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

Julia Margaret Cameron – The Directorial Mode of C19th Photography.


Julia Margaret Cameron, Sadness, 1864. Albumen print, 22.1 X 17.5 cm.

I have chosen Sadness over other more obvious directorial examples in Julia Margaret Cameron’s oeuvre because it combines many interesting elements. Cameron was known as a great casting director and sought to reveal the internal qualities of her sitters. In Sadness, the viewer ponders whether Ellen Terry, the great Shakespearean actress was collaborating with or performing for Cameron.

For A. D. Coleman, directorial photography is when, “the photographer consciously and intentionally creates events for the express purpose of making images…” (1)  During the 1850s, the directorial approach was an alternative to realism in photography. Anne Marsh writes of this era as producing, “… photographic works which explore the performative and theatrical aspects of photography. The early photographers… provide the opportunity to look at self-consciously created oeuvres which aspired to the unreal, the made-up and, at times, attempted to represent the unrepresentable.” (2)

The photograph of Terry aged sixteen, was taken at Freshwater Bay (Cameron’s home) while she was on her honeymoon. The portrait reveals Cameron’s ability to draw out Terry’s character. Terry was an actress and a young bride of a mismatched marriage with the painter George Frederick Watts, a man twenty one years her senior. The couple separated less than a year later.

An interesting reading can be made of this work when firstly, Cameron’s personality is taken into account. Secondly, when the questions posed by her technique and directorial style are considered. And thirdly, from a fascinating essay on patriarchal society and sexuality during the Victorian era by Anne Marsh.

In The Magic Image, Cameron is described as “… outspoken, candid… iron-willed… hypnotic [and] determined to express herself…” (3)  When Cameron moved to England from her birthplace of Calcutta after marrying the philosopher Charles Hay Cameron (who was twice her age) she “… did not attempt to hide her contempt for the ways of conventional society.” (4)  It was when they moved to the Isle of Wright that Cameron found the “intellectual stimulus she craved.” (5)  The illustrious crowd that visited her home included Alfred Lord Tennyson, Longfellow and Thomas Carlyle, and many became the subjects of her photographs. Inspired by the allegorical paintings of her friend George Frederic Watts, Cameron began composing her photographs in a similar style.

(c) Walker Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

George Fredrick Watts, Arion Saved by the Dolphin, 1896. Oil on canvas, 28.5 X 41.5 cm.

There are differing opinions on Cameron’s “sloppy” technique and soft focus. Some historians are of the opinion that it was Cameron’s inexperience and enthusiasm “to show the greatness of the inner and give likeness of the outer man.” (6)  Other’s suspect a “subconscious unwillingness to submit to any technical principle… [an] obscure desire to subvert technique.” (7)  In ‘Annals of my Glass House,’ 1874, Cameron wrote, “… when focusing and coming to something which, to my eye, was very beautiful, I stopped there instead of screwing on the lens to the more definite focus which all other photographers insist upon.” (8)  Photography and its relationship to reality and truth are at work in Cameron’s image. Coleman writes, “The issue here is not whether the photographer manipulated the print but the subject.” (9)

The collodion tear on the image surface evokes a peeling of layers revealing what is hidden beneath. Anne Marsh refers to Steven Marcus’ book The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England, which documents the dualistic interpretation of sexuality. A way of enforcing the construct of women as being controlled within a patriarchal society was achieved by confining women to the home, where women carried out the duties of “chaste mother and caring wife.” (10)  Cameron photographs Terry in her house, leaning into the shadow against regency wallpaper, tugging at her necklace nervously, her wedding ring subdued.

This dualistic quality is further evidenced in the eroticism achieved by photographing Terry in her petticoat. The fabric, with its Pre-Raphaelite folds and lacework falls slightly off her shoulders and highlights a sensual curve to her hair upswept behind her shoulder. Weston Naef remarks, “There is a very skilful use of light that reinforces the sensual element of the content. The light comes off of her cheek and models the lower part of her jaw…” (11)  Her long neck exposed is quite provocative. Marcus’ double coding of women and sexuality brings into question the nature of Cameron’s directorial gaze. The devout Anglican, mother and wife, and the sexualised image she created subvert Nineteenth century conventions.


1. A D Coleman, ‘The Directorial Mode: Notes toward a definition,’ in Photography in Print: Writings from 1816 to the present, ed. Vicki Goldberg, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981, p. 484.

2. A Marsh, ‘Ghostly Performances: The Aura of Early Art Photography,’ in The Darkroom: Photography and the Theatre of Desire, Melbourne: Macmillan, 2003, p. 116.

3. C Beaton, G Buckland, The Magic Image, Little, Brown & Company, 1975, p. 62.

4. ibid.

5. ibid.

6. ibid., p. 65.

7. A Scharf, Pioneers of Photography, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1975, p. 78.

8. ibid., p. 76.

9. Coleman, op. cit., p. 480.

10. Marsh, op. cit., p. 122.

11. N Weston, (ed.) In Focus Julia Margaret Cameron: Photographs from The J. Paul Getty Museum, Christopher Hudson, 1996, p. 108.


Julia Margaret Cameron

George Fredrick Watts