Jeff Wall and the Poetic Picture:
With Bergson and Deleuze towards a Photo-theory beyond Representation

Leen DeBolle


[1] It is commonly known the extent to which the pictorial arts since the twentieth century (driven by the avant-garde and other critical movements) have called into question the 'reign of representation'. In photography, however, there seems to remain a strong attachment to representation. Photographs are said to be 'frozen scenes' that represent an eternal presence. As opposed to cinema, photographs are static. As opposed to painting, which is characterized by a certain opacity, photographs are transparent representations of reality. The two characteristics (immobility and transparency) assure photography's bond with the reign of representation. Representation assures the objective recognition of depicted objects as they resemble objects in reality or can be identified with them.

[2] The Canadian art photographer Jeff Wall, who is well known for his cinematographic tableaux and transparent colour photographs mounted in lightboxes, states: "Abstract and experimental art begins its revolution and continues its evolution with the rejection of depiction, of its own history as limning and picturing, and then, with the deconsecration of the institution which came to be known as Representation." [1] "Yet," he adds, "photography's own historical evolution into modernist discourse has been determined by the fact that, unlike the older arts, it cannot dispense with depiction." [2] Although Wall admits that, around the mid-1960s, numerous young artists and art students (more or less successfully) tried to integrate photography into "the new radical logics by eliminating all the pictorial suavity and the technical sophistication it had accumulated in the process of its own imitation of the Great Picture," [3] he also asserts that this could happen in the context of a "testing of the medium" but at the same time "without abandoning depiction." [4]

[3] Nevertheless, it is my suspicion that Wall transcends the criteria of representation (without abandoning representation) by means of a particular 'referentiality' in respect to pictorial history. Wall's multilayered images don' t seem to be oriented toward the recognition of images from the past as they open up a space for the wandering gaze, moving between the clear representation of the depicted and the vague reminiscences this evokes. They should rather be qualified in terms of contraction, fusion and condensation. As Michael Newman states: "Wall's work is an affirmation of the visible and a commitment to representation, yet it also contains built into it a sense of the limits of both." [5]

[4] In this paper, I will try to find out whether Deleuze's non-representational philosophy of difference and his conception of the virtual can provide an alternative ontology for photography as opposed to the 'modernist ontology'.

[5] A great number of photo-theoreticians have pursued long discussions about the representational nature of photography. These discussions were predominantly inspired by structuralist and semiotic theories. The 'modernist ontology' of photography (from Elisabeth Eastlake to Roland Barthes via Walter Benjamin, André Bazin and Susan Sontag) holds that the particular 'nature' of photography consists in its indexical or iconographic relation to reality. [6] The photograph is a transparent representation of reality and refers to it by means of a causal or physical relation. In the case of analogue photography, the physical relation with reality is guaranteed since the image is produced by rays of light transmitted by objects fixed on a light-sensitive silver plate. [7] However, many photo-theoreticians maintain that a 'naïve realism' is to be avoided. Moreover, a great many contemporary theoreticians have formulated some fundamental critiques on this modernist ontology. They question the relevance of semiotic theories about causal or physical relations. This fits in with the technical evolution of photography from analogue to digital. The digital image, consisting of a grid of pixels, no longer maintains a physical or causal relation to reality. [8] Consequently, the indexical thesis can be seen as merely a stage in theoretical development. Or, as Jean Baudrillard writes: "What happens to reality? What happens to representation? But when, in a Virtual world, the referent disappears, fades away in the technical programming of the image, when there is no real world facing a sensitive film [...], then there can be no real representation possible." [9]

[6] It is important here to establish a distinction between two sorts of pictures: 1) pictures for documentary, journalistic or recording purposes, which one could call 'descriptive images' and 2) pictures for artistic or other creative purposes appealing to the imagination, which one could call 'poetic images'. For the first sort of pictures, the reality value of the picture's representational status is more precarious than for the second. However, many theorists rely on a pragmatist argument. André Gunthert states: "Although all our images are now made up of pixels, we continue to open our newspapers, switch on our televisions and trust the information they provide us." [10] He concludes: "The acceptance of digital photography has demonstrated that the truth of the image is unrelated to its ontogenesis." [11] The second sort of pictures enter into a complex relationship intertwining the representational (the descriptive) and the non-representational (the poetic).

[7] For a discourse that goes beyond the picture's ontogenesis and focuses on pictorial qualities themselves, the virtual becomes highly relevant. The notion of the virtual is commonly attributed to the 'digital era' and is commonly associated with problems of de-realisation. However, the virtual is more fundamental than, and historically precedes, digitization. The word 'virtual' originates from the medieval Latin word virtualis; in the scholastic tradition, this term means the possible or the potential. [12] However, contemporary authors (Bergson, Deleuze, Serres, Hansen) distinguish the 'virtual' from the 'possible'. Whereas the duality of the possible and the real implies that the possible is not yet real, the virtual is now a real fringe of the actual. It indicates another zone of being: the poetic, the subliminal, and so on.

[8] By taking Wall's poetic images as a starting point, I will discuss how Deleuze's philosophical system provides a useful framework for the understanding and interpretation of poetic pictures. Wall himself speaks in terms of poetic images and he considers himself, with a phrase coined by Charles Baudelaire, "the painter of modern life" (Baudelaire's tag for Constantin Guys, an illustrator for the Illustrated London News). The goal for Baudelaire's Painter of Modern life "is to extract from fashion whatever element it may contain of poetry within history, to distil the eternal from the transitory." [13] Or as Wall himself puts it: "The opportunity is both to recuperate the past and at the same time to participate with a critical effect in the most up-to-date spectacularity." [14] This "up-to-date spectacularity" reveals a deep awareness of the transitory character of our times. Although Wall often refers to the paintings of masters from the nineteenth century, it is never his ambition to copy them or to restore older values or techniques proper to the medium of painting.

