Biography

Jeff Wall was born in Vancouver, Canada, in 1946.

He studied art history at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, and at the Courtauld Institute, London. His work has been exhibited in numerous international exhibitions, including at the Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea, Milan (2013), the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (2012), and the Museo Tamayo, Mexico City (2008). He had a touring solo retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Art Institute of Chicago; and the San Francisco Museum of Art, in 2007.

Jeff Wall has been the recipient of numerous prizes, including the Audain Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Visual Arts (2008), The Paul de Hueck and Norman Walford Career Achievement Award for Art Photography (2001); Erna and Victor Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography (2002); and the Roswitha Haftmann Prize for the Visual Arts (2003).

“I was not looking for something. Looking doesn’t work. I drift along and see what happens. If I hadn’t stumbled across something, I would have left.”

Biography

Jeff Wall was born in Vancouver, Canada, in 1946.

He studied art history at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, and at the Courtauld Institute, London. His work has been exhibited in numerous international exhibitions, including at the Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea, Milan (2013), the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (2012), and the Museo Tamayo, Mexico City (2008). He had a touring solo retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Art Institute of Chicago; and the San Francisco Museum of Art, in 2007.

Jeff Wall has been the recipient of numerous prizes, including the Audain Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Visual Arts (2008), The Paul de Hueck and Norman Walford Career Achievement Award for Art Photography (2001); Erna and Victor Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography (2002); and the Roswitha Haftmann Prize for the Visual Arts (2003).

Jeff Wall

Daybreak

During his first visit to Israel in October 2010, Jeff Wall came upon a scene of Bedouin olive pickers sleeping on a farm near Mitzpe Ramon, which sits in the shadow of a large prison.
He returned for the next harvest in October 2011 to recreate the scene and make his image ‘Daybreak’. Setting up camp at a nearby motel, with the laundry room converted into a makeshift lab, he worked with a team of Israeli assistants, following the same routine each day. They woke before dawn to set up the shot and just as the sun rose, they would make several exposures. Wall and his assistants then spent the rest of the day processing the film, scanning, and reviewing the results in preparation for the next day’s shoot. Wall spent three weeks in Israel to create this image, which will be published as a book along with an essay by Ariella Azoulay.

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Jeff Wall in conversation with Charlotte Cotton

Summer 2014

CC: When did you become involved with the project?
JW: I think that I got involved quite late, Frédéric [Brenner] came to Vancouver in 2010. My wife Jeannette and I went to Israel in the fall of 2010.

CC: Is it usual for you to get these kinds of invitations?
JW: No, because I don’t do commissions. I told Frédéric at the beginning that I had no idea whether I’d ever come up with anything because I can’t just pick a subject. Some of the other people participating in the project do work in that way, it’s part of their professional métier and they think in terms of projects and ensembles of pictures. But I don’t.

I went to Israel without any idea of accomplishing anything; I went to see and have that experience. We saw a lot of people who Frédéric thought knew something about aspects of Israel and the West Bank, travelling and talking for ten or twelve hours a day. Frédéric also made it clear that there were no rules, no obligations and no criteria. That seemed to be perfectly acceptable. And it’s a region I’d never been to, and so I was curious.

“I went to Israel without any idea of accomplishing anything; I went to see and have that experience.”

CC: Who was in your group?
JW: We weren’t in a group, it was just Jeannette and me. If I’d been in a group situation, I might never have gotten the chance to make the picture I did because it all happened by accident. This subject had nothing directly to do with any of the organised tours.

CC: Was it something that you saw on the first trip you made in fall 2010?
JW: We were with Clinton Bailey, an American Israeli scholar and advocate for the Bedouins, about whom he has written a lot. It was at the end of a very long and hot day when we had to crisscross a certain part of the country to visit a Bedouin settlement and then cross to another. We travelled along and across a specific highway several times, at a point quite far south of Jerusalem.

At one highway crossing I noticed a large prison. Late in the afternoon Clinton wanted to go to visit an old friend and former student of his, who had come to this area and founded a winery and an olive orchard. He just wanted to go and say ‘hi’ to him because we were right there. We arrived between two visits to Bedouin settlements, and sat down and had some tea. I asked Yishai, the farm owner, a bit about his farm as we were sitting there chatting. He gets his water from the prison; the waste water goes through a purification plant and he gets it to irrigate his farm.

We felt a real instant rapport with Yishai. He took us in his truck around the edge of the olive grove at about five o’clock, when the sun was already beginning to set. All the Bedouin workers were pretty much as you see them in my picture, they were getting ready to go to sleep because it was getting dark and they get up very early with the dawn. So we saw them settling down in the field for the night. They didn’t sleep in a building but on the road that runs around the edge of the olive grove. It was really striking; the contrast with their colourful blankets and the prison and the olives and the beautiful light of the setting sun. I stood at the point where the picture was eventually taken and I could see the whole scene and I thought maybe this could be a picture. But the harvest was almost over and so I knew that I had to come back the next year. And that is what we arranged to do.

Jeff Wall with Clinton Bailey

CC: When did you go back?
JW: I went back in October 2011. I wanted to do it in the later stages of the harvest because a lot of the work would have already happened, everybody was well settled into their place in the olive grove, and so it would be a sort of mature moment. By the time we got shooting it was 20 October. The men were those who’d been hired for the harvest and some of them were the workers from the previous year. They are Bedouin legal workers who come across to pick olives and they were happy to have the job of letting me photograph them.

