st Jeff Wall – Picture for Women - analysis - Zak R. Dimitrov

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© Zak R. Dimitrov 2021

Jeff Wall - A Picture for Women

” If photography is just a new way of pursuing the ends of painting, then it is not a new art, but merely a new means of doing what painters have done for a long time. “ – Jonathan Friday

picture for women jeff wall

Figure 1. Jeff Wall – Picture for Women (1979).

The main aim of this paper is firstly to analyse and critically discuss Jeff Wall’s seminal artwork Picture for Women. It will define its influences, compare and contrast Wall’s picture with Edouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, and explore what it reveals about the relationship between photography and painting. Secondly, it will attempt to pinpoint the semiotics engaged in the image – Like John Tagg suggests, it is a blend of symbols, similar to a complex sentence rather than a word; therefore, it is polyamorous and there is no single correct reading of its content. This text will also briefly look at other works by Wall as well as the genre of the tableau and its main characteristics. Finally, it will pay specific attention to the role of the camera, the mirror and the way they serve as visual metaphors, similar to figures of speech in literature.

Jeff Wall is a Canadian photographic artist who began his creative career as a painter. Later on he became disillusioned by painting and moved on to photography while borrowing some essential qualities of painting. One hallmark that has been intrinsic solely to painting until the early 1970s is the aesthetics of the tableau. It engulfs the viewer with its presence; Wall defines it as separate from images and photographs – it is a picture that is the outcome of an act of obsessive composition, of emphatically artistic construction. It is almost exclusively experienced vertically on a wall – the tableau cannot be held in one’s hand or manipulated due to its sheer scale.

In Picture for Women we see three separate, yet intertwined, main entities – a woman, a camera, and a man. We presume that the woman is the model and the man is the photographer taking the picture, suggested by his hand clutching the cable release of the camera. The former is positioned on the left hand side of the picture, the latter – on the right, while the camera is in the centre.

Regarding the woman, she is what is generally considered attractive – her face is proportional, her complexion is flawless, and so is her hair. She is blue-eyed, looking away to her left (or maybe right, but more on this later on), and her ears are adorned with jewellery. I would argue that she seems timid and slightly uneasy, although her expression is hard to read, almost deadpan, not revealing a great plethora of emotions.Her breast appears unsupported as the casual clothes suggest that she is not wearing a brassiere and her collarbones are exposed. Her left hand is shown resting on top of her right one in a slightly awkward position, hence the impression that she is not a professional model as the hands are the most difficult body part to appear at ease while being photographed (portrait photographers always direct their model’s hands first). The clothes she is wearing are not glamorous, high-end fashion – on the contrary, she looks comfortable, her attire alluding to the period when the image was made (1979) when high-waist jeans and skinny belts were at their peak.

In contrast to the woman, Wall is positioned further away in the background. He is dressed in black, a colour that many artists favour due to its versatility and timelessness, hence he becomes a metonymical symbol representing all image makers working with cameras. The presence of the artist in the picture marks a substantial difference between his earlier work, such as Double Self Portrait (1979), and his later images – recreated photographs of fleeting moments that Wall has witnessed in his daily life but not photographed at the time. Somehow the presence of the artist makes one think that this was more spontaneous, bearing a resemblance to the modern-day selfie. Rather than observed and then painstakingly restaged post-factum, Wall’s presence leads the viewer to believe that this image was taken on the spur of the moment, even though we know this to be incorrect due to our knowledge of his practice. The only glistening object on Wall’s body is the face of his watch – a stark antithesis with his whole dark appearance. He is holding the cable release of a 5×4 Linhof Technica monorail camera, which is connoted to be the apparatus that has taken the picture, thus pointing to the conclusion that the scene is a mirror reflection.

To elaborate, the rhetoric function of the image of the camera is addition of information, i.e. amplification of the notion of a mirror – its presence is hinted at by the fact that we can see Wall appearing in his own photograph, but it is the camera that firmly makes us deduce that what we are looking at is an image of an image. By contrast, the fact that there are no physical traces of a mirroring device is omission, or detractio, thus creating a playfully interesting antipode between the camera, in itself a mirroring device, and the alluded mirror. Bearing this in mind, the artist has created a visual tautology by allegedly using a mirror and a camera in the same image, albeit tautology by definition makes one object superfluous, which is not the case here as they complement one another. The camera is a pun as it is the physical apparatus but also the image maker and so is the mirror as it symbolises the inner workings of the camera itself – producing a reflection of reality on a flat surface, the only difference being that the camera captures and freezes the moment with the aid of photographic chemistry while the mirror is more akin to cinema.

Jeff Wall - Double Self Portrait

Figure 2. Jeff Wall – Double Self Portrait (1979).

Furthermore, the notion of a reflecting device is supported by the fact that the name plate of the camera is inverted, even though this could easily be achieved by flipping the transparency upside down during printing, as observed by David Campany. In his paper A Theoretical Diagram in an Empty Classroom : Jeff Wall’s Picture for Women he purports that:

“Flipping a photographic image can be harnessed as a modernist gesture in its own medium-specific way. It can keep an image intact while fundamentally changing its relation to reality and foregrounding the picture plane. Just like a mirror, the flip is natural and unnatural, true and distorting, ordinary yet extraordinary.”

