Jeff Wall's photograph Picture for Women, from 1979, continues the artist's investigation of 19th century painting within the framework of contemporary photography. The image reveals a reflection in a mirror of a sparse studio room, furnished with metallic office chairs, a work table, uncovered lightbulbs, pipes, and cinderblock. Despite the mundane scenery, the composition of the image follows traditional aesthetic rules of photography, such as dividing the picture into thirds, balancing the composition both horizontally and vertically. In the left third, a woman stands with her hands resting on a long table or bar, solemnly confronting the viewer. Wall's camera is in the center of the image, and Wall himself stands in the right third; his body faces the camera, but his face is turned toward the woman. He holds the camera's shutter release cable in his visible hand, confirming his authorship of the image before us. Although this work is also mounted within a lightbox, like his previous work The Destroyed Room, calling to mind the visual qualities of film or large advertisements, such as billboards, the presence of the photographer within the final image departs from the invisibility of the makers of those elements of popular culture and modern consumerism.
Picture for Women addresses the male gaze, a topic increasingly analyzed, debated, and often resisted within the art world in the years surrounding this picture's creation and display. The work is also an homage to one of the most famous paintings by Édouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882), which Wall would have seen in the collection of the Courtauld Institute of Art's Gallery - where Wall studied art history in London. In Manet's painting of this famous Parisian cabaret, where patrons could not only purchase drinks but also sexual encounters from the barmaids, a female bartender stands in the center of the frame confronting the viewer with an emotionless expression, as if waiting to hear her patron's order or request. Since the viewer can clearly see the back of her body reflected in the mirror along with the face of a man facing her, the viewer is directly implicated in the scene by supposedly occupying the very space of the patron. Not only do we see the male gaze in action, we are also participating in it. Similarly, Wall's photograph puts viewers in the center of the image by aiming the camera lens directly at us, highlighting our participation in the observation of the woman in the photograph while also witnessing Wall fix his male gaze upon her too. The viewers then also fall victim to the male gaze, as the photographer supposedly captures our image with the camera as well.
Just as other artists and scholars were exploring the processes and consequences of the male gaze in various media, Wall was forcing himself and his audience to investigate it in historical and aesthetic terms. Simultaneously, Wall's early works from the late 1970s and 1980s engage with questions of appropriation, as he adds to the conversation of postmodernist pastiche percolating in those years. In these photographs, Wall borrows distinct visual elements and narrative concepts from previous artworks, particularly oil paintings considered hallmarks of artistic achievement in the canon of art history, but he redesigns them for contemporary environments and audiences. Experiments with artistic and cultural appropriation within the framework of contemporary art and photography questioned traditional definitions of what art had to be, and what it could display. In his essay from 1977 for an exhibition he organized at Artists Space in New York City, Douglas Crimp referred to the works of contemporary artists engaging with the problems and themes of appropriation as "pictures". By using this broad umbrella term to identify these works, of which Jeff Wall's photographs are akin, Crimp emphasized what he saw as their most important quality: "recognizable images." In many ways, Wall's early photographs certainly make use of recognizable images, while challenging the common understanding of these images, their contexts, and their users.