Jeff Wall is clearly an audacious photographer. In an industry where perfectionism is the norm, this artist prefers to focus on realistic images. It is rare to find abstract representations on any of his paintings.
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One can easily understand his subject matter because they are things or people with which the public can identify. This photographer will either focus on the obvious story or not do anything at all. Nonetheless, the artist’s realism does not imply that he is a pop culture photographer. Wall’s images are always surprising because they have a touch of irony.
At first glance, the use of a light box for this photograph immediately captures the attention is its viewers. The artist placed the picture in a light box, where he used fluorescent light bulbs to make the image glow. If one looks at this image in a gallery, one is likely to be drawn to it because it is illuminated, but most importantly, because it is rich in detail.
Such a technique gives one a lot of insight into the artist. First, it shows that he is committed to making his image beautiful. This was a quality that the artist never compromised on. He went to great lengths to embellish his work. Unlike other realists who preferred to let viewers find the beauty, Wall made it a prioroity. Secondly, the method is an indication that light is a central theme in his photograph. The number of light bulbs in the picture is overwhelming, and the devices would arouse one’s curiosity about their presence.
Finally, one can also assert that he was mimicking and ridiculing a typical approach in advertising. Several commercial posters use light to illuminate their subject. While this artist may not have set out to criticize commercial advertising, his choice of a light box immediately achieves the same. In essence, this photograph is a parody of consumerism because the subject matter does not find satisfaction in material things. He only feels distraught and camouflaged by them (Whyte 32).
The image consists of an African American man in a vest sitting on a chair. He is holding onto something and looking into the distance. The room has a range of brightly-colored curtains that are out of place. There are piles of clothes almost everywhere; on top of chairs, cabinets, boxes and the floor. Furthermore, some of the light bulbs interlock with wires and pipes thus indicating that this was not a legal connection. The room is clearly in a state of disarray as the dishes and several other things in the room are unattended to.
It took Jeff Wall quite some time to come up with the final image of Invisible man. This is illustrative of the commitment that the artist had for his work. Wall would not stop shooting until he was completely satisfied with his work. He recreated scenes from a book by a similar name, which Ralph Ellison wrote in 1952. Therefore, if one took the time to analyze the artist’s work, one will find that it is based on a real-life situation. In the novel ‘Invisible man’, a man left street riots and went into hiding in a cellar.
Choosing such a subject matter implies that Jeff Wall revered the idea of the forgotten in society. He wanted to tell their story through photography. However, the excesses in the picture cause it to blur the lines between fiction and reality. Some of these excesses include the numerous light bulbs that are hard to find in any typical room or the degree to which things have been clustered.
One of the themes of the piece is illumination. The picture is contained in a light box, and the subject also has plenty of light bulbs. In fact, the novel illustrates that 1,369 light bulbs were present in the cellar.
It is puzzling that one would require so many light bulbs. The subject did not use them for aesthetic purposes because they are not that pleasing to the eye. Furthermore, some of them do not even work as only a handful of them have been lit. This could be interpreted as an external depiction of the man’s longings. He was stuck in an underground cellar where he found temporary refuge from the chaos outside.
However, after going into hiding, he had to let go of his past. This may have included his family, job or even his circle of friends. The person seems lonely and isolated, so his current life is probably a dark contrast to his former one. In essence, he is not optimistic about his future. This leaves a void in his heart that he tries to fill with the light bulbs. The devices are a desperate outlet for his disappointments. Wall thus tells the story of a marginalized member of society in a moving way (Vasudevan 571).
The size of this photograph is noteworthy when one first looks at the piece. It is 198cm long and 226 cm wide. When asked why Wall made his pictures like this, the artist replied that he wanted to expose every detail of his work. He criticized his peers who often used small images to represent their subjects.
Wall felt that such photographers were too keen on printing their pieces in books, and this condensed the details of their work. Another glimpse at the picture reveals three subjects; one Asian man wearing a short sleeved short and formal trouser and a Caucasian couple beside him. The man in the couple is casually dressed in a denim vest and orange t-shirt while his girlfriend or partner has red shorts and a white top. The Caucasian looks at the Asian man and slants his eyes in imitation of the Asian man’s eyes.
Several themes emanate from this photograph. First, Wall wanted to disclose the overt racism in the country. This testifies to the artist’s preference for marginalized communities as subjects. Just like ‘Invisible man’, this picture focuses on a victim of social discrimination. Wall probably felt that their experiences and point of view needed to be heard or exposed. The redneck in the photo holds racial biases against the Asian man.
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This may stem from his underexposure to people who are different from him or merely from racial bigotry. Racial slurs and attacks are problems that many immigrants deal with in the country. It is interesting that the Asian man does not counter the attack because he probably knows that he cannot win. Furthermore, the Caucasian man harasses this stranger because he knows that he can get away with it (Burnett 59).
The theme of class tensions also comes out in the piece. The Asian man is well-dressed and clean shaven while the redneck has an overgrown beard and t-shirt. Furthermore, the ease with which the Caucasian uses such an obscene gesture; that is his middle finger, is indicative of his crass mannerisms.
This photo could be read as a depiction of class differences between certain members of society. The redneck could be jealous of his target as he seems successful and put together. Perhaps the hit man wanted to feel better about his failures by using the only avenue available to put his target down.
Wall often liked subjects that mirrored real-life experiences, and mimic is one such piece. The artists drew his inspiration from encounters he had or experiences from his past. This photographed captured an exchange that Wall had witnessed. It is, therefore, an indication of his realist tendencies.
Even the background testifies to this school of thought. It was an industrial featureless neighborhood that retaliated his unpretentiousness. The artist explained that the physical energy on streets fascinated him. Their authenticity was what drew him to such scenes.
Wall also took some time to create this piece. In fact, he hired actors and other crew members to put the image together. Some critics claim that this staging of occurrences takes away the rawness of the situation. His pictures did not seize upon impulsive moments. However, one may look at this choice of technique as a way of paying homage to his subject matter. He wanted to recreate a situation as perfectly as he could and non directed shots just could not do that for him.
Photographer Jeff Wall is indeed a creative and bold artist. His unpretentiousness is what endears many to the artist. It is laudable that he focused on human subjects who were mostly hidden or marginalized. The artist’s use of staged actors testifies to his perfectionism and commitment to the message.
Burnett, Craig. Jeff Wall. London: Tate Publishing, 2005. Print.
Vasudevan, Alexander. “The photographer of modern life: Jeff Wall’s materialism.” Cultural Geographies 14.4(2007): 563-588. Print.
Whyte, Murray. “Jeff Wall: The invisible man.” Canadian Art 11 May 2006: p. 32. Print.