The camera can either reproduce reality by freezing an instant in time - the purist definition - or it can create it through manipulation and artifice. Although photographers began to invent and imagine at least a century ago, this approach has proliferated during the postmodern period.

Since the mid-1970s, Canadian artist Jeff Wall has been one of the most prominent "stage-managing" photographers. Like Cindy Sherman, Wall has invested his scenarios with the look and sensibility of film stills. Some of his pictures are more "realistic" than others, but most of them feel vaguely theatrical. The settings might be natural, but often whatever is going on within the frame looks exaggerated or even fantastic.

Wall's pictures - currently the subject of a major retrospective through May 14 at New York's Museum of Modern Art - have been causing comment since he first began to exhibit them, and they're distinctive in two significant ways. Like Sherman, he builds images around cinematic conventions, but whereas her early pictures exist within those conventions, his combine film with references, often abstruse, to art history and literature.

At their best, Wall's pictures are compressed dramas whose impact goes beyond what one can achieve through photography alone. Sometimes, they're based on things or events he has seen, yet they're not unadulterated slices of life.

Wall's second contribution is his signature medium, the color transparency mounted on a light box and illuminated from behind. The brightness of this method enhances the cinematic quality of the pictures, making them more vivid and, in an odd way, more "lifelike."

Over the years, Wall has usually produced these transparencies in large scale, up to 7 feet high by 12 wide. He isn't unique in resorting to near-billboard scale, but combining bigness with intense illumination and transparent film stock magnifies dramatic effect.

The eye can't comprehend the larger images without continuous scanning; as a result, a viewer might feel that he or she has been absorbed into the scene that Wall has composed.

When you see some of Wall's more complicated compositions, such as A Sudden Gust of Wind (After Hokusai) or After "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue, you realize that they required considerable time and effort to set up. So it's not surprising to learn, as we do from the Wall retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, that in three decades, he has averaged less than five pictures a year.

Organized by MoMA and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the exhibition comprises only 41 pictures made between 1978 and last year. Yet Wall's pictures typically are packed with so much detail and narrative incident that they require attentive inspection. In later works, some of the cinematically improbable moments are achieved through digital montaging.

The 60-year-old artist came to photography relatively late, after youthful forays into painting, conceptual art, and film. He also studied for a doctorate at the prestigious Courtauld Institute of Art in London, although he didn't complete his dissertation. He became a university art teacher in Canada, first in Halifax and later in his native Vancouver, which might account in part for his limited production.

In his earlier pieces, Wall tried to engage art history constructively, by restating ideas and scenarios in contemporary language. And what more contemporary visual language than film? In doing so, Wall, who respects and often admires what earlier artists have achieved, is trying to revivify their inventions and insights.

You wouldn't always recognize that, however, because the references aren't always obvious. Wall's re-creation of Hokusai's print A High Wind in Yeijiri, Suruga Province (from Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji) only vaguely resembles the original.

One of Wall's first large transparencies, The Destroyed Room, links to a famous painting by Eugène Delacroix, The Death of Sardanapalus, a morbid vision of royal indulgence in which Delacroix depicts the Assyrian king just before his suicide amid naked women of his court. In the painting, the women are being slaughtered; in Wall's tableau, a woman's bedroom has been ransacked to rubble.

The Storyteller, which depicts people who appear to be American Indians sitting on a slope next to a highway overpass, suggests Titian's The Pastoral Concert or Manet's Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe. The Ralph Ellison scene, a man in a room crammed with hanging light bulbs, derives from a text, not another image - Ellison's description in his 1952 novel of a black man who falls into a forgotten cellar during a riot and decides to hide away there, festooning the ceiling with 1,369 illegally connected light bulbs. Only an uncommonly erudite person would probably make the connection.

Not all of Wall's compositions are narrative. In more recent works, he has doubled back to "straight" photography - that is, to modernism - with a series of still lifes. Yet his most effective pictures are those that offer, or imply, narrative - an eviction in a city neighborhood, a white man making an offensive gesture to an Asian, or a man seated on a sidewalk spilling milk from a carton with a spastic jerk.

Some of Wall's scenes are banal, but his eye for the slightly off-key posture and his exacting craftsmanship usually have given his pictures a frisson of anxiety. They seem like ordinary incidents we have all seen, while at the same time they flaunt their contrivance. They can be both matter-of-fact and more intense than real life without any feeling of contradiction.

Art | Cinematic Photos

The Jeff Wall exhibition continues at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53d St., New York, through May 14. The museum is open from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Mondays, and to 8 p.m. Fridays. Admission is $20 general, $16 for visitors 65 and older, and $12 for students with current I.D. Free for visitors 16 and younger, and Fridays after 4 p.m. Information: 212-708-9400 or www.moma.org.

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Contact art critic Edward J. Sozanski at 215-854-5595 or esozanski@phillynews.com.
Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/edwardsozanski.