Jeff Wall: room guide, room 3

Most of Wall’s street pictures are based on everyday situations that he has witnessed at first hand. He is particularly interested in what he calls ‘micro-gestures’: gestures that seem automatic or compulsive, and which are at the same time emblematic of tensions within society.

Mimic 1982

The large colour-print format that Wall favours requires a camera that is ill-suited to capturing fleeting moments, yet he wanted to explore the documentary style of street photography practiced by a number of photographers, such as Robert Frank or Garry Winogrand. Wall’s solution was to restage such moments, preserving a sense of immediacy by using non-professional actors in real settings. He calls these constructed images ‘cinematographic photographs’. In Mimic, the white man’s ‘slant-eyes’ gesture recreates a scene of racial abuse that Wall witnessed on a Vancouver street.

Jeff Wall Mimic 1982

Jeff Wall Mimic 1982Transparency in lightbox 1980 x 2286 mmCinematographic photograph

Courtesy of the Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation, Toronto© The artist

Milk 1984

Milk is another depiction of a socially charged subject. ‘Suffering and dispossession remain at the centre of social experience’, Wall has commented. The explosive burst of liquid is emblematic of the man’s state of mind, but what might have provoked such extreme emotion is not revealed, a state of ambiguity that ensures the work cannot be understood as moral commentary. The process of reconstructing an event allows Wall the freedom to reinvent the composition. He often relocates the action to a different setting, a place chosen for its formal or pictorial qualities, as is the case here. The grid-like order of the brick wall background, and strong vertical bands that stripe the left side of the image contrast sharply with the tension in the man’s arms and the uncontrolled arc of milk.

Jeff Wall Milk 1984

Jeff Wall Milk 1984Transparency in lightbox 1870 x 2290 mmCinematographic photograph

Collection FRAC Champagne–Ardenne, Reims© The artist

Jeff Wall Trân Dúc Ván 1988/2003

Jeff Wall Trân Dúc Ván 1988/2003Transparency in lightbox 2900 x 2290 mmCinematographic photograph

Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; A.W. Mellon Acquisition Endowment Fund and Gift of Milton Fine © The artist

Jeff Wall Man in Street 1995

Jeff Wall Man in Street 19952 transparencies in lightbox, each 540 x 660 mmCinematographic photograph

Rijksmuseum Kröller Müller, Otterlo © The artist

Jeff Wall Doorpusher 1984

Jeff Wall Doorpusher 1984Transparency in lightbox 2490 x 1220 mmCinematographic photograph

Goetz Collection, Munich© The artist

See also

Cruel + Tender Garry Winogrand

Cruel and Tender at Tate Modern 5 June – 7 September 2003 Garry Winogrand

Cruel + Tender Robert Frank

Cruel and Tender at Tate Modern 5 June – 7 September 2003 Robert Frank
Tate Modern Exhibition

Robert Frank: Storylines

28 Oct 2004 – 23 Jan 2005
Robert Frank: Storylines: past Tate Modern exhibition