[9] Of his poetic images, he says: "The experience of a photograph is associative and simultaneous, and in this respect it resembles our experience of poetry. In poetic writing, meaning is not achieved by means of a consistent structure of controlled movements along lines made up of sentences. Rather the poem is made of lines that may resemble sentences typographically but which abrogate the requirement to be read the way sentences are read. So there is a break with any necessary relation to the chronicle." [15] Like a poem, which is made up by 'lines that resemble sentences' but exceeds the normal way we read sentences, a photographic image might be made up by representations that resemble the state of things in reality, but it exceeds the way representations are read. The poetic quality of an image transgresses the indexical truthfulness of a representation. It offers the possibility of 'seeing more' or seeing beyond the depicted, thereby reaching for something depiction can hardly contain in itself. Wall's references to the paintings of masters from the nineteenth century are therefore of a poetic nature.

[10] His Destroyed Room (Fig. 1), for instance, depicts a meticulously staged destroyed room containing the chaotic scattering of a woman's wardrobe: crumpled clothes, accessories, broken down furniture... Wall refers to the Delacroix painting La Mort de Sardanapale (Fig. 2), that depicts a violent scene of an Assyrian king surrounded by entwisted naked bodies swarming in agony and pain. Wall's cibachrome is not a reproduction of Delacroix's painting, nor can it be explained in terms of resemblance of the depicted objects. The resemblances established by Wall seem to be of a 'poetic' nature. Although the truth-claim that poetry makes is, as Wall has said, "not easy to define," we, "generally speaking, accept it" [16]. The poetic resemblances between La Mort de Sardanapale and The Destroyed Room deal with things that transcend the level of the objects depicted. Rather, they concern the Dionysian forces of destruction and death, which are perceptible in both pictures. They operate at the level of forces, colours and orientations. Wall's picture is the unmediated revival of the forces of Delacroix's spectacle. Resonances of Delacroix are palpable in the Dionysian sphere of destruction and devastation, suggesting a sexual tension, possible sadistic pleasure and a voyeuristic gaze on it. Furthermore, the connection between the two images also consists in the strange compositional control. Of Delacroix, it is said that he "probably presented the best organized chaos in the history of art." [17] This can be said par excellence of Wall, who meticulously stages the scenes he is to photograph.

Fig. 1: J. Wall, The Destroyed Room (1978).

Fig. 2 : E. Delacroix, La Mort de Sardanapale (1827).


[11] Most of Wall's photographic tableaus are invested with non representational forces. They are contractions or repetitions of various images belonging to pictorial history thus provoking déjà-vu effects and feelings of Unheimlichkeit. With some of his photos, for instance, Wall himself refers explicitly to images from the past; others can be interpreted as such by the spectator. Some other examples of this referentiality are: A Sudden Gust of Wind (After Hukosai) (Fig. 3), which refers to Katsushika Hokusai's A High Wind in Yeijiri, Suruga Province. From the series Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji (Fig. 4); The Arrest (Fig. 5), which refers to Caravaggio's The Flaggelation of Christ (Fig. 6); Stereo (Fig. 7), referring to Manet's Olympia (Fig. 8); Backpack (Fig. 9), which refers to Manet's Le Fifre (Fig. 10); The Crooked Path (Fig. 11), which refers to Poussin's Landscape with Diogenes (Fig. 12); The Storyteller (Fig. 13), referring to Manet's Le déjeuner sur l'herbe (Fig. 14) ; The Drain (Fig. 15), which refers to Cézanne's Le Pont de Maincy (Fig. 16); and Picture for women (Fig. 17), which refers to Manet's Un bar aux Folies Bergères (Fig. 18).

Fig. 3: Wall, J. A Sudden Gust of Wind (After Hokusai), (1993).

Fig. 4: Katsushika Hokusai, A High Wind in Yeijiri, Suruga Province.
From the series Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji (1827).

Fig. 5: Wall, J., The Arrest (1998).

Fig. 6: Caravaggio, M., The flagellation of christ (1606-1607).

Fig. 7: Wall, J., Stereo (1989).

Fig. 8: Manet, E., Olympia (1863).

Fig. 9: Wall, J., Backpack (1981-1982).

Fig. 10: Manet. E., Le Fifre (1866).

Fig. 11: Wall, J., The Crooked Path (1991).

Fig. 12: Poussin, N., Landscape with Diogenes (1647).

Fig. 13: Wall, J., The Storyteller (1986).

Fig. 14 : Manet, E., Le déjeuner sur l'herbe (1863).

Fig. 15: J. Wall, The Drain (1989).

Fig. 16 : P. Cézanne, Le Pont de Maincy (1870-1880).

Fig. 17: Wall, J., Picture for women (1979).

Fig. 18 : E. Manet, Un bar aux Folies Bergères (1882).

[12] What now can be said furthermore about this poetic nature of referentiality?


[13] Thierry De Duve remarks in his "The Mainstream and the Crooked Path" (1995) that Wall's work is characterized by a rejection of the art of quotation. He admits that at first glance this seems to imply a contradiction. Wall would oppose himself to the practice of quotation, although "... there are few artists with a more sophisticated practice of redeploying and subverting original sources, and of direct or oblique allusion." [18] He explains that this statement is nevertheless distinct from quoting since "these procedures are poles apart from the practice of quotation which prevails among the artists with whom he shares a background in conceptual art, poles apart from quotation conceived as objet trouvé or readymade, from appropriation, from rephotographing, from the art of quotation marks." [19]

[14] The references in Wall's work, on the contrary, seem to be reminiscences that do not exclusively refer to the great images of the history of art but that also open up a kind of poetic unconscious. With some of his photos, for instance, Wall refers explicitly to images from the past. None of his works, however, depicts objects that are exactly the same as in the paintings or drawings of which they are reminiscent. Neither do they consist of parts or fragments borrowed from them. The rejection of the art of quotation is related to another aspect mentioned by De Duve; namely, the rejection of the photo-montage and its fragmentary character. Photo montage consists of a juxtaposition of quotations or fragments that establishes a new constellation. Fragments, components, atomic parts are the elements of it. Wall's photos, on the contrary, can be considered as great tableaux that become displaced.

