An Art Photograph
Jeff Wall: Picture for Women — David Campany
Book Review by Andrea Noble
Published by: Afterall
Part of the ‘One Work’ book series published by Afterall, as the series title suggests, David Campany’s text focuses on a single image by the Canadian photographer Jeff Wall, the 1979 Picture for Women. The reader might be forgiven for thinking that the narrow focus of the book would make it of interest only to specialists seeking to expand their knowledge of Wall’s work. However, Campany’s deft handling of his subject matter means that this book will certainly be of appeal to specialists, but equally has much to say to those with a more general interest in photographic practice and image theory of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Jeff Wall Picture for Women opens with a description of the photographic transparency (142.5 x 204.5cm), a central detail of which – namely the camera mounted atop a tripod – the reader has already encountered on the front cover and in full over two pages preceding the start of Campany’s analysis. The description is brief and taut not only because it is superfluous in this well-illustrated book with eighteen full-colour and black-and-white plates, but also ‘To venture anything more would slide into inference, deduction and interpretation. Perhaps my description has already done so.’ In this way, one of the central tensions of Campany’s approach is signalled. On the one hand, the book is of necessity a work of interpretation. On the other, it is wary of the very act of interpretation. For example, when Campany begins to probe the important relationship between Picture for Women and Manet’s Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère (1881- 82), in the first instance as set out in the text accompanying a Wall retrospective at Tate Modern in 2005 and 2006, he cautions that ‘the temptation to turn toward explanation [is] very strong, although we should be wary of any reading once it becomes standard, not least because it may actually prevent us looking for ourselves.’
Made at a turning point when photography had started to gain legitimacy and serious critical attention, Picture for Women marked a change of direction in Wall’s practice. It represents a move away from the antiaestheticism of Conceptual art towards an embrace of the pictorial, the large scale, and narrative potential of the medium. This at a moment at which one of the founding practitioner-theorists, Victor Burgin, was calling into question the medium’s ability to solicit and sustain extended looking; indeed when the act of looking itself was deemed suspicious and subject to ideological critique informed by the radical sexual, racial and class politics that coursed through academic and artistic practice at the time.
Well-versed in the critical image theory and politics of its time, that Wall chose to develop photographic tableaux, combining overt pictorial values and critical intentions, was for Campany, ‘unexpected’. And yet, as he demonstrates, whilst formally out of kilter with much of the work being produced around it and a turning point in Wall’s oeuvre, at the same time, Picture for Women – with its focus on ‘relations between men and women, photography’s relationship to painting, the meaning of light and illumination, realism and illusion, and the place of the spectator /camera in the making and experience of an image’ – shares concerns with Wall’s own earlier work and wider tendencies broadly characterised as ‘post-modern’.
In addition to the invocation of Manet’s foundational modernist painting, Campany lucidly takes the reader through an exploration of a wide range of questions that Wall’s photograph poses to its viewer, which he organises under the headings ‘Mirror, Windows, Surfaces’; ‘The Mirror Phase’; ‘The Cinematographic’; ‘A Theoretical Diagram in an Empty Classroom’; ‘Making, Remaking, Mimicking’; ‘Back to Reversal’; ‘Displaying Display’; ‘Desiring Machines’; ‘The Art Photograph and the Photographer as Artist’, where the headings are suggestive of many of the ‘postmodern’ concerns of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Significantly, where some of these can now have a rather dated and heavy-handed feel to them, Campany handles them with appropriate critical distance and a light touch. Whilst the focus throughout never strays from Picture for Women, the text displays an impressive range of references to relevant cultural figures – from Sergei Eisenstein, Alfred Hitchcock, Edward Weston, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, through Lee Friedlander, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine – and theoretical reference points, from Barthes and Foucault, through Benjamin and Mulvey and Rose, to name just a select few. It is also mindful not to fall into the trap displayed in much of the ‘inexhaustible amount written on Wall’s work’, namely to enter into the tautological debate about ‘what an art photograph is supposed to be, or do, or look like’. Instead, it comes to the conclusion that ‘Wall remains one of the few photographers whose work is energised and made possible not by having a specific theory of what the medium is but instead by resisting any conclusion, accepting that it is perplexing and productive’.
Whilst he might be wary of the potential traps and pitfalls associated with the act of photographic interpretation, not least the act of interpretation itself, one of the achievements of Campany’s book is to weave an analytic framework that never loses from sight the image itself, helps the reader to grasp the relationship between Picture for Women, the artistic and theoretical contexts that shape its production and key concerns in Wall’s oeuvre more generally. In short, as a framework, it is flexible, rather than rigid, and precisely invites us to look again at Wall’s picture for ourselves.