Glenstone Museum in Potomac, Md., is hosting five decades worth of art by Canadian Jeff Wall, a photographer who begins a work "by not photographing."



Glenstone, a modern art museum outside of Washington, D.C., is showing massive photographs by the Canadian artist Jeff Wall. He has said of his method, I begin by not photographing. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg went to see a retrospective of his work.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: It was really disconcerting. In a gallery talking with Jeff Wall, over his shoulder I saw a woman staring at us - nosy. But she wasn't real. I mean, she was, but in a photograph, enlarged to be as big as we were, looking so real because the picture was a transparency on film, with light coming from behind in a light box. But Wall says, I don't like the idea of capturing life, so he doesn't carry a camera.

JEFF WALL: They're not obliged to be a reporter. I can start from anywhere. I can start from something I have witnessed, something I haven't witnessed, something I read - anything.

STAMBERG: He sees something disturbing - a white man pulling his eyelid back into a slant as he passes an Asian man on the street.

WALL: It's not a friendly gesture.

STAMBERG: What he's seen stays with him. He thinks about it for a while. Then, if he decides he can make something out of it, he recreates it - hires performers, scouts locations and stages the scene for his camera and then makes his art.

WALL: I like it that I didn't catch it with any kind of device. I just captured it with my own experience.

STAMBERG: Chief curator and director of Glenstone Emily Rales thinks Wall is one of the most influential artists of the last 40 years.

EMILY RALES: He did for photography what nobody else has been able to do, which is to elevate it from photojournalism and street photography to the level of sculpture and painting, really.

STAMBERG: Jeff Wall began working this way in the 1970s. After 20 years, he gave up color and transparency for a while and turned to photography's oldest form, black and white. It has a documentary quality. But again, it's not a documentary. Spotting a guy through the window of a nearby shelter mopping the floor...

WALL: Something about his kind of peaceful, absorbed quality, again, did that thing. It made me think that I could do something with this.

STAMBERG: Wall hired a young man to model for him - pensive, melancholy. It puts loneliness in black and white - how loneliness can feel. On the other hand, you can't look at his 2007 color work "Dressing Poultry" without smiling, although the subject is pretty grim. In a barn, a farm family is preparing their chickens for market.

WALL: You'll notice that a chicken has been dropped into that cone upside down.


WALL: The head comes through the bottom of the cone. The knife is in his hand. A bucket is below.

STAMBERG: But the thing is, they're all having such a good time.

WALL: Well, they were having a good time at this moment.

STAMBERG: It's a family. Slaughtering chickens is just part of everyday life for them. When he saw one of the women laughing, Wall knew that was the image he'd use.

WALL: Because it takes the whole picture somewhere else.

STAMBERG: It becomes a Jeff Wall picture - disturbing, cruel, fun, real. Five decades' worth of Wall are at Glenstone Museum in Potomac, Md.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.