[15] De Duve mentions some Freudian concepts that function in the field of the interpretation of dreams, namely condensation and displacement, to which it is said that Wall himself refers. Processes of condensation and displacement are both processes of the unconscious by means of which we transfer or distribute meaning, either from one meaning to another (displacement) or from various meanings to only one (condensation). As an example of these condensations and displacements, De Duve draws our attention to the many reminiscences in The Drain (1989) (Fig. 15) that refer to Cézanne's Le Pont de Maincy (1879 - 1880) (Fig. 16), although he admits that Wall has confided in him that he had "never in his life made a conscious iconographic reference to Cézanne in any of his works, nor has really studied him, nor read his biography; this, he says, does not stop him from having the greatest admiration for Cézanne or from having him in mind plastically, when composing." [20]


[16] Up to this point, we can conclude that Wall's referentiality has nothing to do with exact resemblances between depicted objects, with direct quotation, handed down fragments or found objects. But what precisely is Wall's relation to the history of art? Concepts such as reminiscence, condensation and displacement have already been mentioned. Following De Duve, we could add to this the notion of déjà-vu. As a result of the similarities between Wall's The Drain and Cézanne's Le Pont de Maincy, De Duve states that the referentiality in terms of condensations, displacements and reminiscences are all about "the artists' chance encounter with the familiar, the déjà-vu...." [21] Furthermore, he describes this phenomenon as "... a secret recall of that Heimlichkeit which resides in all Unheimlichkeit, an unconscious encounter with something déjà-vu." [22] The déjà-vu effect we experience when looking at Wall's The Drain is of course due to the fact that both images look at first sight fairly similar. Both images show an idyllic tableau of nature, plenty of trees and green leaves, in the middle a river with a bridge above it. At first glance, we have the impression that we have seen this scene before.

[17] The biggest difference is the presence of the two little girls in The Drain and their absence in Cézanne's painting. This difference is the reason De Duve makes his point in a slightly strange way – negatively, as it were. He asks us to abstract from some things, in the first place, the two girls: "Forget the two young girls with their ambiguous games and their half child-like, half-womanly postures. Forget any storyline the image might suggest and any free associations it might prompt in you. Forget the almost provocative arched stance of the girl in the short skirt and the other one's studied pose of fright. Forget that they are still playing at scaring themselves [...]" [23] Strangely enough, the more De Duve asks us (by means of his detailed descriptions and incantation-like imperatives) to forget, the more our attention is directed towards those very things we are asked to forget. De Duve's paradoxical exercise seems to operate on the level of discerning similarities and differences. This operation of abstraction, however, is the object of a comparative investigation. It is a construction. The experience of déjà-vu thus becomes explained or analyzed afterwards, by means of a faculty that has distanced itself from the immediate impact of the déjà-vu and its Unheimlichkeit. Moreover, an inventory of similarities and differences operates within the 'order of Resemblance', the 'order of the Same', that are the categories par excellence of representation. The Unheimlichkeit we experience when looking at The Drain should rather be explained in terms of an unconstructed and direct contact with something 'original.' Although we feel a little unease, unlike the psychoanalytical connotations of the 'uncanny' in terms of fear or anxiety, this experience brings us in the nearness of something 'original' that has come detached from its place. In this experience, we are no longer the subject of recognition in respect to the representation of a state of things; rather, we coincide with something that refuses every logical, mechanical or transcendental construction.

[18] This experience of Unheimlichkeit could be reconciled with Henri Bergson's notion of the deeper self (Moi Profond). With this notion, Bergson positions himself explicitly against Kant. The deeper self is a self that, unlike Kant's passive, empirical self of the faculty of sensibility or the active unity of apperception of the faculty of understanding (the "I think"), is capable of grasping the unmediated material of the sensible. The deeper self establishes a direct contact with the totality of the given since for Bergson there is no such (Kantian) splitting up of the subject into an empirical and a transcendental subject. The deeper self is an inner self that proceeds by means of intuition. For Bergson, intuition is a method that brings us directly in contact with the real.

[19] In this case, we intuitively apprehend the strange paradox that Wall's complex images are all about an original mise-en-scène: original but somehow secondary. On the one hand, we cannot get rid of the impression that Wall's picture in its totality, distinct from its fragments or parts, from its differences or similarities, acquires a particular dynamic unrelated to Cézanne's painting. On the other hand, De Duve's exercise makes us aware of a strong sense of paradox, such as seeing and not seeing, recalling and forgetting, similar and not similar.


[20] Henri Bergson's explanation of this experience is the following: in the déjà-vu, we experience the past in the present moment. The structure of déjà-vu consists in the fact that it is an actual perception and at the same time a recollection. This recollection, however, is not the conscious representation of a former present. That which becomes inserted in the experience of the actual moment, does not interfere with the present whatsoever. It is not something that would be the continuation of the present into the past, in the sense of a former present; rather, it is something belonging to a past that is of a totally different nature.

[21] In his Matter and Memory (1939), Bergson establishes a 'difference in nature' between the 'past' and the 'present'. Whereas the present is characterized by actions performed in response to the demands of practical life, such as those concerning the sensory-motor prolongation of bodily movements in a materialistic universe, the past is characterized by immaterial, spiritual phenomena: dreams, hallucinations, fantasies, déjà-vu and so on. This notion of the past, which releases all bonds with the materialistic universe, is called the pure past or the virtual past. By 'pure' and 'virtual,' Bergson means that it is totally distinct from actual representations and that it is inaccessible to psychological recollection in the sense of a representation of a former present. In déjà-vu, as in the dream state, our attention is suspended from the practical demands of daily life and we experience the actual moment and the pure past in the same instance. Bergson explains: "The memory will be seen to duplicate the perception at every moment, to arise with it, to be developed at the same time, and to survive it precisely because it is of a quite different nature." [24] The present and the past differ in nature, but they coexist as two different worlds. The virtual past is a zone of being where time emerges in person. Although it is not representative, out of reach, or unassailable, virtual memory accompanies every moment as a personality accompanies the person. The virtual past differs in nature from the actual present, but at the same time it constitutes, with the actual present, one and the same event. As such, the virtual past breaks with the chronological succession of moments. It remains unaffected by logical or chronological representations. The glimpses of a seemingly other life that it offers are, strictly speaking, not datable. The pure or virtual past does not offer localizable representations.