The situation was pretty much exactly the same as I’d seen in 2010. Except I photographed at dawn, not dusk. I thought the morning was more interesting than the evening time, because they haven’t yet started their day in the fields. I wanted to make the picture in maybe the last ten seconds before they woke up, at about five in the morning. I set with the men where they were to sleep so I could see them properly, that was the only arrangement I did.

We showed up in the dark and of course we must have woken them up to some extent because we came in two or three vehicles and set up a few small working lights. It was a very small shoot, myself and two assistants, Lior Avitan and Matan Ashkenazy. I only had about ten minutes to photograph every morning because the sun comes up very quickly. It was done between about 5:00am and maybe 5:09am. Then the men got up, we drank coffee with them, then went back to our base. We created a little photo processing lab in the hotel and processed film every morning, scanned it and looked at it in the afternoon, managed to eat supper and went to bed by about 9pm.

“I only had about ten minutes to photograph every morning because the sun comes up very quickly. It was done between about 5:00am and maybe 5:09am.”

CC: And how many days did you do this?
JW: Five or six days with the men. We also had a few days of testing so eight or nine days overall. I think I was there for at least three weeks because I had a lot of preparation to do.

CC: Did you bring your studio assistants or did you work with other people?
JW: Frédéric had wonderful assistants for the project and I worked with them. I’m still in touch with some of them; they were so terrific, I’d love to work with them again. We lived in this quite small hotel together for the ten days, and it was like being with your family at a remote camp. They are all photographers, and had a real devotion to the project Frédéric invented. I think they loved that it was happening, and so the whole atmosphere was one of the most enjoyable I’ve ever had.

CC: Did you have any reservations about working in Israel?
JW: No, because I insisted to myself that I wasn’t going to treat Israel as a place that was different from any other place. If I had, I might have a preconception and I thought that would just be artistically uninteresting. Because for me everything begins with an accident, I didn’t want to get wound up in anyone’s ideas. I don’t have ideas, I don’t start with an idea, just a subject that comes to me in some way. And, at that moment on the olive farm, I thought it was crazy how the prison and the orchard came together. And I was also struck by the freedom of the workers to sleep out under the sky while there are thousands of people sleeping in cells underground just half a mile away. So it became: those who sleep outside, those who don’t sleep outside, very simple.

CC: And very real as well.
JW: Yes, I witnessed it and didn’t invent anything. I guess you can say that is the situation, coalesced as a picture by accident by many of the forces at play in Israel. That’s what made this composition work for me.

“I guess you can say that is the situation, coalesced as a picture by accident by many of the forces at play in Israel. That’s what made this composition work for me.”

CC: And did it feel different to work there?
JW: It’s not that I didn’t notice I was in Israel. I mean, you can’t be there and not notice, and of course there was a lot of discussion about many aspects of the place and of the lives of the people I was with; but that was the social existence of being there, not the artistic space. Once I got into the space of photographing, the wider world didn’t penetrate so much, particularly because we were in such a remote spot. The picture is obviously derived from and connected to the outside world of Israel but once we began working on it we were in our own little bubble and I just let it be that way. There were fighter jets and helicopters flying overhead and the military are very present there – there’s a very large base nearby. I probably could have caught a helicopter in the sky, but that was not really going to do anything for this picture. But they were there. If the prison hadn’t been there I’m sure I would not have made the picture, and, given the circumstances, I would probably not have done anything.

CC: Coming back to something you said earlier about finding this picture on the exploratory trip in 2010, is it typical for you to hold a picture in your mind?
JW: Yes, if circumstances require it. If I had been able to do it then in 2010, I would have done so, but it wasn’t possible because the moment had passed. But, luckily, because it’s a cyclical situation, we could come back for the next harvest. It wasn’t the best situation to have to wait a whole year, because I had then to commit to being in another place a year from then, which is hard for me.

CC: What happens next, after you have shot the negatives from your five or so days of shooting?
JW: Normally I would try to print it and get it finished, but in this case, I examined the pictures to make sure that there were not going to be any surprises when we came to print the work later; and then I left it alone for quite a while and went on to other things. I am just printing it now.

CC: What’s your relationship like with your pictures once they are rendered?
JW: You mean once they go out of my studio?

CC: Yes.
JW: I pay attention to them and I like to see them displayed properly when I get a chance, like in an exhibition. I don’t forget about them once they are finished, and from time to time I look at them intensely and judge them again. I do this regularly with every picture I’ve done, I come back to them and assess them at another moment of their, and my, life. They’re always still kind of happening for me; they don’t really recede into the past too much because it seems to me that every time I see them it’s a new occasion to encounter them and experience them, and, hopefully enjoy and appreciate them, and once more to find them to some extent good. I’m trying not to repeat myself, but they come back in the sense that sometimes I see something I did in the past, maybe twenty or thirty years ago, and it generates some new connection and maybe has an influence on what I am noticing in the present. So I’m never really done with them.

“I do this regularly with every picture I’ve done, I come back to them and assess them at another moment of their, and my, life.”

'One Picture'-a short film