Question: Gregory Crewdson’s practice is ‘an effective method of image-making’ but ‘it lacks the subtlety and nuance of Wall and diCorcia’s work’?
All three artists – Gregory Crewdson (b. 1962), Jeff Wall (b. 1946), Philip-Lorca diCorcia (b. 1951) — have in common the desire to incorporate narrative in their images. Their work along with others has been described:
Blurring the borders between truth and fiction, their ambivalent images hybridize genres, destabilize the eye, sow doubt in the viewer. Exit neutrality, and enter visual sophistication, the development of complex storylines, the spinning of strange tales, the forging of contemporary legends (Couturier, 2011: 60).
An example is Jeff Wall’s ‘Passerby’ (see fig. 1.), which is a photographic tableau, in black and white, showing a man walking along a suburban path at night and turned around to look at the shadowy figure of another person running away. In this image is seen blurred borders ‘between truth and fiction’ and ambivalence (above), also a sense of ‘something’ having just happened or about to happen. Another image where this latter sense is less to the fore is ‘The Flooded Grave’ (see fig. 2.) which ‘attempts to stage a brief instant which a passer-by momentarily imagines the bottom of the ocean inside a flooded grave’ (Hacking, 2012: 533). The publisher of Wall’s books has described his practice thus:
Over the last three decades Jeff Wall has redefined the photographic image in art. His stunning large-scale photographs exude the dramatic power of history painting with utterly contemporary subject matter (everyday scenes from modern life) and materials (colour transparencies in light boxes). Each of his photographic tableaux is meticulously constructed — carefully staged, precisely lit and, since the late 1980s, digitally adjusted — in a process that the artist often compares to cinematography
Wall has sometimes referred to his photographs as ‘near documentaries’ because they frequently come from scenes he has witnessed in passing and recomposed later. But he also disavows any claims to photographic truth, constructing many of his pictures around works of art and literature, such as the writings of Franz Kafka, Ralph Ellison and Yukio Mishima and the paintings of Hokusai, Delacroix and Caravaggio (Phaidon, s.d).
From the above example images and descriptions the overlap between the practice of Crewdon and Wall is clear. Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s practice is similar. For example his series ‘Hustlers’ (1990 – 2):
Gives us the stock subject matter of traditional documentary in its portraits of outsider types …, an area of Hollywood often frequented by hustlers, drug users and transients. Yet the pictures are constructed and set up. With the help of an assistant, diCorcia carefully arranged each picture in advance and then began to look for a man off the street he could pay to appear in his photograph (Durden, 2014: 334).
This payment is a striking distinguishing feature of diCorcia’s practice. No doubt Crewdson and Wall pay their professional actors but in diCorcia’s case the:
disclosure of the monetary transaction between photographer and subject as part of each image’s title invites us to question the ethics of documentary, and leads us to think of the documentary transaction as a kind of prostitution, with subjects that can be bought like commodities (Durden, 2014: 334).
An example of such an image and title is ‘Eddie Anderson, 21 Years Old, Houston, Texas, $20’ (see fig. 3.). There is also a further dimension to this practice. For the making of these pictures diCorcia was in receipt of a fellowship from the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). At that time:
NEA support of artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe was highly controversial, and diCorcia had to sign a document stating that he would not produce any “obscene” work while on his fellowship. He set up the whole negotiating procedure as a symbolic way of sharing his grant with people whose behavior would surely have been condemned by the censors. The titles always mention the name, the age and the origin of the model, as well as the amount paid. The staged situation interacts with the raw reality of the exchange of money, blurring the boundaries between documentary and fiction, yet preserving an authentic emotional charge (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, s.d)
This ‘authenticity and emotional energy’ is something diCorcia shares with Wall. For example Wall’s image ‘Mimic’ (1982) (see fig. 4.) depicts the moment of a racial slur. Thus both artists are societally engaged, with a raw emotional energy drawn from ‘the street’ or the depiction of real lived lives — hence the controversy with the NEA (above). Another example from Wall is ‘A Fight on the Sidewalk’ (1994) (see fig. 5.) In comparison, while Crewdson’s work could not be said to lack emotional depth it is of a kind that depends almost completely on the viewer’s interpretation of the elaborate tableau image.
Couturier, Elisabeth (2012) talk about contemporary photography. Paris: Flammarian
Durden, Paul (2014) Photography Today. New York: Phaidon
Hacking, Juliet (2012) Photography the Whole Story. London: Thames & Hudson
Phaidon (s.d) The world of Jeff Wall. [online] At: http://de.phaidon.com/agenda/photography/picture-galleries/2010/march/30/the-world-of-jeff-wall/?idx=1(Accessed on: 05.05.15)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (s.d) Eddie Anderson, 21 Years Old, from Houston, Texas, $20. [online] At: http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/266418 (Accessed on: 05.05.15)
List of Illustrations
Figure 1. Wall, Jeff (1996) Passerby [gelatine silver print] At: http://images.tate.org.uk/sites/default/files/styles/grid-normal-8-cols/public/images/jeff%20wall%20passerby.jpg?itok=tyWcxA_J (Accessed on: 05.05.15)
Figure 2. Wall, Jeff (1998 – 2000) The Flooded Grave. [transparency in light box] At: http://de.phaidon.com/resource/124-5-the-flooded-grave.jpg (Accessed on: 05.05.15)
Figure 3. diCorcia, Philip-Lorca (1990) Eddie Anderson, 21 Years Old, Houston, Texas, $20 [chromogenic print] At: http://www.sfmoma.org/images/artwork/large/93.195_01_b02.jpg (Accessed on: 05.05.15)
Figure 4. Wall, Jeff (1982) Mimic. [Transparency in lightbox] At: http://images.tate.org.uk/sites/default/files/styles/grid-normal-8-cols/public/images/jeff%20wall%20mimic.jpg?itok=qtALRBSR (Accessed on: 05.05.15)
Figure 5. Wall, Jeff (1994) A Fight on the Sidewalk. [Cibachrome on aluminium box and fluorescent light] At: http://www.macba.cat/uploads/20131212/1803.jpg (Accessed on: 05.05.15)