[22] In so far as we understand déjà-vu within the logics of representation and resemblance, we are comparing various representations. Déjà-vu as the coexistence of virtual memory and actual presence, on the contrary, establishes connections between non-representational, non-chronological, vague, dreamlike elements and actual representations. In the case of The Drain: we do not simply compare it with a clear and distinct representation of Le Pont de Maincy. Even if our memory would present a clear and localizable representation of Cézanne's painting, it almost immediately starts transforming, blurring or fading away. Also, the remembrance itself of it consists of a contraction of other images or it moves from image to image, so that it becomes Cézanne's painting.

[23] The most striking paradox of déjà-vu (as Bergson conceives it) is the fact that we seem to remember something that we have not, strictly speaking, seen, since the pure past is inaccessible to psychological experience. Rather than say that déjà-vu refers to representations of the past, we could, somewhat paradoxically, say that it refers to that which has never been seen. This is the déjà-vu of which Catherine Francblin says that "it is as if déjà-vu were for him [Wall] just an agent for the transmission of jamais-vu (the never-seen)." [25]


[24] Gilles Deleuze was the first to radicalize Bergson's theories of pure memory towards an ontology of the virtual: "What Bergson calls 'pure memory' has no psychological existence. That is why it is called virtual, inactive and unconscious. [...] Strictly speaking, psychology belongs to the present. Only the present is 'psychological', the past, however, is pure ontology." [26]

[25] This ontology of the virtual establishes, as Deleuze calls it, a world with two foci. Deleuze mentions an image that is actual and virtual at the same time: "... we can say that the actual image itself has a virtual image which corresponds to it like a double or a reflection. In Bergsonian terms, the real object is reflected in a mirror-image as in the virtual object, which, from its side and simultaneously, envelops or reflects the real: there is 'coalescence' between the two. There is a formation of an image with two sides, actual and virtual" [27]- whereby the actual pole stands for the order of depiction, while the virtual stands for the poetic forces transcending the order of depiction. Or, in Wall's words: "Thus, to make an image, there are two atmospheres crossing each other of which the one that is hidden is more powerful than the other." [28]

[26] We discern here the theoretical possibilities of going beyond the representational nature of depiction. As Wall himself said about the poetic: "Most artists – at least most good ones – would probably concede that at some point or other their work raises a poetic kind of claim to relate to something outside itself." [29] This 'outside itself' can precisely be understood as that which appeals to a zone of being that cannot be represented or depicted: the virtual.

[27] The radicalization of Bergson's notion of the virtual into ontological terms implies that the virtual is no longer restricted to temporal connotations such as memory or reminiscence. This dual character of Wall's pictures, however, does not solely concern the way we as spectators read or experience them, but also the way Wall (consciously or unconsciously) conceived them or (re)constructed them. Next to our experience of déjà-vu, of perceiving a virtual memory in his pictures, this virtual memory is built into the pictures by Wall himself. In this respect, Newman draws attention to the staged, reconstructed aspect of his cinematographic tableaux. Because of the elaborate reconstruction, the relation of the picture to reality in its indexical quality becomes suspended, and a virtual memory is inserted: "The retrospective character of reconstruction incorporates into the process of making the photograph what would normally, in snapshot or documentary photography, be an aspect of the reception of the photograph: the working of memory. The photograph is no longer the indexical trace of a 'raw' sight, but the representation of an experience that has been absorbed and worked through, whether consciously or unconsciously." [30] Newman relates this insight to another duality already mentioned above: "It is in this way that the cinematographic photograph realizes Baudelaire's program of combining the fleeting and the eternal beauties of modernity." [31]

[28] The ontology of the virtual that establishes a world with two foci renders better account of the strange doubleness of Wall's photos than the modernist ontology of representation. His tableaux of the scenes of daily life testify to an oneiric atmosphere. His figures, that seem at first sight absorbed by their occupations, are meticulously staged. The 'flat' images seem to contain a depth that paradoxically rises to the surface.


[29] The ontology of the virtual concerns all the dualities or paradoxes that are commonly mentioned in respect to Wall's pictures: the ephemeral and the eternal, the banal and the oneiric, transparency and opacity, absorption and theatricality and flatness and depth.

[30] The picture of a naked young man stretched out on a couch, a walkman plugged in his ears, that is entitled Stereo (Fig. 7) offers a strange contrast between being completely exposed to the viewer and being self-sufficient. Newman writes: "There is a sense in which he is at once visually available and yet opaque." [32]

[31] Another picture, Adrian Walker (Fig. 19), depicts, as Martin Schwander describes in an interview with Wall, "a young man who is concentrating so intensely on his work that he seems to be removed to another sphere of life." [33] Wall replies: "One [way of looking at the picture] is that it is a picture of someone engaged in his occupation and not paying attention to, or responding to the fact that he is being observed by, the spectator." [34] Referring to a distinction made by Michael Fried about the relationship between figures in pictures and their spectators, namely the 'absorptive mode' and the 'theatrical mode', Wall adds: "He [Fried] identified an 'absorptive mode', exemplified by painters like Chardin, in which figures are immersed in their own world and activities and display no awareness of the construct of the picture and the necessary presence of the viewer. Obviously the 'theatrical mode' was just the opposite. In absorptive pictures, we are looking at figures that appear not to be 'acting out' their world, only 'being in' it. Both of course are modes of performance." [35]

Fig. 19: Wall, J. Adrian Walker (1992).

