Book Review – Jeff Wall: With the Eye of the Mind

  By John Veldhoen

Jeff Wall is my favorite living photographer. I like his photographs because he thinks about them, they are complicated to some, but I have always found them relatively simple. I am writing this way at the outset to simplify my intentions, because I think of Wall’s aesthetic as visual ethics. I don’t believe it is possible to definitely visualize justice, but I know it is possible to depict injustice. I don’t believe a picture can be made that captures beauty, once and for all, but I think it is possible to make a beautiful picture. Depiction and making are simple, and taken for granted by photographers (I hope), but they were never abandoned as topics in Photography. There is a huge gap between photographers and Photography filled with words, a gulf without a gulp of hesitance, filled with industrious scribble, most of it graffiti. If you want to get into Wall, the CBC radio show “Ideas” did an excellent introduction; all the more so since learning about a photographer on the radio has imaginative appeal. On the other hand, not wishing to burst anyone’s bubble, one could read “Museum Photography and Museum Prose” by Julian Stallabrass, to get a sampling of the complexities. I have not had a complex reaction to Jeff Wall’s photographs. I like the way his photographs look most of all, but I like the readerly feeling I get looking at them, I want to consume his pictures first, a homely reaction, and have no anxious desire to produce alongside them. I remember them in reproduction, and I like them that way just fine. I like imagining them illuminated, backlit and gigantic, in my mind, which is also a readerly habit.

The Camera Store just received a book about Wall, the first I have ever owned, and I love it, it is called “Jeff Wall; With the Eye of the Mind”, by Stefan Banz, from Moderne Kunst Nurmberg, in association with the KMD (or Kunsthalle Marcel Duchamp), the “world’s smallest museum”. Banz “gets” Wall. Instead of maybe jealously mentioning art prices, or getting into polemics, or posturing against the contortions of self-defense Wall is sometimes accused of (which happens to be mostly intelligent self-reflection), Banz gets into the associations, the ways of looking, and interpreting, that are integrally part of conception. I don’t think there is much that is complicated about it; it is marvelous. The book is small, neatly bound, and has tiny reproductions of Wall’s work. As an object, I think it is lovely, nearly devotional (a friend says I am carrying it around like a Bible… I haven’t treated it with anything like that kind of reverence, but I think it has a hopeful, generous feeling, and I like it very much).

I bought “With the Eye of the Mind…” along with another book, also from the MKN, this one also about Andreas Gursky, Neo Rauch, and Wall, called simply “Gursky, Rauch, Wall”. I like this book more for the wild association of Neo Rauch, who is a painter, and whose work, when contrasted with Gursky and Wall, has a leavening, “natural” tendency, which is hard for me to explain without using an analogy, but the human subjects of Rauch’s paintings look to me like the figures in the film Berlin Alexanderplatz; people moving through a history made of the scaffolding of another interior, intensely moral, unseen History. Like Wall, I think Rauch is not presenting an activist’s view of the world, but the artist’s view, with sensitivity to moral drama. I don’t think this is pessimistic, only a proper subordination to History, and reveals earthly creative acts for what they intend, and are limited to being.

“Jeff Wall; With the Eye of the Mind” is currently available for purchase in-storeand online through The Camera Store


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In addition to being on our sales team, John curates The Camera Store's book selection and is a contributing author of our blog. He likes to think about photography, talk about photography, and sometimes write about photography.