Thursday, March 8, 2007


Detail from Jeff Wall, A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai), 1993
Detail fromA Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) 1993 Transparency in lightbox 2290 x 3770 mm
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At MoMA some amazing photographs -- huge scenes by Jeff Wall, a Canadian photographer. Instead of the typical photos bounded by an 8x11 or 11x14 or some other 19-th or 2oth-century paper size or frame, these are HUGE (like Gursky) -- landscapes, street-corner-scapes, room-scapes. Such incredible light too, some of which comes from the light boxes that hold certain photos. Also the detail that large negatives can capture is so apparent. One amazing landscape of a river scene with mountains in the background offered clarity, as if the air had been sharpened by lightning. I loved the portrait of an artist as he drew a preserved forearm from an anatomy lab.

Also the photo above -- A Sudden Gust of Wind, based on a 19th-century Japanese woodcut. The flying pieces of paper, the scarf and hats swept up in the breeze, sheen on the water -- it's great the way Wall has re-imagined Hokusai's narrative. And Wall's photo is as much an invention as Hokusai's print. He "painted" and staged the scene. The technology of the camera, the computer and its software let photographers move farther away from the aesthetic constraints of documentary. These tools work like paintbrush and palette.

So story-telling lives on, even as we debate its necessity. Narrative comes under assault -- visual and written works of art are imagined as broken, as collages of color and sound. Don't get me wrong, I love a good story. I desire beautifully made descriptions and melodies and portraits. But it's true we live in brokenness. Stuff happens. Is it chaos theory? There's no rhyme or reason it seems. Perhaps that's why we prefer the tapestry of plot over the torn or shredded cloth.

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