[32] These paradoxes of the banal and the constructed, of absorption and theatricality, appeal to another kind of re-doubling: the re-doubling of the very notion of identity itself. To Wall, this paradox is the source of all transformation and development. Furthermore, this reflection on his subjects is elevated to the level of a more general reflection on modernity. Wall asserts: "The key experience for modernist art, I think, is this dissociation of identity. Through it, we perceive at once our real life as it is, and at the same time we sense something extremely different." [36] In addition, he remarks that it is by means of techniques borrowed from painting and cinema that photography, which is normally not capable of showing something outside its proper identity, can represent this 'other life' or this 'virtual life' beyond our 'actual life'. But unlike painting itself, Wall's medium is characterized by immediacy. The photographic image is the immediate depiction of a scene. It is the result of a simultaneous, not a consecutive, operation. It is not the gathering of parts, brought together into one whole. Rather, we could say that the relation of the parts to the whole is replaced by repetitions or circulations of wholes displacing or streaming into one another.

[33] The co-existence or 'coalescence' of a virtual and an actual part implies that depth and surface coincide in the 'flatness' of the photographic image. Depth and surface are no longer distinct from the spatial, three-dimensional point of view, but they merge into one another, thereby constituting an image that is really 'multilayered' in its very flatness. Furthermore, Deleuze's qualification of the virtual implies that the clear and transparent surface of the image always contains an obscure depth, but this depth rises to the surface and constitutes with the surface a paradoxical image that is both transparent and opaque.

[34] Following Deleuze, it is my suspicion that photographic images, to the extent that they reach a certain 'poetic or artistic status', are characterized by this double structure, being partly actual and partly virtual, and as such, both remaining within the realm of representation while at the same time also transgressing it. Especially in respect to Wall's work, the modernist ontology of a fully 'actual image', cannot sufficiently account for the intrinsic complexity of the image. Wall's photographic tableaux are not merely representations of the actual state of things. They are contractions of coexisting series of actual and virtual elements, as such appealing to a world with two foci. Elucidating the working of his lightboxes, Wall points out that, contrary to paintings or ordinary photography, where the light falling on them is the same as the light that enters the room, there are now two sources of light. Extending this bifocality to the ontological assumption of two different worlds (a 'visible' world that is present and a 'hidden' world that is always 'somewhere else'), Wall asserts: "For me, this experience of two sites, of two worlds, in the same instant, is the essential form of the experience of modernity." [37]


[35] So far we can conclude that Deleuze's ontology of the virtual corresponds very well with a thesis that uncovers the artistic relevance of photographic images. Now, we could even go one step further and reflect upon the relevance of Deleuze's broader philosophical system in respect to poetic pictures. In his main work, Difference and Repetition (1968), Deleuze constructs the conditions for his later works. There he develops a sub-representative system consisting of three passive syntheses. These are three fundamental repetitions of the unconscious that constitute the present, the past and the future. The passive syntheses operate in a system that can be qualified as 'transcendental empiricism' or 'superior empiricism'. This system of transcendental empiricism must allow to "apprehend directly in the sensible that which can only be sensed, the very being of the sensible." [38]

[36] With these notions Deleuze explicitly opposes his system to that of Kant. His triple structure of the passive synthesis of time (habit, memory and the eternal return) are the counterparts of Kant's active synthesis of imagination, understanding and reason. [39] For Deleuze, the concept of passivity implies an activity that he calls—according to Plotinus and Hume—contemplation and contraction. [40] But this activity is not initiated by the mind, it is an activity that is a contraction of the mind. [41] The passive syntheses are repetitive, rhythmic processes of the unconscious, like for instance, the beating of the heart, the contractions of muscles, the multiplication of cells, the play of involuntary memories and drives and so on. These are the constitutive elements that precede every conscious apperception. This new transcendental philosophy does not culminate in representation by recognition, or the faculty of the understanding that connects the objects with a thinking subject by the use of concepts, as it did for Kant. Deleuze wants to lead his three syntheses into the play of difference and repetition. These are the transcendental conditions of life in all its aspects. In these dynamics, the notions of difference and repetition get a positive meaning. In representational thinking, difference and repetition were commonly understood in a negative sense: repetition was always a function of identity as the repetition of the same, while difference stood for that which did not belong to the identity of a concept. In Deleuze's system, the three syntheses of time are three fundamental repetitions, in which the notions of difference and repetition have a fully autonomous and positive meaning.

[37] These three syntheses of time can be discerned in a theory of photography beyond representation. The first synthesis that constitutes the living present Deleuze calls habitus. When the same phenomena occur repeatedly, a difference in the mind is effectuated. The same cases are contracted by the mind in the sense of contemplations. Contemplation means that a synthesis is constituted by elements that are not centralized in the mind. The syntheses they bring about are passive since "it is not carried out by the mind, but occurs in the mind which contemplates, prior to all memory and reflection." [42] Following Hume, Deleuze states that contemplation is linked to principles of association such as contiguity, resemblance, and causality that provoke a certain liveliness. By this liveliness, the experience transgresses itself towards a conviction, an expectation, a habit. As such, the mind becomes a human nature. This human nature is thus constituted without the unity of apperception or any other transcendent instance. The transcendental or determining element proceeds from an unconscious plane of immanence by means of subliminal perception, or, with a word coined from Leibniz, by means of small perceptions. [43] The activity that is not initiated by the mind but that occurs through the mind is of the nature of association, fusion, condensation and contraction. These are the concepts that characterize the experience of Wall's photographs. As mentioned above, Wall asserted that "the experience of a photograph is associative and simultaneous, and in this respect it resembles our experience of poetry." [44] More precisely, the experience of fusion, condensation and contraction elucidate the experience of 'I have seen this scene before.' Wall's referentiality installs a relation of contiguity and association with the history of pictorial arts. But this level of contiguity that constitutes the living present (my perception here and now) becomes transgressed towards an awareness of a great plentiful memory.

