Gary Dufour is an art historian in Perth, Australia. Formerly chief curator and deputy director of the Art Gallery of Western Australia, and senior curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Dufour has been a curator of contemporary art for four decades. He is the editor of Jeff Wall Catalogue Raisonné 2005–2020, forthcoming from Gagosian in 2021.
Jeff Wall was born in 1946 in Vancouver, Canada, where he continues to live and work. He has exhibited widely, including solo exhibitions at Tate Modern, London (2005), the Museum of Modern Art, New York/Art Institute of Chicago/San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2007), the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam/Kunsthaus Bregenz (2014), and the Kunsthalle Mannheim, Germany (2018).
Gary Dufour Discovering visual situations that suggest pictures in the neighborhoods around your studio or near your home is something you have done for many years. So I am assuming that when you were able to work again during the pandemic, after returning to Vancouver midway through a complex cinematographic picture in Los Angeles this spring, you were able to reestablish your routines quite quickly.
The Spanish Banks on English Bay are close to where you have lived since the 1970s and a very familiar spot. Like so many of your earliest pictures, Low tide  seems to have evolved from your habit of paying close attention to the near-at-hand—to something you might see, or even just remember, whether that is a landscape overlooked or a tight focus on something discovered. Can you recall what led you back to the tidal flats along Spanish Banks Beach?
Jeff Wall The shallows at the beach there go out a mile or more, so it’s a great walk. I’ve lived on the same block, almost on the beach, for the past fifty years, and going out there is a nice routine. I like looking at the freighters from the low tide line. I had to interrupt the two-part picture project I was doing in Los Angeles in March because of the restrictions in California. I came back to Vancouver in April to wait for an opportunity to return, which didn’t occur till August. Everything has been slowed down, of course, but I’ve been very fortunate to be able to keep getting to my studio and doing things pretty much as usual all along.
Vancouver in the high summer is one of the best places to be; the weather can be great and the days are very long. So I had some time. While far out on the beach I noticed the seaweed tufts left drying on the sand after the water retreated, and I found their arrested complicated shapes suddenly interesting. I got my Hasselblad and took it along on a couple of sunny afternoons, just seeing what I’d get. I wasn’t thinking about taking pictures, I was just taking a long walk, but at some point I got the sense that I could do something. So I shot ten or fifteen rolls.
GD You started making documentary photographs around 1990 with the still-life pair Some beans and An Octopus. The subject of the second of these is a somewhat exotic sea animal, brought near to be observed more closely. Low tide seems to be a continuation of this type of still life, but within a landscape image; it’s a documentary photograph that takes its start from the sea and the abundance of sinuous forms. Could you say something about how looking through water in some of your earlier works, whether at the discarded objects in Rainfilled suitcase  or at sea life in The Flooded Grave [1998–2000], connects with Low tide? Or maybe it doesn’t? Rainfilled suitcase is a documentary photograph, a similar form of informal found still life, if you will, and The Flooded Grave—well, it’s something different, what you call a cinematographic photograph.
JW I guess they do connect, or at least they resonate. As I said, I’ve lived near the ocean most of my life, and I think it’s natural in that case to be quite aware of a lot of little or even slightly obscure things that occur where the water and the land meet. Tide pools, driftwood and ocean detritus, tadpoles sparkling in an inch of water, groves of seaweed, birds hunting from high above, and so on. So there are a lot of “coastal” elements in various of my pictures. Many years ago I used the term “liquid intelligence” to talk about photography. I was referring mainly to the water used in film processing, but now I think that my affection for the role water plays in photography is probably also connected to my being a coastal person.
GD Lingering over Low tide is very satisfying; it offers up the chance to see something familiar that, without your intervention, your photograph, would disappear almost instantly: the redistribution of bubble clusters, endless new configurations of ripples on the water, and the seaweed swirls lifted twice daily by tidal currents. Is it okay to think of Low tide as a still life, something found? Your work expands on that genre in painting and photography, which over centuries has extended moments and isolated incidents and has brought the faraway nearer in pictures. What is it that continues to draw you to still life?
