Jeff Wall’s “Dead Troops Talk”

Posted in Uncategorized by wolfpeterson on March 9, 2009

This is not a photo post, but it does relate to my studies in photography. It’s an essay that I wrote about Dead Troops Talk by Jeff Wall in my Histories and Theories of Photography class taught by Andrea Fitzpatrick last semester. Dead Troops Talk (A vision after an ambush of a Red Army patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986)

Jeff Wall’s Dead Troops Talk

As Canadians, the probability of ever seeing a war through our bedroom window is very slim. But when we lumber down the stairs to the breakfast table, we will inevitably be reminded of our recently deceased men and women through images of wars abroad in the newspapers or on television. As Sontag has written, “There is no war without photography.” (p. 66) However, the honourable portraits of our fallen soldiers accompanied by descriptive text do not shock us. Even the gorier ones of a soldier at the exact moment of his death leave us little more than blasé. Our desensitisation to the common war photograph is perhaps what prompted Jeff Wall to create Dead Troops Talk (A vision after an ambush of a Red Army patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986) (1991-92). In this large-scale photograph, a dozen Red Army soldiers lay dead at the bottom of a ravine, laughing and conversing with each other. An Afghan boy, searching a backpack, admittedly alive, is completely oblivious to these resurrected Russians.

The photograph’s immense attention to detail, the large scale and narrative qualities (that Jeff Wall is widely known for) area a direct allusion to 19th century historical painting. Conversely, the over-the-top Hollywood blood and gore, in addition to the soldier’s wakeful state, recall the fantastic staging of cinema. In my essay, I will discuss how Jeff Wall debates the truthfulness and effectiveness of documentary war photography through these fictional means.
Dead Troops Talk (A vision after an ambush of a Red Army patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986) is a large-scale photograph by Jeff Wall created during 1991 and 1992. This photograph made its first appearance at the Kunstmuseum in Luzern, Switzerland, and toured to the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, the Deichtorhallen Hamburg and the Stadtische Kunsthalle in Dusseldorf.

Dead Troops Talk measures 2290 millimeters high by 4170 millimeters wide. It is printed on a transparent sheet of plastic and mounted inside a lightbox. The photograph depicts a fictitious scene of the attempted Soviet colonization of Afghanistan between 1978 and 1988. A dozen Red Army soldiers lay in groups of two or three at the bottom of a crater populated abundantly by large rocks, tree branches and metal detritus. A sole shrub, the only form of intact vegetation, is stripped of all its leaves and is barely shown, poking its branches into the frame in the lower left corner. At the bottom of the image, there is a deep trench, where most of the soldiers lie, that curves around to the center and top right of the image where a large, rounded crater is present and punctuated by lighter tones in the dirt from sliding rocks. This trench curves around a sort of plateau, inhabited by three Red Army soldiers, that transforms into a walked path (judging by the beaten dirt). At the top of this path, we can observe two sets of legs cut off at the knees by the edge of the frame, which belong to Afghan soldiers. At the top of the path, Russian assault rifles, boxes of ammunition, and other bagged goodies are collected into a pile by the Afghan soldiers. Sitting among the rubble in the lower left of the frame is an Afghan boy searching through a backpack, collecting the last of the weapons and items from the dead Russian soldiers, who no longer need them.

The Russian soldiers, however dead they may be, are still animated. At the bottom left of the image, a soldier holds his head with one hand while the right side of his face is torn open. His companion shows no visible wounds but stares at the palm of his hand and yells in an existential manner. Towards the center of the image, a soldier leans over his partner whose calf has exploded in two. Above them, on the plateau, are the three stooges of the scene: the first sticks his fingers in his stomach wound while riding the second. The second’s face is bloodied, but he sticks his tongue out at the third, who dangles a piece of flesh before the two others. A soldier further to the right is amused by this and ignores his severed leg. At the bottom right of the image, four bloodied soldiers listen intently to the oratory delights of a fifth, whose hands are both exploded beyond recognition and whose head is chopped open, exposing his brain matter.