[38] The first synthesis transgresses itself towards a second synthesis in which there is a double development. On the one hand, there is the continuation of the passive synthesis towards the past, which constitutes a virtual memory. On the other hand, there is the series of an active synthesis of memory in a psychological sense that makes recognition, reflection, and representation possible. Of the two series that evolve out of the first synthesis, Deleuze considers the development into the deeper, passive synthesis of memory most fundamental. It is precisely this passive memory that constitutes an ontology of the virtual or world with two foci. Deleuze's radicalization of this memory towards a virtual ontology elucidates the particular ambiguity of Wall's pictures. On the one hand they are clear representations of depicted scenes; on the other hand, they exceed the mere representative status of descriptive images. This ambiguity and these paradoxes entail a more complex reflection on the ontological status of photographic pictures as such.

[39] In Deleuze's system of transcendental empiricism, this second synthesis culminates into a third synthesis in which the categories of representation, identity, resemblance, analogy and negation are once and for all overturned. This synthesis produces a repetition that is no longer a repetition of the same, or a reproduction of an original. With the third synthesis Deleuze manages to think a repetition that is fully positive and that does not refer to a first image or a lost object.

[40] Furthermore, on the level of this third synthesis, Deleuze refers to Hamlet: "Time is out of joint." [45] Time stops being cardinal and becomes ordinal. The 'joint' can be understood in terms of cardinality. In the technical speech of furniture making, the 'cardinal' stands for the hinge around which a door opens and closes. The cardinal is the joint that determines the movement. When Deleuze says, with Hamlet, that time is out of joint, he means that time is no longer subordinated to such hinges. Time becomes the non-teleological and abundant event of an excessive energy, it becomes pure order, pure 'in between': "Time itself unfolds [. . .] instead of things unfolding within it." [46] The result is that time becomes independent of God, men, and nature. Time becomes an autonomous order, a rhythm, a repetition and return, or, as Nietzsche puts it, an eternal return. The eternal return installs, as Klossowski points out, "a coherence that is so perfect, it excludes my own coherence" [47]. In the eternal return, everything comes back, not only the interesting, the joyful, or the good moments, but life in its smallest and most meaningless details. No ground of expectation or anticipation by means of acquired identifications or convictions can discipline the chaotic disjunctions of this excessive, problematic energy. The excessive contains all of the possible, in the figure of the empty form of time. The eternal return installs a revaluation of the notion of the simulacrum. Here, Deleuze's ambitious project of the 'overturning of Platonism' finds its culmination. The multiple, the different and the simulacrum belong to a secret coherence that destroys the coherence of God, men, and nature. With the third synthesis, Deleuze becomes once and for all finished with the category of identity. The cogito or the unity of apperception becomes replaced by a fundamental dissociation, a coherence, which excludes my own coherence, and an immanent plane that is only traversed by coexisting series, movements of contraction and fusion and of fields of intensities.

[41] The question now is to find out whether this third synthesis can be reconciled with the nature of photographic images or with the artistic or poetic aspect of it.


[42] As in Wall's poetic images or in Baudelaire's "Painter of Modern Life," the essential element that becomes inserted in this world with two foci is repetition. Whereas the order of representation is characterized by chronological succession, the virtual is characterized by repetition. Elucidating his virtual memory further, Bergson writes: "the same psychical life would therefore be repeated an endless number of times, on the successive storeys of memory, and the same act of the mind may be performed at varying heights." [48] For Deleuze, repetition is that which withstands the order of representation.

[43] The Czech photo-theoretician Vilem Flusser applies the notion of repetition across a broader perspective. In a philosophical, even metaphysical way, he discusses in his Towards a Philosophy of Photography (Flusser, 1983) the proper nature of the technical image (i.e., in film, television, and photography) in terms of repetition. He explains that, in opposition to traditional images (cave paintings or the frescoes in Etruscan graves), the technical image is characterized by the dynamics of an eternal return: "Technical images thus suck all of history into their surfaces, and they come to constitute an eternally rotating memory of society. [...] Everything desires to flow into this eternal memory, and to become eternally reproducible there. [...] The result is that every event or action loses its proper historical character, tending to become a magic ritual, an eternally repeated motion. The universe of technical images, as it is about to establish itself around us, poses itself as the plenitude of our times, in which all actions and passions turn in eternal repetition. It is from this apocalyptic perspective that the problem of photography will acquire the shape proper to it." [49] These philosophical (almost Nietzschean) reflections on the eternal reproducibility of photographic images seems to fit well in Deleuze's system of the three syntheses that reveals the non-representational dynamic of a poetic, magic world and an original and positive repetition. And yet, photography is the medium par excellence where an endless repetition of 'representations' becomes possible by means of reproduction.

[44] Repetition as reproduction has been extensively discussed by Walter Benjamin in his essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1935). By means of reproduction, a work of art loses its 'aura', i.e., its authenticity. This authenticity Benjamin understands as the actual presence in time and space: "... its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be." [50] Photographic images in particular lose their authenticity in the 'era of mechanical reproduction' since "From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the 'authentic' print makes no sense." [51]

[45] Despite these statements on the nature of photography, Wall's cibachromes are basically un-reproducible. Boris Groys states that "photography has apparently nothing to lose by being reproduced. Works by Wall, however, lose their glowing aura when reproduced in a catalogue or a book, although they are photographs. In reproduction, works by Wall cease to glow." [52] Newman states that this is due to the fact that Wall works with large scale lightboxes, which contribute to the "unity of the picture by creating an 'overall' effect;" [53] his cibachromes are un-reproducible: "Although the transparencies work very affectively on the page, they are, strictly speaking, un-reproducible" [54].

