Arthur Lubow submits an instructive profile of aptly-named photographer Jeff Wall, whose lightbox-mounted transparencies are measured in feet, not inches.
Men Waiting, with its cast of 20, its two-week shoot and its on-the-street location, is a small-scale Wall production. Not long before, the artist devoted a full year to In front of a nightclub — a picture of young people standing outside a Vancouver club at night. The shoot took so long because the club Wall found, on a heavily trafficked thoroughfare, could not be photographed as he wished. There was no place for him to stand with his tripod and large-format camera. So he had the club exterior — the columns and grille-work of the facade, the gum-spotted sidewalk, the concrete curb — reconstructed in a studio. One assistant worked for six months dressing the set. “Of course, you can’t see everything he did, but that doesn’t matter,” Wall says. “There is dirt and moss growing in the cracks where the bottom of the building is crumbling, but you can’t see it. The discoloration of the sidewalk is extremely accurate, and it took many layers of application. My son and his friends came and chewed gum. That was their job for two weeks.” He placed his strobes in the precise locations occupied by the street lamps and other lights that shine opposite the real nightclub. Concealed in a van with blacked-out windows, he and his assistants parked outside the actual club on several nights and, using a telephoto lens, took 300 or 400 snapshots of the kids gathered there. Wall scrutinized the photos for characters and clusterings he liked, then he hired 40 extras from a casting agency. Dividing them into two groups and giving them general directions, he photographed them over the course of a month on alternate nights. (“People’s metabolism is different at night, their coloring is different,” he explains.) For each group he finished with only one frame that satisfied him. “You only need one,” he points out. Using digital technology, he combined the two photos of the crowd with a third one of the building into his final picture.