There is a figure in Jeff Wall’s light-box photograph, The Old Prison, 1987, that is easy to miss. In reproductions, he is barely visible, lost in the long and protracted expansiveness of the panorama. Viewing the work in person, one sees the man pop out of the picture, punctuating the landscape in his red sweater. He stands close to the abandoned structure with his back turned away from the camera, looking off into the distance. The man is what Germans call a R_ü_ckenfigur, or back figure, a Romantic symbol synonymous with the work of Caspar David Friedrich. But unlike Friedrich’s paintings, Wall’s photograph does not conjure feelings of the sublime or the exalted. Although the image seems banal, it is still stubbornly enigmatic. Why and for what purpose is the man there?
Around the jailhouse lies a barren field. It is empty but not vacant: An old mattress, a couch, and bits of stray garbage are scattered about. The mattress and couch hint at an opportunity for reverie—beers in a barren lot, followed by a restful nap and a walk in the afternoon light. Yet this moment exists only as an idle promise.
On the lower left-hand corner of the photograph, counterposing the figure’s presence, are signs announcing a development to come. The vista is now just like any other landscape in Vancouver, a site for real estate speculation—terrain to be parceled out, bought and sold. These details assemble to form the coastal motifs of Wall’s images, specific characteristics that point to a dark history of dispossession and deprivation. Such motifs are obstinate, like open wounds that will never heal.
— Andrew Witt