This technique enabled him, in fact, to make works reminiscent of projected images familiar to us from art history lectures. Wall cannot but be aware, as an art historian, of the discrepancy between the magic lantern effect of slides shown in darkened rooms and the relatively drab surfaces of pigmented cloth, however highly varnished, on museum walls. Since Wall worked closely with MoMA curator of photography Peter Galassi to select the show, The Destroyed Room, as the earliest of his works to have been included, must have been the first or among the first works he regarded as successful in incorporating his demanding aesthetic. It was originally shown in the display window of an art gallery, transformed into a kind of light box, in Wall's native city, Vancouver, where he still lives. There, passersby, completely ignorant of the theories that went into the work, would be able to give themselves over to interpreting the image seen through window glass. My sense--I can only speculate--is that they saw it, as I do, in terms of violence and transgressed privacy. The weight of abstract theory falls away, leaving a set of entirely human meanings, accessible to ordinary men and women witnessing, in a shop window, the cluttered spectacle of personal space invaded. The frilled intimate garments spilled out of rifled bureau drawers convey, immediately, the feeling of personal vulnerability. I would hate to think that the immediate response was that what the photograph showed was merely staged.
Later, Wall would use portable metal light boxes that, thanks to their scale and the intensity of their illumination, create an effect not unlike dioramas in the Museum of Natural History--only the re-enacted scenes are of human life. Interestingly, especially in the earlier pieces, the fraught concept of home and shelter plays a central role. An Eviction (1988/2004) shows just that: a man forcibly hustled out of his house by sheriffs, as a woman runs out of the house, her arms extended toward the struggling trio. The drama is seen from a distance, perhaps through a window on the second floor of a house down the block on the other side of the street in a lower-middle-class neighborhood, around noon on a sunny day in midsummer, with cars parked here and there and the neighbors going about their business. The tiny figures have the seeming defenselessness of snails removed from their shells. In Milk (1984), a homeless man, bearded and sockless, sits on the sidewalk, his back (literally) to a brick-faced wall, his jaw clenched, holding a container of milk in a paper sack with such tension that the milk is squeezed up and out in an angry, ejaculatory spurt.
There is not a lot to say about these simulated events. They speak for themselves. The couple under eviction is about to lose a home, the frustrated derelict has already lost his. Their worlds are empty and pitiless. In Doorpusher (1984) a man, shown from above, is pushing lethargically against a door. The window is boarded up, or perhaps covered in cardboard. He is, one supposes, looking for shelter, without much hope or conviction. In Trân Dúc Ván, a Vietnamese man leans against a tree, looking upward, next to a faceless wall, while a middle-aged woman walks past him, paying no heed. His homelessness is more diffuse, and more hopeless. In another work, The Storyteller (1986), a foreign-looking man sits alone on some rocks on an embankment in the shadow of an overpass, while at a distance a couple relaxes at the edge of the woods and a man sits on the ground, talking to two young people by a flickering bonfire. It is no Déjeuner sur l'herbe. The isolated seated figure is excluded from the spell of the story.
Wittgenstein imagined a book called The World as I Found It and wondered, philosophically, how it would describe the presence of the self in that world. The World as I Found It would be a good title for Wall's work, since he is really present everywhere in it. For all his immersion in structuralist and poststructuralist theory, one feels--at least I do--that what he was searching for was a way of showing the world as he found it. No single existing medium would have done the trick. But he did not document the world, though some of his work, his so-called documentary photographs, certainly does that. For the cinematographic photographs, he created models of aspects of the world he found, and then photographed those. He was producer, director, writer, best boy and cameraman, who also handled the lighting and cast the actors and found the props and did the editing. He was in this respect like Cindy Sherman, though he rarely photographed himself. He didn't need to. The world he shows is his vision objectified, even if he is literally outside it, as in a scene with well-behaved boys and girls at a birthday party, A ventriloquist at a birthday party in October 1947, done in 1990 of something that would have taken place when he was barely a year old. The title is like one by Diane Arbus. Or the astonishing Dead Troops Talk (a vision after an ambush of a Red Army Patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986), done in 1992--a cinematographic photograph if ever there was one, in which, expert viewers will note, he takes advantage of digital montage.
The immense liberation granted by cinematographic photography is that it opens room for showing the imaginary as if it were real, which is what staged photography promised at its inception. One does not even require the artifice so palpable in The Destroyed Room, or the staginess of An Eviction or Doorpusher. One gives oneself license to create sets for photographs, the titles of which refer to scenes from famous novels, like Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man or Yukio Mishima's Spring Snow. These are often referred to as "illustrations" in the critical literature on Wall, but they are really stills from unmade movies, or movies one would have made only for the sake of the stills.
Somehow, my favorite work in the show is Restoration (1993). It is situated inside a panoramic diorama, in Lucerne. The panorama depicts French soldiers who have taken refuge in Switzerland at the time of the Franco-Prussian War. Wall's extremely elongated image shows some restorers on a scaffolding. One of them is pasting scraps of paper on the surface of the curved painting, between, as it were, the world of the restorers in 1993 and the world of the exhausted troops in 1871. A pensive woman, standing on the scaffold, holding a pencil, daydreams in front of the soldiers filing through the snow, just where, in the photograph, it becomes impossible to distinguish what is indoors and outdoors, past and present, living and dead, art and life. She could stand for the artist himself, with the diorama representing the world as he found it. For what it is worth, Daguerre helped invent the diorama more than a decade before he invented photography.