Campany goes further to claim that “a photograph instantly produces a double of the world – the negative. A photograph of a mirror doubles the double” , which makes reading Picture for Women even more complicated. The viewer is lead to believe that the camera he or she sees is the one that took the image. Nevertheless, albeit plausible, there is neither cast-iron evidence to support this beyond doubt, nor indisputable proof of the presence of the mirror. We cannot see its frame, which would help us establish its physical perimeters, and there are no discernible imperfections, such as smears or specks of dust, which are common in everyday mirrors. The camera could potentially be a model photographed by a second camera, the shutter being triggered either by a timer or even by an invisible assistant. This puts the presence of a mirror in the picture in serious doubt and I would argue that the mirror is the punctum as it is inexplicable, it “pricks, bruises us”.

The looking glass is often bestowed with magical functions in folk tales – in Snow White, for instance, it is given a human voice and character and it has taken the role of an advisor to the evil queen. According to the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, when an infant encounters a mirror, he or she observes his or her appearance for the first time as a one physical whole separate from other beings, whereas prior to that the child had only been familiar with the sense of a fragmented body. Lacan calls this the mirror stage and defines it as “the symbolic matrix in which the I is precipitated in a primordial form, prior to it being objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other, and before language restores to it, in the universal its function as subject”. This mirror image, this reflection that the infant observes that helps him or her define the idea of I as a person, I as a tangible presence in the physical world, is what he calls the Ideal I.

By definition, a mirror is a surface, typically glass, which has been coated with a reflective emulsion.The philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty has described a mirror as a device which is “the instrument of a universal magic that changes things into spectacles, spectacles into things, me into others and others into me”. In other words, the mirror distorts our perception of reality by presenting on a flat surface in front of us what is behind us in a three-dimensional space. An early example of a mirror is the Claude glass, which is a dark-tinted convex mirror whose purpose is to reflect usually landscapes and mute their tones to give them painterly qualities. Artists would turn their back to the landscape and use the Claude glass to shape and frame the landscape behind them. Left becomes right, far becomes near, back becomes front, and vice versa. The mirror further enhances the symmetrical composition – person on the left, apparatus in the middle, person on the right, which would be accurate both left to right and right to left with marginal differences. Following our comparison to figures of speech, this is a visual palindrome, if we disregard gender and strip the content to its basic “human – camera – human“ structure.

Another important aspect of the photograph is its presentation, which contributes to its overall meaning. It is an 80in x 56in backlit cibachrome transparency mounted on a lightbox. The scale, as noted earlier, is a hallmark of the tableau and the image of the woman, the camera, and the man are all life size. In most, if not all, of Wall’s exhibitions the lighboxes are the only source of light in the space, which contributes to the status of the work as it signifies that it is able to stand on its own without any external aid. Due to printing limitations, large works like Wall’s, similar to Wolfgang Tillmans’ photographs, for instance, are carefully constructed collages – they are printed on two separate sheets conjoined with magic tape in the middle. In this particular photograph the seam runs through the middle of the lens of the camera, thus splitting it into a mirror image of its half. The tape serves another function – it creates a grid. There is a left and right part of the picture, which are in turn divided by the large rods, presumably lightning poles. By having done so, Wall has given the audience four parts of the image – the woman on the left, the artist on the right and the two parts of the camera standing in the centre. This suggests that the camera is the central figure of the picture, more important than the people, even, perhaps, than the mirror. The camera is the studium in the photograph as it is directly visible and the main point of interest. Moreover, it is the camera only which makes the receiver aware of the punctum, the mirror. The seam running through the lens is a commentary on photography and the way it unites parts – light, form, space and time – to create one coherent whole, the photographic print.

“ With The Destroyed Room, awareness of the seam was minimised through the internal complexity of the image. Picture for Women was based theoretically on the seam passing through the reflected lens of the camera. The suture functions as a metaphoric key to the subject.”

Jeff Wall - The Destroyed Room

Figure 3. Jeff Wall – The Destroyed Room (1978).

A typical stylistic device of the tableau is the pregnant moment. Henri Cartier-Bresson famously referred to it as the “decisive moment”, it is also known as “peripeteia”. It is the moment when everything hangs in balance and something is on the verge of happening but has not occurred yet. One could argue that pressing the shutter is this moment; however, it is evident that it had already happened as the picture had been made. This is in contrast with Wall’s later work, like Mimic (1982), for instance, where one would assume that a racist comment or fight is about to ensue. The tranquility of Picture for Women is akin to the stillness of The Destroyed Room (1978), which, albeit wrecked, evokes a sense of stillness and calm.

Another peculiar aspect of the photograph is its resemblance to a well-known Manet painting. During his time in London, Wall was a student at the Cortauld Institute where for his postgraduate research he studied Edouard Manet– a 19th century French impressionist who was famous for painting social Parisian life. His work A Bar at the Folies-Bergère from 1882 bears a striking similarity to Wall’s picture, taken almost a century later.

