial movement largely faded by the 1910s, but a less formalised trend of modern Pictorialism took root in the 1970s, to become very popular by the ‘90s.

A major player in this movement, and the subject of my interest at this time, is Jeff Wall.

At first glance, I found it difficult to grasp how Wall’s images conformed to any Pictorialist norms, being neither rural, nor beautiful. This was missing the point, however. His images depict people in modern environments, living out modern situations.

These images are not as they seem, however. At a glance, they appear to be snapshots of everyday life. Random events in random locations. The reality is rather different.

They are in fact re-creations, of events seen by Wall, but not actually photographed at the time. “To not photograph,” he says, “gives a certain freedom to then re-create or reshape what I saw.”  (Wall, cited in O’Hagan, 2015)

They are meticulously staged, though to what extend any of the scene is real, or whether the people depicted are actors, or people from the original scene, is unclear.

When compared with those original Pictorialists from the 19th century, Wall appears to fall more into the Robinson camp, with his artificial manipulation of the scene, where the final composition of the scene is given priority over capturing actual reality. It is a fake reality, where, for Robinson, it happened only in his mind’s eye, while for Wall, he observed it with his actual eyes, and then re-created it.


So, having been tasked by my tutor to explore works that, at a glance, appear not to adhere to the methods that we would consider good photography; the methods taught in this module on composition, focus, lighting, etc. these images by Wall would seem to fall into that category, in regard to composition. Their appearance, seeming to be snapshots, capturing a moment in time, even mimicking hastily captured ‘decisive moments’ belie the time and effort that has gone into making them.

This being the case… the deception… the lie, if you will… is what makes them art. They look like a hasty snapshot, but they aren’t. Some of them, while appearing quite random, mimic impressionist paintings: ‘The Storyteller’ …

…paying homage to Claude Monet’s ‘Railway Bridge, Argenteuil’…

It does, though, seem to me, that to truly appreciate this kind of art, it is necessary to have knowledge of art and art history. It seems without being familiar with certain paintings, or types of painting, looking at these images can only elicit a “what’s that all about?” or “I could do better than that”. It seems to exclude the casual viewer from appreciating the full depth and meaning of the image.

This seems to be an aspect of art in general, and not specific to art photography, but it is something I find myself not entirely comfortable with.



O’Hagan, S. ‘Jeff Wall: ‘I’m haunted by the idea that my photography was all a big mistake.’’ In: The Guardian 03/11/2015 AT [Accessed: 20/06/2017]


Author: Photos Things and Stuff

Study Log for Expressing Your Vision module, for BA (Hons) Photography Degree with OCA

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