Related themes

Sets, Stories, and Situations

Throughout the history of the medium, photographers have staged images to evoke or reference literature, films, or real events.

After "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue

Jeff Wall
(Canadian, born 1946)

2000. Silver dye bleach transparency; aluminum light box, 5 ft. 8 1/2 in. x 8 ft. 2 3/4 in. (174 x 250.8 cm)

Jeff Wall based this elaborately staged photograph on Ralph Ellison’s prologue for his 1952 novel Invisible Man. The unnamed narrator, an African American man, lives secretly “in my hole in the basement [where] there are exactly 1,369 lights,” powered by stolen electricity. Some visual details are drawn from other parts of Ellison’s book or come from the artist’s imagination. In this way, Wall refers to his inspiration for this photograph as an “accident of reading.”1

Wall refers to his method of photography as “cinematography,” and like a cinematic production his work is dependent on collaboration with a cast and assistants who help develop a painstakingly constructed set. He used a large-format camera with a telephoto lens to achieve such a high resolution and finely detailed print. This photograph, like most of Wall’s work, has been printed on a transparency and mounted in a steel-framed light box. The large-scale image is illuminated from behind by fluorescent lights, which Wall began using after seeing light-box advertisements in the late 1970s.

Jeff Wall, interview by Peter Galassi, in Jeff Wall, by Peter Galassi (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2007), 157.

An image, especially a positive print, recorded by exposing a photosensitive surface to light, especially in a camera.

Something formed or constructed from parts.

The ratio between the size of an object and its model or representation, as in the scale of a map to the actual geography it represents.

A term describing a wide variety of techniques used to produce multiple copies of an original design. Also, the resulting text or image made by applying inked characters, plates, blocks, or stamps to a support such as paper or fabric.

What Said What?
In Jeff Wall’s view, familiarity with Ralph Ellison’s novel is not necessary to appreciate this photograph, nor should the photograph necessarily prompt someone to read Invisible Man. By appreciating the picture, Wall says, someone “can be thought of as having written his or her own novel. The viewer’s experience and associations will do that. These unwritten novels are a form in which the experience of art is carried over into everyday life.”2

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After "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue

Jeff Wall (Canadian, born 1946)