Édouard Manet - A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

Figure 4. Edouard Manet – A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882).

Here we see a female, presumably a barmaid, allegedly a prostitute, judging by the oranges whose signified is sex work in Manet’s other paintings. The woman’s facial expression, unlike Wall’s model, resembles boredom or even irritability. The scene is opulent – champagne, fruit and flowers in the foreground, a lavishly dressed barmaid behind the counter, and grand crystal chandeliers in the background – in contrast with the bare surroundings in Picture for Women. The presence of a mirror is further cemented due to its gilded frame being visible behind the woman’s wrist and the couple’s reflection rendered in a pictorial manner. We can see the maid’s back and an invisible gentleman in a top hat. Is she looking at us, or is she looking at her customer? Perhaps at both? We are shown the woman’s point of view – her client, the crowd, and a trapeze artist. Critics of the painting argue that it is not precise in terms of how mirrors work – for example, Suzon, the barmaid, should be reflected in an entirely different place. This is perhaps because she was initially positioned more towards the right hand side and was later moved to the middle, but her reflection remained where it was. It is claimed that the inaccuracies in the painting are because it represents a multitude of spatial viewpoints instead of a single one as we are preconditioned to expect from Western art. The Bar signifies a major shift in semiotic codes – the painting presents the view of the barmaid, the customer, the bar crowd and the viewer all at the same time. Others go further and suggest that not only does it show multiple perspectives, but it presents the same viewpoint moments apart – pictorial temporalities. T. J. Clark asserts that “the thing a mirror must not do is act on the matters of visual fact it shows; it must not do things to them.”and that is precisely what the mirror is doing in Manet’s Bar. Unlike in a photograph, it is plausible for this distortion to be done in a painting, because the main difference is that a painting is the artist’s imaginary world where anything is possible whereas a photograph is a portion of the real world that the photographer has captured.

The mirror is a common expression device used in art. Francesca Woodman, for example, posed with a mirror in her self-portraits as a way to obliterate herself. Going further back in history, Diego Velázquez employed a mirror in Las Meninas (1656), creating one of the first examples of a mise-en-abyme, i.e. a picture within a picture. There have long been disputes about the image of the King and Queen in the painting and whether it is a painting or a mirror. Velázquez has also included his image which gives us the impression that the whole scene is a mirror reflection which the artist is looking at. Akin to Wall’s picture, this creates a complex spatial relationship between the viewer and the subject – if we assume that the painting is a reflection, then the receiver’s gaze is directed at the Infanta while simultaneously identifying with her.

Diego Velázquez - Las Meninas

Figure 5. Diego Velázquez – Las Meninas (1656).

Francesca Woodman - Nude Portrait with a Mirror

Figure 6. Francesca Woodman – Nude Self Portrait with a Mirror (1976).

Further meaning to Wall’s image is given by its title, Picture for Women, which helps us decipher its symbols. It suggests that there are pictures for men and this is not one. It also places the woman as the central subject matter – she is the one that the viewer is invited to look at. Curiously, the preposition is not “of”, but “for”, hence it does not claim to represent women, but it is aimed at them instead. The woman is the subject of the spectator’s gaze, but she is also the one looking both at the viewer and the reflection of the camera, not at Wall, who is in turn looking at the woman’s reflection. This creates an endless ricochet of looks as the woman’s eye becomes both seeing and being seen. In her 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema Laura Mulvey argues that a woman is a symbol for “to-be-looked-at-ness in a visual culture organised by subconscious patriarchy.”This hints that Picture for Women is quintessentially about the voyeuristic nature of all photography as photographers enjoy looking. Moreover, it makes explicit the relationship of power between the artist, usually male, who directs and dominates the model, usually female.

Jeff Wall is one of the few image-makers who work exclusively in single pictures rather than a series, the so-called projects. The photographs that comprise his tableau oeuvre may suggest narrative, but they cannot give the viewer all the components, hence the audience becomes the writer by putting all the pieces together and creating a story based on past experiences, expectations and a plenitude of other variables. Photography was first conceived as a technical medium whose main advantage was capturing fleeting moments – think of Eadweard Muybridge’s galloping horse in mid-air.Wall’s pictures, as he prefers to call them, deem this an old-fashioned way of thinking. Like a skilled alchemist he has blended photography with painting by taking their best attributes – photography’s sense of being an accurate record of the real world and painting’s grandeur and flawless composition. Jacques Rancière asserts that there are two ways of making a picture – on the one hand, pure photography when the image presents something that is already there (most documentary photography), and on the other hand when the scene is staged specifically for the camera.To illustrate, Picture for Women is an example of the latter, a classic elaborately staged tableau photography that leaves the viewer perplexed and searching for answers that shall never be found. Moreover, the picture draws many juxtapositions, such as woman versus man, artist versus camera, and reality versus perception. In conclusion, the evasive image questions the notion of representation in photography, exposes its similarities and differences to the genre of painting and employs literary devices transformed into visuals in order to create meaning.