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Jeff Wall
Housekeeping, 1996
Gelatin silver print
200 x 262 cm
Purchased 2000

Jeff Wall, now in his mid-fifties and based in Vancouver, is considered to be one of the most important artists working with photography today. Wall trained as an art historian and is often described as a social observer whose project is the depiction of modern life. For over 25 years he has been working on large-scale back-lit colour photographs that depict staged scenes and are presented in light boxes similar to those used in advertising. However, Wall's subject matter differs greatly from advertisements.

While we typically think of photographs as representations of reality and paintings as products of the artist's imagination, Wall's images merge both possibilities. Although his works aspire to the high art of painting, Wall is conscious of the fact that in the technologically-oriented late twentieth century it is difficult to treat the subject of modern life through painting. At the same time, he dissociates his work from the photographic aesthetic of spontaneity. In constructing his photographs he works like a cinematographer, developing subjects, scouting locations, casting actors, and setting up scenarios. He then photographs these scenarios, and the resultant large-format colour images are informed by painterly, cinematic, and photographic traditions.

Housekeeping is representative of a dramatic shift in Wall's practice. With this big black-and-white photograph, he has abandoned the light-box format. Housekeeping depicts a hotel room in perfect order. The bed has just been made, the carpet has been vacuumed, and the phone books are neatly stacked. A woman dressed in a cleaner's uniform, her back to the viewer, is leaving the room and pulling the door closed. This ordinary image possesses all the spontaneity of a snapshot; it looks as if Wall has simply reproduced what was in front of him.

Housekeeping was staged, but it lacks the deliberately staged look of earlier works. It seems to reside in some new territory defined more by documentary photography and the cinematic tradition. While the moment portrayed in Housekeeping is easy to comprehend, it is also strangely unfamiliar. Spectators are rarely privy to such a scene - hotel room cleaners usually clean unoccupied rooms. In this gesture, Wall's camera is less the documentarian's tool and more the invisible eye of the cinematic moment. While the choice of black-and-white film emphasizes Housekeeping's documentary potential, it also points to contemporary art house cinema and the emergence of the photographic medium.

Housekeeping is part of a larger series of photographs picturing cleaners at work. In its depiction of a single cleaner engaged in her job, Housekeeping, like the other photographs in the series, makes visible the often ignored support staff that sustain contemporary organizations. By choosing to picture the endless cycle of labour managed by those inhabiting the margins of society, Wall has revealed a modern subject.