Geoffrey Howell, Jeff Goldblum and Jeff Wall

18 08 2008

What’s the connection then between those three names in this post’s title? A-ha! They are all variations of Jeff or Geoff; the name being Old German and probably meaning ‘God’s Peace’ or ‘Divinly Peaceful’. 


  But I have uncovered another link between these three names: Geoffrey Howell was the name of the character in Invasion of the Body Snatchers who was the boyfriend of the character Elizabeth Driscoll, Jeff Goldblum played the part of Jack Bellicec in the same film and Jeff Wall is an awesome Canadian photographer who has produced some epic scale images during his time. Donald Sutherland, however, is a dishy man who wears a long rain mac in both Invasion of the Bodysnatchers and Don’t Look Now. He has nothing to do with the other three.

  So….? Their names just connect them together? Yes  – but also something else. I think Jeff Wall is unconsciously influenced by the film (particularly the 1978 version) Invasion of the Bodysnatchers

  I was extremely lucky to catch Wall’s exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago last summer, who’d have thought a conference would have yielded such an opportunity? But I wasn’t underestimating Chicago, I was just genuinely excited to get to see Wall’s work in such venue and see it all in huge proportions rather than miniature versions on the internet. 

  Much of Wall’s work is staged, he utilizes actors, lighting, props and directs them in the same way you would film or theatre. He then reproduces the images with skilled technique to generate larger than life images, often displayed against huge lightboxes to give a cinematic impression and bring the photographs closer to large-scale paintings. As far as I have read, his influences come from many angles – events or movements he’s witnessed himself, represented later in the photo Mimic, or from literature – such as Odradek, which was influenced by the hidden ghoul of Kafka’s The Cares of a Family Man. Wall’s pictures seem spontaneous but most have taken months to prepare for and the thought and attention given to each one is easily forgotten by the viewer who is just left to take everything in, in one huge eye-opening image. 

  So where does Invasion of the Body Snatchers come in? Well, when I visited the photography exhibition it was my supervisor who pointed out how many of the people in Wall’s photos are in motion, walking mostly, briskly or sauntering, and he manages to capture this movement exactly – the heel just off the ground, or the toe; and if more than one subject is present he manages to capture all their movements in almost exact timing, and the images are not blurred or out of focus despite this movement.


  Now Wall was born in 1946, and would have been around 10 years old when the fear of Communism was still gripping North America. Ok, he’s Canadian but I’m sure at least the newsreports would have reached that far, right? McCarthyism, witchhunts, the ten year long entertainment industry blacklist, film such as The Red Menace, I Married a Communist, Them! and the original 1958 Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. Such films represented the threat to humanity upheld by a Communist system which threatened to turn victims into soulless replicants, but it is the imagery from the film Invasion of the Bodysnatchers which I tentatively and quite ridiculously think seems to be present in Wall’s work.


  But isn’t photography just like such an invasion? Our living, breathing selves turned into flat, dead replications, trapped inside the boundaries of the photography? And it’s a long held belief by some ancient tribes that being photographed will steal the soul of the subject. A lot of photography of course avoids the flat, dull and lifeless subject, it aims to precisely bring emotion to life within the photo, and yet despite Wall’s work being centred on human subjects, their emotions, although present, seem slightly distant and reserved. Often the subjects have their faces turned away from the camera, or there is little communication between them, such as with Trân Dúc Ván. But it’s the footsteps and nature of motion which reminds me so much of Invasion. I’ve only seen the 1978 version but has anyone else noticed how much attention is given to the inhabitants of San Francisco walking in step together, replicants walking in tune and mirroring each others’ motions? Those parts were so creepy to watch. There were a lot of camera angles favouring the feet and footsteps and following shadows of the replicants, and as my supervisor pointed out, feet stepping in motion seem to be largely present in Wall’s work. So is Jeff Wall unconsciously influenced by Invasion

  Take a look at the images on the Tate Modern’s website here and tell me what you think! Look especially at Mimic, Odradek, and Overpass. Even Volunteer reminds me of the cleaner/janitor figure working in the Public Health agency featured in Invasion.

  So how about it? Jeff Wall was born during the last ten years of large scale Communist fear, his name is coincidentally linked to characters and actors in Invasion, and his photographic subjects are replicants of their living selves. Or, perhaps I am way too far off the mark and my speculation is solely that. It doesn’t matter, Jeff Wall is an incredible contemporary photographer and if you ever get the chance to see his work up close – go for it!


Body Snatchers - replicant fear


Overpass - Jeff Wall (2001)

Overpass - Jeff Wall (2001)