Jeff Wall – Painting and Cinematography Collide in “Near Documentary” Photography.


Jeff Wall, After ‘Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue 1999-2000. Transparency in lightbox 1740 X 2505 mm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Jeff Wall’s After ‘Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue 1999-2000, is a remarkable photograph and a fine example of Wall’s intelligent considerations on picture making. Two major energies that are of great influence to the artist are the grand traditions of Western painting and cinematography.

Wall’s image is not an accurate transcription of reality, it is a deliberately constructed realm. He aptly calls the type of photography he practices as “near documentary.” His picture making process intersects the realm between documentary photography and cinematography, and is an example of the way directorial photography functions today. After ‘Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue 1999-2000, recreates a scene from Ralph Ellison’s renowned 1952 novel, “Invisible Man.” The level of detail in the photograph is astounding. Wall meticulously recreated the scene in his studio: 1,369 light bulbs, the blankets covering the walls and doorways, the furniture, papers and hundreds of small items.

Initially, the viewer may presume that the photograph of the man in this curious setting is actually homeless. Photography is imbued with a certain level of reality and truth because of its documentary and archival qualities. The viewer is tantalized by the precise placement of objects that creates depth within the pictorial space of the image. By placing the man in the back of the room, Wall creates a feeling in the viewer that they are interrupting or peering in on the subject’s private life. The seated man with his hunched back produces empathy in the viewer. Coleman writes, “People believe photographs.” (1) Photographs are credible in a way that sculptures, etchings and oil paintings are not. Coleman writes this believability is based on photography’s ability to regulate Renaissance perspective and represent a particular moment of reality, even though it sits flat on a piece of paper. (2)

Wall is interested in creating “hermetic world’s of fantasy and strangeness.” (3)  A deep sense of desperation and psychological tension prevails in Wall’s depiction of a solitary man in an airless and claustrophobic interior. By directing and making images and simply not just taking photographs, Wall engages with the notion of photography as truth. Wall achieved this natural quality by photographing the man for a long period of time. This encouraged his subject to become comfortable in the scene. Wall developed this process from studying filmmaking. Wall waits with his camera, until the things he’s waiting for, even though he doesn’t quite know what it is occurs. (4)  Interestingly, in many ways, Wall is also waiting, like Henri Cartier-Bresson, for his “decisive moment.”


Diego Velazquez, Les Meninas (The Maids of Honour), 1656.

From an early age, Wall was interested in painting and drawing. Unable to denounce his love for the Western traditions of 19th century painting, Wall began to realize that photography could be more than what the medium was inherently rooted and understood to be. Photographs were usually viewed in books or albums and were small compared to the grand paintings of the Western tradition. During a trip to Europe in the 1970s, Wall recognized that a lot of important paintings were done near life size. In the following passage, Wall recounts his experience of viewing paintings by Francisco Goya and Diego Velazquez;

A painting is a certain sized image related to your body that looks and makes you feel something when you stand in front of it in a room… It’s large enough and has amplitude that makes you feel like you are still in the same place and yet there is another place that is presenting itself to you… That’s painting. (5)


A Stereograph.


A Stereoscope.

Coleman states that within the history of photography there is a tradition of directorial images and cites the staged tableau’s and narrative scenes of stereographic images from the 1850s as examples. Oliver Wendall Holmes writes of his experience of viewing a stereograph, “… so heightened as to produce an appearance of reality which cheats the senses with its seeming truth.” (6)  The all-encompassing scale of Wall’s photograph with its sumptuous detail is likened to a film still, but a connection can also be drawn to the stereograph. The film reference is obviously informed by the luminosity of the picture’s display method. The large-scale transparency is housed in a backlit light box and because of the proportion the viewer’s experience is likened to being in a cinema viewing a single frame of film.


1. A D Coleman, ‘The Directorial Mode: Notes towards a definition,’ in Photography in Print: Writings from 1816 to the Present, ed. Vicki Goldberg, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981, p. 482.

2. ibid.




6. O Wendeall Holmes, (1859) ‘The Stereoscope and the Stereograph,’ in Photography in Print: Writings from 1816 to the Present, ed. Vicki Goldberg, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981, p. 104.


Jeff Wall

Diego Velazquez

A stereograph

A stereoscope,r:0,s:0,i:82

A photograph reveals more than what is remembered.


This photograph from my childhood is one that I have intimately studied on many occasions. Drawing from Benjamin’s notion of ‘unconscious optics,’ the lens captures a significant moment in this photograph, it is somewhat discernible to the eye. It is this element that raises questions relating to photography’s ability to capture truth, reality and the self.

The photograph from my childhood, was taken in 1979 by the seaside in Greece. It was taken with a film camera, so it is grainy and coupled with the texture of the paper, the fuzziness of memory seems amplified. The photograph enables me to distinctly remember the seaside town and it was December so there was a slight chill in the air. I wore a cream cardigan that my mother had knitted for me. I always wanted her to change the buttons to weaved leather ones that resembled the buttons on my father’s tweed jackets. I sit with my back to the seaside with a pot of pink geraniums on a wall behind me at my shoulder. But this photograph reveals more than is actually remembered because from here I have accumulated many years of memories related to this nine year old child. I see that I feel a little uncomfortable, shy even, I have never liked my picture being taken. My eyes staring straight at the lens, the look on my face and my posture reveal a modest uneasiness as my shoulder is ever so slightly raised.

I am drawn to this photograph because it captured that precise moment of me lifting my shoulder. Benjamin writes, “the invisible inside the visible, those bodily movements that are too minute to be discerned by the human eye and too automatic to impinge on human consciousness.” The cameras revelation, these “unconscious optics,” are crucial if a photograph is to resonate. Hirsch writes, “evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye.”

I often look at this photograph because of this unease. I was a nine year old girl and from where I stand now, I know it was before my sexuality had revealed itself. So why this unease? I know more about this girl from here than what the photograph is actually presenting to me. Cadava writes, “Rather than reproducing, faithfully and perfectly, the photographed as such, the photographic image conjures up its death.” I comprehend that my experience by the seaside, because it was photographed, becomes estranged from the actuality of my memory of it. But is it the death of that young girl? Perhaps that is something I cannot bear. One question continues to interests me to no end, where is that young girl?


Benjamin, W, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in J Curran et. al. (eds.), Mass Communication and Society, Edward Arnold, London, 1977.

Cadava, E, ‘Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History’, Diacritics, vol. 22, no. 3-4, Fall / Winter 1992, pp. 87-93.

Hirsch, M, Family Frames Photography Narrative and Postmemory, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1997.