JW I think I’m drawn to forms above all—forms and colors. All kinds of forms and colors. But there’s something particularly compelling about forms and shapes that have been caused by fluid flows, whether water or air. The burst of papers in A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai)  are flecks of matter caught in such a flow; obviously the explosion of milk in the picture Milk  is an acute example of liquid flow causing a shape to exist for an instant before your eyes, because of what photography alone can do. I remember being very attracted to the changes of shape of the mop being used by the man in Volunteer —its tangled, constantly changing form was something I really wanted to get right in that picture. I find those kinds of forms in a lot of my pictures that are ostensibly about other things.
GD The extremely high photographic angle you use in Low tide eliminates the horizon. Is Low tide shot from a higher angle than most of your pictures? The cropping of the image makes me think of the freshness of early modernist photographs with near vertical down shots, or the clarity and detail of a close-up. Both transform the familiar into something new, which is what this picture does. Could you elaborate on the compositional choices you made to realize Low tide?
JW The horizon was distracting and wasn’t at all what I was actually looking at. My glance was always down at what was at my feet, so I just reiterated that glance, that gesture, with the camera in my hands. Placing the camera is always a gesture. It reiterates a moment of seeing, a personal moment. I often set my camera pretty much level on a tripod and avoid much pronounced looking up or down. I see that as a calm, sober, observant attitude, and it’s sort of a norm for me. It’s a norm, but a mild one, not binding in any way. I didn’t have a lot of time to shoot that little zone, because I think the tide was just beginning to fill back in. I think if the water had gotten maybe an inch deeper there wouldn’t have been a picture there anymore. It quickly seemed obvious to me that I had to show the water surface extending away from the little zone I was concentrating on—but to show that surface as seemingly limitless. So of course, the horizon was excluded. We all know the horizon is there, even when we don’t see it. I did frame the horizon quickly in each shot, to level the camera as much as possible, then tipped it down and exposed.
GD The down shot in photography is now ubiquitous; images shot from drones are given pride of place in everything from newscasts to car ads. So the visual vocabulary is familiar, but the clarity and detail of Low tide can set viewers onto a different path. Like all your images, it rewards a second look, offering the dense texture of a good short story. I don’t mean that in any narrative sense, but more how an endless array of incidents unfolds from the familiar when closely observed, since photographs are launchpads for the imagination. Could you talk a bit about the accidental in your photographs? Especially since the myth continues that you control everything—which clearly would have been impossible with Low tide. Notwithstanding that, it seems like viewers can count the bubbles in every cluster and isolate every strand of seaweed.
JW I’ve said many times that the accidental is always part of what happens in the making of any of my pictures. I control what I feel is artistically necessary to control, nothing more. But for the most part, you try to control your own attentiveness and behavior. As I said, you gesture with the camera. It’s not all that easy to stand very still, very balanced, and keep your eyes focused on something specific. But you are making the gesture of doing that with a camera placed on a level tripod. You are very calm and alert, breathing evenly and keeping quiet. If you think of that as a central approach, then you can gauge your divergence from it in handling the camera differently, in making a somewhat different gesture. For me, looking down at the water required me to be pretty steady, level, and unhurried, even as the tide was running. I had to take a deep breath as I got the camera level to the horizon, and then I tipped it down. I just controlled myself, as usual. Control, like accident, has innumerable meanings, and it appears in endless different ways in the process of making photographs, or any art.
GD Low tide brings to mind another pioneer of modernist photography, Alfred Stieglitz, particularly his pictures of grasses and poplars, taken near Lake George, New York. Minus the symbolist leanings of his Equivalents, the photographs of clouds he made in the 1920s and 1930s, do his photographs interest you?
JW I’ve got no problem with his symbolist leanings! Stieglitz is great.
Jeff Wall artwork © Jeff Wall