Museum of Modern Art
Text by Ajay Kurian for WM New York
Thin and quick-footed, a man darts through a crowd with a black taped 35 mm Leica. His eyes are focused but the occasional moment of self-consciousness veers him back to the goal of anonymity. Then, like a leaping white-tail, the moment finally presents itself, and he traps it.
Gone are the hunting days of Cartier-Bresson. Jeff Wall put an end to that – or rather his hunt is altogether different. Wall’s retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art testifies to his inability to fully relinquish the idea of the hunt, but that the “decisive moment”, the capture of the immediate, remains on trial. Cartier-Bresson popularized the idea of “the decisive moment” and of the photographer’s role in capturing the image.
He also, with the help of many other photographers, demonstrated the artistic potential of the medium. A generation later, photography does not need the same demonstration. Instead, Wall turns his eyes towards photography’s particular methods for achieving its place as a high art. Is photography’s relationship to the image simply one of documentation and immediacy? A complicated question calls for a complicated answer.
Wall’s work does not eschew the idea of “capturing” an image outright. His photos instead work under the guise of immediacy. That is to say, they look like captured moments when they are in fact meticulously staged. The ramifications of this manipulation are not minor. The spectator then becomes the primary prey instead of the subject of the image; it denies photography’s implicitly empirical truth, and situates the photographer in a odd moral position. He is both duplicitous, but free of ethical baggage. Now the gruesome shot of a man shooting another, or the image of a country collapsed cannot be trusted. For it may all be clever staging. Sontag’s dictum regarding the ethics of photography no longer applies by default: “the person who is recording cannot intervene.” A photographer cannot intervene into that which he himself has created.
So what does Wall do in this odd role? Once the trust is broken, the photographic project necessarily turns itself towards different objectives. But it’s not so much the specific objectives that I have in mind. Prior to these engagements is photography’s contemporary nature of captivity. Trapping the spectator has always preoccupied photography, but Wall’s ambitions are greater than merely finding beautiful moments. Most important to Wall’s vision is photography’s confrontation with painting.
Wall’s retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art testifies to his inability to fully relinquish the idea of the hunt, but that the “decisive moment”, the capture of the immediate, remains on trial.
Cartier-Bresson’s photos, although compelling, if set next to a painting of one of his contemporary’s would inevitably shrink the photo. As American painting came into its own, size only continued to grow. With the later Abstract Expressionists, we see a massive jump in scale. Photography could not meet the challenge. Enter Wall. The photos in this exhibition are as massive as some history paintings. Not only that, they take up space just the way a painting would – Wall doesn’t simply print his photos, he uses a lightbox display. This display, in tandem with the sheer scale of the photographs generally leaves the spectator slack-jawed, and depending on how long they look, with a potential crick in the neck. Regardless of a printed photo’s contrast between shadow and light, the effect of light traveling directly through the image results in an entirely different visual seduction. These two features also directly relate to the way one examines these photographs. Rarely do we analyze photos so closely; peering into the depths of a tree, traveling down every cracked wall, or noticing the titles of every magazine laid just so on a table. Photography naturally requests this much of the viewer, but rarely does it succeed in such a massively appealing way, drawing distinctive details into focus, very similar to how a painting might.
What Wall has also successfully captured is the formula for seduction that continues to make paintings so appealing. Apart from size and image quality, The Flooded Grave is just a magnificently attractive photo, in large part because of its ability to suspend disbelief. Painters get away with this without a second thought, but a photographer must be careful so as to not make the photograph into pulp, science fiction, Hollywood, or any other miscarried genres. The Grave has its own delay. We apprehend the image as a scene in a cemetery. Then we fall into the grave of the image and strangely find it to be far more inviting than we planned. It’s dazzling and somewhat thought provoking, although I would point to several other photographs such as Picture for Women, to display Wall’s true conceptual prowess. The piece instead heavily relies on the possible narratives that overflow the image. All around is a desolate and overly manicured landscape. The occasional bird patrolling the grounds only increases the photo’s solitude. And there, in the earth below is our unexpected escape. Wall has convinced us to walk into the grave.
Yet for all its sensuality, many still charge Wall’s photographs of being too rigid. The manicured lawn, the dotted trees, the very grid that the photo is set upon seems to make the point. Other photos, with figures, can be mannered and slightly tedious. The Flooded Grave still manages to draw us in, but photos like Storyteller may alienate the viewer too much, causing the image to feel inhospitable. Perhaps fittingly, the photo concerns itself with the idea of exclusion. Only one group is privy to the story being told. The man below the bridge remains isolated upon a rocky shore, while the couple on the hill’s horizon peer over with skeptical interest. But just because the photo itself deals with inhospitality does not necessarily mean that it should participate as well.
“It’s dazzling and somewhat thought provoking, although I would point to several other photographs such as Picture for Women, to display Wall’s true conceptual prowess.”
Almost all of Wall’s work is a visual equivocation between the captured moment and the constructed image. On the occasion that a photo falls to one side more than the other, we feel Wall’s colder shoulder. Success depends on finding this delicate middle ground. Wall’s early work certainly falls on the more blistery side. Despite Destroyed Room’s visual voluptuousness, it remains a breathless stage. We are made too aware. If Wall were merely in the business of deconstructing the idea of captured reality, his work would probably stay in this immature nascency, but as his career unfolds, his photographs take on the same visual poignancy with an added level of enchantment.
Pointing out photography’s constructedness is a sort of conceptual capture – appealingly intellectual. But for this to work, for us to stay motivated, Wall needs to contend with our other faculties as well. We cannot enjoy one in lieu of the other. Like Wall’s photographs, the best of us don’t work as binaries.
 Sontag, Susan, On Photography. New York: Picador, 1973. pg. 12
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Ajay Kurian is an artist and writer living in New York City.