Fortified Door  Jeff Wall.

Tasks in Photography: Ian Jeffrey on Jeff Wall

In the Spring/Summer 2008 issue of Photoworks, Ian Jeffrey reviewed the artwork of photographer Jeff Wall.

If I took you aside to analyse a neighbour’s door you would, in future, give me a wide berth. But with photographs it is different, for they offer evidence. Not long ago Jeff Wall took a picture, which he called Fortified Door, on a street not far from where he lives. If you’ve had anything to do with plank doors you will know that they usually have three cross pieces to keep the structure together and to hold the screws for the hinges. Wall’s neighbour’s door is no exception. A careful study of the evidence will, however, reveal that the flamboyant metalwork shown here is only decorative. The door’s maker, an artist-decorator of sorts, had tried to pull the whole together with a system of shiny metal studs arranged in double rows top and bottom and also on the diagonals. The system, though, had come unstuck, as you can see, for the artist hadn’t calculated the angles correctly, and hadn’t had enough studs either. And the number (729 1621), which looked like a postal code, is oddly placed – probably to obscure an earlier code partly visible beneath. The mailbox, despite its unusual breadth, didn’t have the height required for certain letters, which had been pushed under the door.
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The ‘fortified door’ is a give away. it was put together by someone who had a certain kind of ambition, who wanted to impress but hadn’t thought the business through properly. One of photography’s functions is to provide us with evidence which we then mull over before coming to conclusions. Even though these conclusions might be wrong or far-fetched they have at least put us through our paces: character analysis in the case of the ‘fortified door’. In the normal course of life we build up a thesaurus worth of observations on everything imaginable, and in this context the photograph serve as an investigative insert disclosing systems and assumptions we didn’t know we had. Burrow is a good example: amateur digging in a wasteland, in late springtime – if that discarded and moulting Christmas tree is anything to go by. Employed workers would never cover an excavation with such a heterogeneous array of plywood and matting. Burrow is an improvisation, a bodge or lash-up – plenty of idioms in all languages, for bits of work like this appear everywhere.

Contemporary photography can be weighty: the arms trade, sad days in Berlin, oppression everywhere. I can do no more about big issues than you can, and become needlessly paranoid if they are brought to my attention too often. On the other hand, like all others, I spent a lot of time making do and getting by: work, routine tasks and expedients. I can recognise the predicament in others, and sympathise with them. The artist of the ‘Fortified Door’, for instance, had a biggish idea, which others would have liked the look of, but lacked the wherewithal. The ‘Burrow’ excavators did the best they could with limited resources. Photography, in its humanist heyday, always tried to elicit sympathy for the other who had to walk barefoot on splintered wood. Jeff Wall’s pictures in black and white were continuous with that older type of photography – as represented by Paul strand, say. Continuous with, but not the same as, for under the old dispensation you had to have the subject in front of you. nor did he deal with special cases in need of sympathy, but with anyone in the normal run of events. His topic, which gave him access to the world at large, is work, roughly speaking. It is even likely that he might have had no social conscience at all but a personal preoccupation with tasks, and that as a consequence he had insights everywhere. Tasks manifest themselves in arrangements, and these are often evident in his pictures. War game, for example, centred on an arrangement of car tyres and bed-springs, and the tenants at no.s 5 & 4, 33330 seemed to be living amongst improvised items in makeshift premises.

Tasks may have been practical, but they did have metaphysical possibilities and could be a cause of anxiety – more often than not, probably. His writer, Craig Burnett, quoted an essay in which the artist mentions ‘our social experience of tormented development, that which is not achieved or realised, or that which, in being realised, is ruined…’ gnomic, maybe, but it did sound like an account of projects and schemes which might or might not have come off. Wall, of anyone, should have known for he has been involved in enough big ventures which could have easily come to nought. Cold Storage, for example, was about risk for surely that ice on the roof could come down, globally warmed, and cause damage; and the piers, too, were probably numbered for the sake of security checks. Experience would have alerted him to significant details of this kind. The result is a picture which covertly combined memories of 9/11 with the decay of the ice sheets.

He is lucky to have had a preoccupation with work and its tasks for it gives the pictures a universal relevance, if we have the patience to look into them somewhat. Normally we rely on routine and take a lot for granted, but it is in art’s nature to begin again and sometimes to start from scratch. There is a colour picture from long ago (1986) called the storyteller showing two groups and a solitary to one side of a cement road bridge. The groups had made places for themselves with dispositions and are involved in social activities. The solitary sits apart, probably reflecting; and the whole could be taken for an allegory on society and solitude or social practice and art. He may have meant something else entirely; nonetheless he is thoughtful on work – see the Tate catalogue, for example, where he remarked upon the mies pavilion in Barcelona and on the cleaning of its windows: ‘cleaning is mysterious, since it is the labour that erases itself if it is successful.’

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Published in Photoworks Issue 10, 2008

Commissioned by Photoworks

Buy Photoworks issue 10