Their sheer size may belie the very notion, but Jeff Wall’s photographic objects are intriguing for the smaller, quieter planes of detail as much as their scale. Wandering the third level of The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia at Federation Square, there is intimacy amid the vastness.

It’s perhaps defining tenet of Jeff Wall: Photographs, an extensive survey of a career that has not only stretched beyond three decades, but also established Wall as one of contemporary photography’s celebrated and iconic protagonists. Everything about this exhibition and its lead-up has spoken of immensity – the renown of the artist, the scale of the works, the vast, reconfigured space at The Ian Potter and Wall’s typically prickly performance at a sold-out public discussion with German artist Thomas Demand in the NGV’s Great Hall last week – but it’s the unlikely moments of intimacy here that really capture the imagination.

There are the much-celebrated works and consciously incongruous constructions from which Wall made his name. To witness his famed early works The Destroyed Room (1978) and Double Self-Portrait (1979), let along the by now iconic theatre of A sudden gust of wind (after Hokusai) (1994), presented as they’re supposed to be – enormous transparencies in light boxes – is thrilling. When an image such as A sudden gust… enters the wider visual culture via endless reproductions and poster prints plastering uni students’ walls, it can lose its potency. But in this case, seeing it in the flesh is entrancing for its sheer orchestration; one can’t help but sense the echo of the yearlong process and 100 photographs it took Wall to build and construct the outwardly seamless image.

But it’s a couple of Wall’s other well-known images that gesture towards his real mastery. A remarkable formal and compositional study on its own, Untangling (1994) – which pictures a worker disentangling huge knots of blue rope amid the surrounds of a dingy industrial workshop – is powerful for its study of its subject’s psychological, internal bearing, rather than his task at hand. His furrowed brow and hushed countenance might be read as a projection that extends far beyond the present, pictured moment. This is a man’s struggles with life, not a rope. Likewise, works like After ‘Invisable Man’ by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue (1999–2000), while striking for their meticulous construction as images, are poignant for their singular, intensely intimate depths.

There are simpler, more unlikely works too. Clipped branches, East Cordova St., Vancouver (1999) pictures just that: crudely lopped branches at the base of suburban tree trunk. Strewn with street detritus, this seemingly insignificant image assumes various critical guises, be they environmental or social. His self-explanatory Sapling held by a post (2000), meanwhile, borders on poignant in its intimation of support and care for one another. The gigantic, gloom-ridden Night (2001) uses its seemingly homeless subjects’ minute scale in the scheme of the composition to eek out the sheer enormity of challenges facing the disadvantaged.

The most recent of Wall’s photographs, Boy falls from tree (2010) captures a pregnant pause. Amongst the peaceful surrounds of a blooming suburban backyard – swing set and soccer ball punctuating the lush, green of the picture plane – we can make out a young boy’s body, contorted in mid air as he plummets toward the ground. It is loaded, tense and tranquil all at the same time. We recall the joys and carelessness of childhood and adventures forged in the most simple and innocent of settings and contexts. But we also sense – prophetically – the pain the boy is about it endure. We taste his fear and worry for his body and his bones.

It is Jeff Wall at his best – a vast smattering of visual data distilled into a microcosmic moment.

Jeff Wall: Photographs shows at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Federation Square until March 17, 2013. Tickets: $15