The following is an excerpt from an interview Cooper Nash Blade conducted with the photographer Jeff Wall over the phone on November 27th, 2016. The transcript of this conversation was included in Cooper’s photo book Überhaupt (2017).
Cooper Blade (CB): I initially became interested in your work along with the work of photographers like Stephen Shore and William Eggleston. I began to see the three of you as photographers of the North American everyday. The first time that I was shown your work was in an early class of mine, I think it was in my second semester at art school. The picture was Concrete Ball, 2002 and I remember not getting anything from it at the moment, however something stayed with me. It was a picture of Vancouver, a city that I had spent time in, and the aesthetics of the park were similar to where I had grown up [Seattle, WA, USA] but it wasn’t until a couple of years later, when I was reading the book that was produced in cooperation with your MoMA retrospective, that I seemed to warm up to your pictures. In the time it took me to read this book—a days work at the library—your pictures began to make (what could be called) sense to me. It was with regards to the idea of the everyday which I had been reading about in a work by the philosopher Stanley Cavell. He talks about romanticism, which by the word he means that, “The discovery of the everyday is the greatest achievement of the human.” So I began to read this into your work more broadly, and Concrete Ball, 2002 specifically. All of a sudden there was this depth, and the photograph seemed to make sense to me. I guess my first question is, am I reading too much of my own meaning into that picture? Or is this an idea that you were playing with?
Jeff Wall (JW): I have a little book that I am reading here and in it I have a book mark, I have a postcard with that picture on it. Just by coincidence, it happens to be sitting right in front of me, so it is funny that you should mention that one. In a way I agree with what you’re saying, that the everyday is the category that makes every other category that we invent for art meaningful. I suppose you could say that in the pre-modern times artists didn’t really have many opportunities to deal with the everyday because their patrons weren’t everyday people. They were usually nobles and churchmen and the like; that is to say, they needed a certain kind of image which wasn’t really that kind of image. Even though if you look at the best painting of the past, you will see the everyday inside of a religious or mythical scene. You will see flowers and trees and faces and the way light falls on them and other elements like folds in cloth, cabinets, windows, etc. Which are all as realistic (if you want to use that term) as anything modern. But they were inside of another language. So it emerged out of all the changes that we now know about, which became this new ground.
I agree with Cavell that it is an achievement because people do live in the everyday, but they don’t necessarily appreciate it as that. For me, I also got the sense very strongly, long ago, from Baudelaire and his notion of the painting of modern life. Which I have referred to many times and people have sort of misunderstood me as if I was saying that I was the painter of modern life, which of course I never was saying. But I learned this idea from him because he was the poet who helped to invent that notion. There are also many other sources.
For me the everyday has always been very basic and I don’t think you can really practice photography well without a good sense of it. So if you think about Eggleston or these people who you mentioned, being a photographer is sort of an acceptance of this basic category with which one works. But I think there is another thing that is important; I don’t know if this interest in the everyday is only to reveal what it looks like, how it can be appreciated, or even seen as beautiful. I think it also has to do with having to make a composition or a picture out of ordinary things that can have the same authority as a picture of the past, as opposed to making a picture out of regal or gaudily things. So when I was doing Concrete Ball, I was interested in the concrete ball itself because it is a symbol of the universal—the globe—and it has a sort of neoclassic feeling to it. I did notice it in my everyday, driving by the corner where it is, but I wouldn’t have made the picture just because of the motif if I didn’t think that I could make a composition that aside from the subject was also satisfying, to me at least, as a picture, as a composition. I don’t like the picture only because it happens to depict that situation but because it works as a picture. Composition is what art is.
CB: Are there times when you go to a place where you think that it could make a good picture and it doesn’t? I mean you must, in finding the specific place where you think about composing a photograph...
JW: Yes, of course, I mean I am sure you have had the same thing happen to you. In visiting places that you hope are going to work, sometimes it just doesn’t. It doesn’t look any good, it doesn’t do what you want it to do and you can’t find a way to make it do that. Therefore that picture doesn’t occur, doesn’t get made, even though the subject seems to be crying out to be made. For me, when this happens, it means that the situation isn’t compatible with my notion of what a picture should be. I have had many times where I have seen something I wanted to do but just couldn’t do it; I could not find a way to put the camera in a place where the thing resolved itself acceptably. Even though, lets say, the light was right, the season was right, the colors were right—this and that—whatever it was, the totality just didn’t work. That has happened to me lots of times and that has happened to everybody who’s taken a lot of photographs.
If you go out and work spontaneously like a street-photographer, basically that is all you are doing is trying to find that thing that works; and they tend to do it by making a lot of pictures and hoping that one is going to come off; and sometimes they do. A lot of pictures that convey information that people need, like in the newspapers or magazines, they aren’t particularly good pictures but they are very interesting for what’s in them. So the everyday has got to be not only an achievement philosophically, but its also an artistic one. If the picture that you make is successful, the everyday comes through as you were hoping to capture it. If it isn’t, it doesn’t.
CB: When a picture works does this ordinary subject come across as it does to you in everyday life? Or does does it become something greater than what it is in normal life through its composition?
JW: I think it does come across as more resolved than everyday perception because it is still and is already framed. The actual making of it is very specific, so the picture itself, I think, is almost more alive than life; in the sense that you can experience what life is like without it passing by at that moment. It has that quality to it where you can actually appreciate how (lets say) some almost accidental encounter becomes a picture, which is a made thing. So, yes, I do. I think the picture preserves it, intensifies it, stabilizes it, and makes it permanent. And I think the contemplation of this everyday is in a way the mode in which it really gets experienced; at least artistically.
People say, “Art can be made by casting a glance.” and that you can have aesthetic experiences in the everyday. That is certainly true, just like one can experience the beauty of nature without it being in a picture. But we are not directly talking about that, we are talking about how it gets made by people who are interested in turning it into an artwork. At least a traditional, conventional kind of artwork, not a fugitive conceptual artwork.