[46] Following Deleuze, we understand reproduction as a mechanical activity that aims at multiplication by means of technical interventions. In the long Platonic tone that dominated the history of Western culture over many centuries, the notion of reproduction has always been linked with dichotomies such as original versus copy, authenticity versus degradation, true versus false, whereby reproduction was always associated with the pejorative connotations of the false, the degraded copy. In postmodern theories, however, this Platonic tendency has been re-evaluated. The notion of an original repetition which stands in sharp contrast with reproduction as copy has gained ground.

[47] It is true that reproduction can be conceived of as a particular sort of repetition that Deleuze calls 'repetition of the same' or 'mechanical repetition,' in the sense that the same contents or parts become multiplied by means of mechanical procedures. [55] However, on the level of his third synthesis, Deleuze puts forward the paradoxical notion of repetition as a 'repetition of difference'. This is not a mechanical repetition but rather a 'spiritual' repetition.

[48] Deleuze relates this spiritual repetition with the notion of the singular. It is precisely because the singular withstands general structures and final interpretations that it can be repeated endlessly: "to repeat is to behave in a certain manner, but in a relation to something unique or singular which has no equal or equivalent." [56] When an event or a work of art is repeated, this reveals the irreplaceable singularity of it. It is thus not a matter of repeating a second or third time (etc.) but to repeat something that is paradoxically "unrepeatable:" the singular power of something unique that contains all the repetitions that will follow. As Deleuze states: "... it is not Federation Day which commemorates or represents the fall of the Bastille, but the fall of the Bastille which celebrates and repeats in advance all the Federation Days, or Monet's first water lily which repeats all the others. [...] The repetition of a work of art is like a singularity without concept, and it is not by chance that a poem must be learned by heart. The head is the organ of exchange, but the heart is the amorous organ of repetition." [57]

[49] Applying Bergson's theory of the virtual and the actual, we could say that mechanical repetition or reproduction operates at the level of the actual representations, whereas original repetitions or repetitions of difference operate on the level of the virtual; the latter are of the nature of the poetic or oneiric. The paradoxical notion of the 'repetition of difference' is also comprehensible in the context of Bergson's concept of déjà-vu. As explained above, déjà-vu is not a recognition of a former representation, but rather a recognition of that which has never been experienced. It is a repetition of something that has never been represented before; as such, it repeats an unrepeatable (in the sense of 'irreproducible') element, or repeats the different. Of Wall's work, we could say that it is unrepeatable in the sense of mechanical reproduction, but that it is characterized by original repetitions.


[50] We can conclude that Deleuze's magisterial system of the passive syntheses, producing a poetic experience, an ontology of the virtual and an original repetition of difference can offer an interesting theoretical framework to interpret and evaluate photographic images within a discourse that goes beyond representation.

[51] The system of the three syntheses established by Deleuze renders a better account of the artistic relevance of the photograph than representation does. Moreover, while photography's indexical truth claims have been extensively questioned in the era of digital photography, in favor of a virtual world, we now discern the possibility of a more fundamental and philosophical conception of the virtual that structurally precedes the problem of indexical truth in the digital era.

[52] With Wall, it has become clear that "photographers have shown the potential to generate Deleuzian images, suggest lines of flight, and imagine new kinds of becomings." When looking at Wall's pictures, we become aware of a gigantic virtual memory, a poetic world of images, which, despite their banal subject matter and 'staged' reconstructions, testify to original and singular repetitions. The Painter of Modern life seems to have managed to capture the past in the present, the virtual in the actual, the slowness in the immediate, the opacity in transparency, the depth in flatness, the non-representational in representation. The irony here lies in the fact that I, by means of a discursive medium, spent many pages discussing this re-doubling, this bifocality, these repetitions of the photographic image, while Wall succeeded in presenting them immediately with his condensed, multilayered images. Then again, irony is also an interesting Deleuzian theme.


[1] Jeff Wall, "Marks of indifference: Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art.", in Michael Newman, Jeff Wall, Jeff Wall: Works and Collected Writings (Barcelona: Ediciones Polígrafa, 2007), 352. First printed in Reconsidering the Object of Art, ed: Ann Goldstein et al. (Cambridge/Massachusetts: MIT press, 1995). Reprinted in Jeff Wall, Essais et entretiens 1984-2001 (2001). Édition établie et présentée par çois Chevrier (Paris: École Nationale Supérieure des beaux-arts, 2004).

[2] Wall, "Marks of indifference", 352.

[3] Wall, "Marks of indifference", 353.

[4] Wall, "Marks of indifference", 353.

[5] Michael Newman, "Light, Darkness and the World", in Michael Newman, Jeff Wall, Jeff Wall: Works and Collected Writings (Barcelona: Ediciones Polígrafa, 2007), 235.

[6] André Gunthert, "The Digital Imprint. The Theory and Practice of Photography in the Digital Age", in The Weight of Photography, ed. Johan Swinnen, and Luc Deneulin (Brussels: ASP editions, 2010), 425.

[7] Johansen, "The Distinction between Icon, Index and Symbol", 499. See also: Johan Swinnen and Luc Deneulin, "General Introduction: Thinking about the Theory of Photography", in The Weight of Photography, 20.

[8] See William J. Mitchell, The reconfigured Eye. Visual truth in the post-photographic era (Cambridge/Massachusetts: MIT press, 1992).

[9] Jean Baudrillard, J. "Violence Inflicted on Images", in The Weight of Photography, 221.

[10] Gunthert, "The Digital Imprint", 424.

[11] Gunthert, "The Digital Imprint", 429.

[12] Pierre Lévy, Qu'est-ce que le virtuel? (Paris: Éditions de la Découverte, 1995), 13.

[13] Charles Baudelaire, "The Painter of Modern Life" (1863). In: C. Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. (Translated and edited by J. Mayne. London: Phaidon Press, 2008, 12.

[14] James Rondeau, "James Rondeau in dialogue with Jeff Wall". In: P. Galassi, Jeff Wall (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2007), 152.

[15] Wall, "Monochrome and Photojournalism", 337.

