When I first saw the picture featured in The Guardian, I was struck by the spontaneity of a domestic scene: a wife walking away from her ironing to get something in the house. Her daughter or maybe sister is lounging at the sofa reading a magazine. Both are enjoying each other’s company in a weekend afternoon.
This is, however, not a candid shot but the staged photographic work by Jeff Wall. A Canadian artist and art historian whose highly cinematic work is sometimes compared to paintings, this photo overlooking the harbourside in Canada has taken him well over a year. He has waited for the woman to decorate and arrange the bric-a-bracs, and for the right season to be featured through the window. He has to wait for the apartment to evolve over time, and for it to acquire a story.
As the critique published in New York Times points out, ‘photography has always involved waiting.’ Henri Cartier-Bresson refers photography as the composition of ‘the decisive moment’.
We have assumed that this process of waiting applies more to the wildlife and nature photographers. The bee does not pose for the camera. The waiting is a craft, and sometimes the decisive factor that makes an unforgettable picture. This is especially easy to overlook in a world that celebrates digital snapshots and instantaneous upload-and-share photography. We have forgotten that most photographic works are, to a certain extent, deliberate. Other than deliberate composition, they also involve a careful selection process and, in some cases, editing or rendering.
In another of Jeff Wall’s photo, we see a black man with his back facing the camera. He is in a brightly illuminated room with the ceiling full of light-bulbs. The room is cluttered and chaotic, and he is engrossed in his work. The art-piece exposes the black man’s private world, such that the viewer cannot ignore his presence, his strength, or his poverty.
By manipulating the composition of a photograph, Jeff Wall draws attention to the authenticity of the genre: each image is a chosen moment, and pictures don’t tell a story.