Jeff Wall - “After “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue”

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.”

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.