[16] Boris Groys, (1995), "Boris Groys in Conversation with Jeff Wall". In: De Duve et al., Jeff Wall, 2nd rev. ed. (London: Phaidon Press, 2002. Reprinted in: Wall, J., Selected Essays and Interviews. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2007), 300-301.

[17] T. Brideaux, 1978, De wereld van Delacroix. (Nederland: Time-Life international, 1978), 65, my translation.

[18] Thierry De Duve (1995), "The Mainstream and the Crooked Path", in Jeff Wall, ed. Thierry. De Duve et al. (London: Phaidon Press, 2002), 27.

[19] De Duve, "The Mainstream and the Crooked Path", 27.

[20] De Duve, "The Mainstream and the Crooked Path", 35.

[21] De Duve, "The Mainstream and the Crooked Path", 40.

[22] De Duve, "The Mainstream and the Crooked Path", 36.

[23] De Duve, "The Mainstream and the Crooked Path", 34.

[24] Bergson, L'Énergie spirituelle, 135.

[25] Catherine Francblin quoted by Réal Lussier, "Regard sur les années 90", in Jeff Wall Oeuvres 1990-1998, translated ébec: Musée d'art contemporain de Montreal, 1999), 10.

[26] Gilles Deleuze (1966), Le Bergsonisme (Paris: PUF, 1997), 50-51 (my translation).

[27] Gilles Deleuze (1985), Cinema 2, The Time-image, translated by Hugh Tomlinson et al. (London: Continuum, 2005), 67.

[28] Jeff Wall (1985), "Typologie, Luminesczenz, Freiheit, Auszüge aus einem Gespräch zwischen Els Barents und Jeff Wall", translated by B. Seeler und R. Seeler, in: Jeff Wall, Transparencies (München: Jeff Wall and Schirmer/Mosel Verlag München, 1986), 100 (my translation). Reprinted in Jeff Wall, Essais et entretiens 1984-2001, ed. Jean-François Chevrier, translated by M. Hugonnet and J.-L. Maubant (Paris: École Nationale Supérieure des beaux-arts, 2004). Also reprinted in: Jeff Wall, Selected Essays and Interviews (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2007).

[29] Boris Groys (1995), "Boris Groys in Conversation with Jeff Wall". In: De Duve et al., Jeff Wall, 2nd rev. ed. London: Phaidon Press, 2002. Reprinted in: Wall, J., Selected Essays and Interviews (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2007), 300-301.

[30] Michael Newman, "Gesture and time". In: M. Newman, Jeff Wall: Works and Collected Writings (Barcelona: Ediciones Polígrafa, 2007), 66.

[31] Newman, "Gesture and time", 66.

[32] Michael Newman, "The Reinvigoration of the Western Tableau and the transformation of the Photograph". In: M. Newman, Jeff Wall: Works and Collected Writings (Barcelona: Ediciones ígrafa, 2007), 48.

[33]Michael Fried, "Jeff Wall, Wittgenstein et le quotidien". In: Les Cahiers du Mnam 92, 2005, 8.

[34] Fried, "Jeff Wall, Wittgenstein et le quotidien", 8.

[35] Fried, "Jeff Wall, Wittgenstein et le quotidien", 8.

[36] Wall, J., "Typologie, Luminesczenz, Freiheit, Auszüge aus einem Gespräch zwischen Els Barents und Jeff Wall" (1985), Translated by B. Seeler und R. Seeler. In: Jeff Wall, Transparencies. (München: Jeff Wall and Schirmer/Mosel Verlag München, 1986). Reprinted in: J. Wall, Essais et entretiens 1984-2001 (2001). Édition établie et présentée par Jean-François Chevrier. Translated by M. Hugonnet and J.-L. Maubant. (Paris: École Nationale Supérieure des beaux-arts, 2004). Also reprinted in: Jeff Wall, Selected Essays and Interviews. (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2007), 104 (my translation).

[37] Wall, "Typologie, Luminesczenz, Freiheit", 100 (my translation).

[38] Gilles Deleuze (1968). Difference and Repetition. Translated by P. Patton. (London: Athlone, 1994), 56-57, see also 144, 147.

[39] Gilles Deleuze (1968). Difference and Repetition, 135.

[40] Gilles Deleuze (1968). Difference and Repetition, 73-75.

[41] Gilles Deleuze (1968). Difference and Repetition, 71.

[42] Gilles Deleuze (1968). Difference and Repetition, 71.

[43] Gilles Deleuze (1988). The Fold, Leibniz and the Baroque. Translated by T. Conley (London: Continuum, 2006), 99.

[44] Wall, "Monochrome and Photojournalism", 337.

[45] Deleuze (1968). Difference and Repetition, 88.

[46] Deleuze (1968). Difference and Repetition, 88.

[47] Pierre Klossowski, (1967). « Oubli et anamnèse dans l'expérience vécue de l'éternel retour du même. In Nietzsche-Cahiers de Royaumont.(Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1967, pp. 228-234), 234.

[48] Henri Bergson (1939). Matter and Memory. Translated by N. M. Paul. (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2004), 128-129.

[49] Vilem Flusser, V., Towards a Philosophy of Photography (1983). Translated by Anthony Matheus. (London: Reaction Books, 2005), 19-20.

[50] Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1935). (New York: Classic Books America, 2009), 4.

[51] Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 9-10.

[52] Boris Groys, "Life without Shadows". In: De Duve, T., Groys, B., Pelenc, A., Jeff Wall.(London: Phaidon Press, 1996), 58.

[53] Michael Newman, "Introduction: the Photograph as Picture and Poem". In: M. Newman, Jeff Wall: Works and Collected Writings. ígrafa, 2007), 10.

[54] Michael Newman, "Introduction: the Photograph as Picture and Poem", 10.

[55] Gilles Deleuze (1968). Difference and Repetition, 23-24.

[56] Gilles Deleuze (1968). Difference and Repetition, 1.

[57] Gilles Deleuze (1968). Difference and Repetition, 1-2.