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Over the Rainbow
A contemplation on Jeff Wall's, "Overpass," 2001
One of the reasons I love teaching photography to college students is because I get to linger and deeply engage with photographs. As the “selector of the slide images” (aka. the professor), in my lectures I pick and choose a variety of photographs that illustrate a current theme or concept we’re covering around photography.
Many times we’re covering familiar terrain on a photograph I’m long acquainted with. And so we’re looking at photographs I’ve seen numerous times. Sometimes, though, one of these “old friends” turns over a new leaf and I see the photograph with new eyes. It happened again last week.
Jeff Wall’s, “Overpass,” 2001 is a large transparency mounted on a Lightbox. It’s part of Wall’s “near-documentaries” in which he encounters a situation, then recreates its essence at a later time with non-professional models. There’s an interesting WSJ article where he further discusses this practice.
In class we were discussing the first and second reads of “Overpass.” The first read (think top layer) being that this is a photograph about four people traveling somewhere via an overpass. A second layer read (deeper meaning) being about the color palette of the photograph and its implications. The colors in this photograph hold almost a duo-tone appearance being that a majority of the photograph is either in a blue tone, or a shade of gray. Considering the color implications along with the elements of the photo it gives an oppressive feeling: the walkers carrying heavy burdens around their bodies while navigating a concrete jungle. The photograph feels hopeless.
However, two specific things caught my attention this time: 1) the bit of green green growing out of the side walk, and 2) the bit of blue peeking out from the overcast sky between the fence and the light post. The sky and the earth are fighting back, reclaiming their place in the world.
They are declaring hope.
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It’s easy to miss hope. It’s not loud and audacious and dramatic like fear. It quietly works and remains. It’s almost like we stumble upon it, “Oh, you’ve been here the whole time! I hadn’t noticed.” I think that’s why so many people connect with God in nature — it’s hope’s most lavish display.
The other day I found myself feeling like one of these people traveling up the overpass — full of burdens and lacking hope. And then I asked for what I needed and we drove to the beach.
The sun was out, the wind was saying hello, and the waves were churning. Hope feels good in a place like this. Possibility surged in my body. I felt reinvigorated and ready to take on the day.
Regarding his photographs Wall has said he hopes to instill a “ring of truth” in his work. Perhaps letting nature wink at us in the “Overpass” is Wall’s way of reminding us hope is hiding in plain sight.