… I knew I could stand there, stand my ground if you like, but I realized I wasn’t standing where I thought I’d get to when I set out.
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Jeff Wall: … The classic, or canonical, mode of art photography defined for me by Evans and Frank, had gotten very static, very tired, in the work of their followers and supporters. I didn’t like what I saw as the view-camera work of people who appeared to be influenced by Atget. It all seemed stopped.
I had the feeling that it was possible to bring much of what I’d liked in the cinema of the 1960s and 1970s together with what I’d always liked about painting in a form of photography that, whatever faults it might have, would not start out accepting the existing canon. That was an intuition born out of seven or eight years of struggle, intellectual, emotional, artistic struggle, when I couldn’t find my own way and went through periods of real desperation.
I knew that staged photography had been pretty much laughed off the field by 1920, and that the first wave of work in that vein [for example, Henry Peach Robinson] was spoiled by its imitating not the best pictorial art of its day [for example, Degas] but the worst [“Salon trash”].
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JW: … I wanted to contest the aesthetics of art photography at the time. I wanted to exaggerate the artificial aspect of my work as a way to create a distance from the dominant context of reportage, the legacy of Robert Frank and the others. That was a way to bring energy and feelings that I’d gotten from my love for painting and cinema into my work, and a way to declare that the aesthetics of reportage, of documentary, while central to any practice of photography, were not the whole horizon of what it could be as art.
[line break added] I think I saw something else in photography, something to do with scale, with color, and with construction, that might be valid along with the more established values that had come down from the nineteenth century and had been extended by the great photographers of the twentieth. That was my battle with photography. By around 1988 or 1989 I felt I’d gone as far in that direction as I needed to go, and that I had reached a point where my pictures were starting to look not photographic enough.
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JW: … I am happy to have had a sort of testy contestation with the classic notion of photography; it led me into photography in my own way, along my own path. But as I moved further along I realized what a big space I’d entered and how deep the water was in the pools by the path. I knew I could stand there, stand my ground if you like, but I realized I wasn’t standing where I thought I’d get to when I set out. I hope I will change my views again before long, or bend them, change their shape somehow.