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Sets, Stories, and Situations

Throughout photography’s history, photographers have staged images to evoke literature, films, real events, and, sometimes, the artifice of the medium itself.


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 the prologue of Ralph Ellison’s celebrated 1952 novel, Invisible Man. The novel’s protagonist, an unnamed African American man, relates that he lives secretly “in my hole in the basement,” where he has “wired the entire ceiling, every inch of it” with 1,369 lights powered by illegally siphoned off electricity. In addition to the prologue, Wall drew from other parts of Invisible Man and his own imagination to create this scene. His intention was not to make a literal illustration of the text, but to give form to the picture it inspired in his mind, which he calls “accidents of reading.” As he has explained, many of his images begin “from accidents in the street—events I witnessed by chance. These pictures are like that, except that the accident occurred when I happened to be reading a book. I had the same feeling reading […] that I have had many times when seeing something occur on the street or in some other place, a feeling that an opportunity for a picture was presented to me.”1

Wall refers to his method of photography as “cinematography.” Similar to the process of making a movie, his work is dependent on collaboration with a cast and assistants who help him to develop his painstakingly constructed sets. He uses a large-format camera with a telephoto lens to achieve the high resolution and fine details that characterize his prints. This photograph, like most of the artist’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 utilizing 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.
Ibid.

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

A representation of a person or thing in a work of art.

A setting for or a part of a story or narrative.

The visual or narrative focus of a work of art.

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.

The shape or structure of an object.

A Novel Approach
In Wall’s view, familiarity with the novel Invisible Man is not necessary to appreciate his photograph, and seeing the photograph need not prompt viewers to read the novel. “The picture […] ought to overcome the subject matter and make its source superfluous,” he asserts. “That viewer, not having read the book and not intending to read it, by still enjoying and appreciating the picture can be thought of as having written his or her own novel. The viewer’s own 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)