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In Jeff Wall's photographs, it's all about the details - but are they important?

When you see one of Jeff Wall's large-format photographs reproduced in a book or newspaper, detail is lost. That's inevitable. But something else is lost, too: the irony or wry, gothic humor, the self-subverting postmodern wink. That loss underscores how essential scale is to Wall's work, and how his images function in two distinct modes - one multifaceted and complex, the other direct, journalistic and often shocking.

Jeff Wall, "Dead Troops Talk (a vision after an ambush of a Red Army patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986)," 1992, transparency in lightbox. Foto: Glenstone Museum/© Jeff Wall Jeff Wall, "An Eviction," 1988/2004, transparency in lightbox. Foto: Glenstone Museum/© Jeff Wall Jeff Wall, "Mother of pearl," 2016, inkjet print. Foto: Glenstone Museum/© Jeff Wall Jeff Wall, "Mimic," 1982, transparency in lightbox. Foto: Glenstone Museum/© Jeff Wall An installation shot of the Jeff Wall exhibition at Glenstone. Foto: Ron Amstutz/Glenstone Museum

If you have a chance to look through the catalogue before visiting the Jeff Wall exhibition at Glenstone in Potomac, Md. - the largest U.S. survey of his career in almost 15 years - compare your first impression with the photographs as they were meant to be seen, often reproduced as transparencies illuminated from behind and spanning nine or 10 feet wide. You may not notice the sleeping figures at the lower left in an image of man throwing a knife against wall in "Knife throw," or the starfish and sea life teeming in the water that fills a hole in "The Flooded Grave," or the soldier pointing to a gaping wound in "Dead Troops Talk (a vision after an ambush of a Red Army patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986").

Once you see these details, you can't unsee them. But once you do, the photographs become much more about the games we play with images and photography, and much less about their ostensible content. Their "meta" value goes up, while their documentary value may seem to collapse like a house of cards. That is surely the intent. Wall wants to seduce you, and then undermine first and second impressions, often leaving a sense of tension between the title of the image - "An Eviction," "Boy falls from tree" - and its larger complexity...

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