Jeff Wall and the Cinematographic

Watching Waves Over Time

Watching Waves Steve Middlehurst 2014

Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewdson are often discussed in tandem because of the similarities in their production processes; they assume the maximum editorial control by staging compositions using the collaborative processes of cinema, a method that Wall calls cinematographic. The end results are narrative tableaux that suggest they tell a complete story within a single frame in the way of both classical and modern figurative painting. Another important similarity is found in their aesthetic intent; both men set out to create beautiful pictures (i), an attribute that appears more often to be consciously excluded from contemporary photography rather than intentionally included. These similarities potentially mask the significant differences in both their intent and influences.

Crewdson’s work (ii), as discussed previously (here), is accessible to a broad audience partly because he not only appropriates cinematic processes to create his pictures but takes the popular narrative form of that medium as his main referent. Whilst Wall at times refers directly to that same popular narrative form as, for example, in the Vampires’ Picnic, he is, even then, more interested in exploring the “complicated, intricate composition” of German or Flemish mannerist painting (1). There are many layers in Wall’s work but he invariably draws on his academic background as an art historian with many of his pictures based on paintings that he has analysed and deconstructed before recreating their essential essence in his cinematographic tableaux. The relationship between the referent and the depiction are usually recognisable once the “original” is identified but few of his audience bring this context to a viewing so, without some research, one of the layers of information in his work is obscured.

The Destroyed Room Jeff Wall 1978

The Destroyed Room
Jeff Wall 1978

The Death of Sardanapalus 1827 Delacroix, Eugene

The Death of Sardanapalus
Eugene Delacroix 1827

The Destroyed Room is a perfect example. The Death of Sardanapalus depicts an Assyrian monarch on his deathbed commanding the destruction of his property and the slaughter of his concubines (4). In The Destroyed Room Wall uses the same diagonal composition, the positioning of the main light source and the red tones of the original in his staged picture of a women’s room that has been trashed.  The narrative is open, we can speculate on the background to this act of violence, is it an intruder, a jilted lover or self inflicted? But, once we are referred to Delacroix’s painting we recognise that The Destroyed Room comments on violence towards women, the narrative becomes less open.

Wall explains that any new version of a painting “has in it all the past variants” (1), he sees them as ghosts that are embedded in the variant. This is true regardless of the referent; we know from Cindy Sherman’s Untltled Film Stills and much of Crewdson’s work that the ghosts of cinema bring with them additional narrative information that fundamentally changes how we interpret their photographs or read their narratives; for many viewers the difference with Wall lies in the obscurity of the referent.

Dead Troops Talk Jeff Wall 1986

Dead Troops Talk
Jeff Wall 1986

Jackie Higgins describes Wall’s work as “near documentary” (5) containing what Russell Banks refers to as “complete narratives” (6) but both these perspectives can be questioned.  There is no doubt that much of Wall’s work consists of tableaux that are staged to emulate reality but he likes to insert what he calls “a grain of the improbable” into his pictures and characters, he gives the examples of the man in No having one leg, the porcelain look of the women in Woman and Her Doctor but there are many other examples; in Dead Troops Talk (iii) the initial documentary or war photography aesthetic is subverted by the black humour inserted through the gestures and poses of the “dead” soldiers; a man with no legs is laughing at the antics of his colleagues who, dead or dying, are playfully frolicking whilst a man in the foreground appears to be using his mobile phone. As a consequence any similarity between this and Luc Delahaye’s Taliban prove to be illusory. Whilst this sense of “wrongness” can exist in Wall’s work he has constantly commented on social issues; racisim in Mimic, exclusion in Tran Dúc Van, social violence in Eviction Struggle, policing in Arrest and the male gaze in one of his very earliest works Picture for Women but any documentary intent is secondary, “I’m not sure I find political/social terms that interesting artistically” (8), he is more interested in form. He is actively contesting the acquired wisdom of photography representing fact by, as he puts it, “making photographs that put the factual claim in suspension” so whilst he describes the real world he does it as a novelist by placing a fictional narrative within a realistic setting. These tensions between truth and fiction, reality and wrongness and the fact that his commentary focuses on the aesthetics and process of his work detach it from documentary  even when he is depicting a sociopolitical issue. This is not contradictory, many novelists, not least Dickens, have addressed social issues in a fictional framework but, unlike photography critics who often appear obsessed with genre, literary critics make no attempt to categorise Dickens as a documentarist.

It is not only Russell Banks that describes Wall’s narratives as complete, it is common description of his work which Wall attributes to the nature of cinematography. Unlike photojournalism which is understood to be a fragment of the greater whole the staged photograph appears to have more in common with painting implying a complete statement about a subject. Wall regularly includes people talking and engaged in conversation which combined with the directed gestures that play such an important role in his work give the impression that he is in control of what is being said, however this control is an illusion as, whilst viewers might have a common reading of a culturally understood gesture, they are unlikely to “hear” the same words being spoken. Wall sees this as a way to break free of the boundary of the image and to ensure the narrative is not closed from the perspective of the viewer.

I would go as far as to say that none of the staged photographers I have looked at to date create closed or complete narratives if only because they are so heavily reliant on cinematic or pictorial art referents. As discussed earlier Sherman defines or stereotypes her characters by referencing film noir but the before and after narrative is open to the viewers creative interpretation; Crewdson uses broader cinematic motifs to the same end. Wall appears to offer the most closed narrative but his references to historical art bring added meaning to his tableaux and any meaning inserted in this way must be open to interpretation. This is not to say that they fail to create a narrative, this is far from the truth, their approach is arguably the most complete contemporary, single-frame, narrative photography but by referencing cinema there must always be an inferred before and after to each tableaux. This inference of being a stilled frame from a continuum separates the work of this type in the last thirty years with the Victorian tableaux photographers such as Julia Margret Cameron who were composing complete allegories that mimicked the classical painters.

Notes on Text

(i) Wall – “I always try to make beautiful pictures” (1); Crewdson ” First and foremost (my intent) is to make make a beautiful picture” (2)

(ii) The context for this discussion is the earlier work that he is best know for. Sanctuary (3) which was published in 2010 exhibits a significant change in both content and approach.

(iii) Another similarity between Wall, Sherman and Crewdson might be the monetary value of their work. Dead Troops Talk sold for $3,665,500 in 2012 (7)



(1) de Duve, Thierry; Pelemc, Arielle; Groys, Boris; Chevrier, Jean-François (1996) Jeff Wall (second edition 2002) London: Phaidon

(3) Crewdson, Gregory (201o) Sanctuary. New York: Abrams

(5) Higgins, Jackie. (2013) Why it Does Not have to be in Focus: Modern Photography Explained. London: Thames and Hudson

(6) Crewdson, Gregory (2008) Beneath The Roses. New York: Abrams


(4) Wall, Jeff (1978) The Destroyed Room (accessed at the Tate 13.9.15) –

(7) Wall, Jeff (1986) Dead Troops Talk (accessed at Christies 13.9.15) –

(8) Ure-Smith, Jane (2014) New artistic directions for photographer Jeff Wall in Amsterdam (accessed at the Financial Times 6.9.15) –


(2) Crewdson, Gregory (2012) GregoryCrewdson’s Photography Capturing a Movie Frame: Art in Progress: Reserve Channel (accessed at Youtube 23.8.15) –



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