After "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue
This photograph explores the relationship between images and their influences, questioning how closely images need to adhere to the aesthetic and conceptual features of their original source material. In this instance, Wall's photograph is a product of what the artist calls "accidents of reading," in which Wall conjures particular pictures in his mind in response to what he observes in his life, everything from books and artworks to encounters on the street.
The image depicts a barefoot man sitting on a folding chair in a cluttered and windowless room. We see him from behind in three-quarter profile, facing the back wall, wearing a white undershirt, brown suspenders and brown pants. His elbows rest on his knees while he holds a rag to a silver pot, most likely making it cleaner and increasing its reflective shine. A bed is against the wall to his right, to his left is a green arm chair and small rectangular wood side table covered in bowls and containers. A record player sits on a dresser to the left of the structure, with another folding chair covered with reading material in front of it, symbols of intellectual and recreational pursuits. To the very left of the image is a counter covered with dishes and food remains, and articles of clothing are scattered and hung throughout the entire room. It would appear that essential parts of living - eating, sleeping, leisure - all exist in this one-room space for the individual. Most impressively, and surprisingly, the ceiling is covered with a hanging mass of mostly unlit round and oblong lightbulbs.
In this work, Wall identifies specific source material for the imagery (Ralph Ellison's novel The Invisible Man), but he recreates for his viewers only the qualities that form his personal recollection and subsequent impression of this material. Called "the quintessential American picaresque of the 20th century," by TIME magazine, Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man is also considered to be the first recognized, literary achievement by a Black American writer. The novel relates a young Black American man's experience with racism and discrimination in the late 1930s in New York City. In the prologue, the narrator describes himself as an "invisible man." He explains that he is not actually invisible, but rather considers himself invisible because others refuse to see him; notably, he is invisible because he is not deemed to be worthy of notice from others, and often finds himself insulted and degraded because of the color of his skin. Although the narrator recalls moments of rage and even violence against those who ignore and/or insult him, Wall's image does not engage with those emotionally charged moments in the text. Instead, Wall chooses to include the physical elements of the basement that help establish the overall visual and emotional experience of the scene that Wall wishes to convey.
The man - also the narrator and main character - sits in the basement where he lives. As described in the novel, the basement space (called a "hole" by the narrator) is a forgotten area in a building "rented strictly to whites," yet the man lives there secretly, not paying for rent or the electricity he uses to illuminate the space and fill the room with music. Exactly 1,369 lightbulbs hover over the entire room from the ceiling, sapping power but also giving life-affirming light. The narrator claims that "light confirms my reality, gives birth to my form," so he has provided himself the means of feeling present and recognized in a world that otherwise would exclude him from participation.
Familiarity with the original book adds depth to the viewer's experience, but is not necessary to give the photograph meaning. The basement's cramped and messy condition creates a sense of anxiety and isolation, signaling a level of separation from the rest of the world. The man is turned away from the viewer, intensifying this feeling of social detachment. Though this small space lacks windows that would let in the noises and light of the outside, the room is incredibly bright. Only some of the many lightbulbs are lit, however, inviting the viewer to see the many visual details of the space without knowing how this level of detail is capable of being so visible. This conundrum hints at the ideas of visibility and invisibility explored in the novel, yet even an unfamiliar viewer could perceive the reference from the photograph's title. The image makes the man and his possessions visible to viewers, yet the man would not know he is being viewed from his positioning, thus remaining invisible in his own mind. Therefore, what constitutes visibility is relative to individual experience, constantly shifting depending on one's self-awareness and surroundings.
Like much of Wall's work, this photograph is carefully staged, pushing against the idea of authenticity commonly associated with documentary photography. Unlike his early pictures, however, this work takes advantage of digital photographic techniques. Here, Wall can achieve an overall effect that would have otherwise been impossible to accomplish in one take. In After "Invisible Man", the amount of well-lit corners and the brightness and clarity of the foreground, midground, and background is a result of this montage construction.
Silver dye bleach transparency; aluminum light box - The Museum of Modern Art