There is so much action going on in this photograph that one forgets to investigate its formal qualities. The use of color in the image is very important: while most of the image is monochromatic because of the amount of photographic real-estate allocated to dirt and rocks (to which the pale skin and brown coats of the Red Army soldiers blend in), the eye is attracted to the brighter colors in the image like the blood that has been absorbed by the dirt and that covers the soldiers faces. In addition, the Afghan boy’s light brown skin contrasts with the pale white faces of the dead soldiers, which places him definitively in the world of the living. Within this open composition, the triangular, condensed placement of the dead soldiers places them in their own world, separate from the living. The absence of a horizon also closes them into this crater, giving them no escape.

Dead Troops Talk was imagined, conceptualized and produced to be put in a gallery or museum. At the time this work was produced, Wall had already seen and most likely shown his artwork alongside post-modern photographers such as Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin, Robert Mapplethorpe and the like. However, Jeff Wall’s photographs are aesthetically closer to historical painting than the photographs of the artists mentioned above. Even more specifically, writers like Thierry de Duve have noted that Dead Troops Talk contains “scholarly allusions to the Raft of the Medusa and the moral lessons they contain.” (36)

In comparing these two works, one can above all discuss the formal similarities. As noted earlier, Wall’s work is always characterized by its large scale and Dead Troops Talk is no exception. It is not nearly as big as Theodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, which measures 4910mm by 7170mm, but by comparison to other contemporary photographic works the allusion is obvious. Although the characters in Wall’s work are spread out on a larger surface area and not as densely piled, they share a similar triangular composition. Both works also show an immense amount of detail: the treatment of lighting, the “drapé” of the clothing and cloth, and the facial expressions of the soldiers. A few of the soldiers in Wall’s photograph mimic the body positions of the crew on the raft. For example, on the left of Dead Troops Talk one of the soldiers is sitting, his arm is resting on his knee and he is holding his head in his hand. The mirror image of this position can be found in Géricault’s painting in the middle-left, the man with the red scarf on his head. A few other of the soldiers mimic the seamen, notably the man crouched over his companion just below the plateau, the man with the flapped toque who is scratching his face, and the man to his immediate right with his arms spread out and blood dripping from his mouth into the dirt.

The most noticeable resemblance between these two works is in their narrative quality. Every small gesture or open mouth leads the viewer to imagine the continuation of that movement or the words pronounced and thus a story. But the narrative quality doesn’t only spurt from these small actions, it comes from the viewer’s question of how these characters came to be in this dramatic predicament: stranded on a raft or dead in a crater. What happened before? What will happen next?

The story behind the Raft of the Medusa is quite similar to that of Dead Troops Talk. The Medusa was a colonial ship that departed France in 1816 to take the port of Saint-Louis in Senegal from the British. In poor judgement, the captain left the direction of the ship to a civilian who had no qualifications to guide it. The ship was wrecked in shallow waters and the passengers were forced to abandon it. Over 100 people boarded a small raft in hopes of surviving, but a storm threw people off. In an effort to stay in the center of the raft, which was safer, many people were killed in fights or fell overboard. After two weeks on the boat only fifteen people remained – the others were killed, thrown overboard or eaten. The lack of judgement on the part of the ship’s captain and the delay for the passengers’ rescue prompted Géricault to create this painting and bring this tragedy to public attention.

The story behind Dead Troops Talk is quite similar. Red Army soldiers were sent to Afghanistan between 1978 and 1988 to colonize and make it a part of the USSR. But a lack of planning and troops spread too thin led to the Soviets’ eventual retreat in 1989.
The main theme is Géricault’s painting is the contrast of life and death, hope and pessimism. On the low end of the raft, people are dying and depressed while the people at the other end are smiling and waving down a ship far away on the horizon. By contrast, Wall’s photograph shows soldiers who are all dead. They awaken and are free of their violent responsibilities as soldiers. They laugh and discuss who-knows-what. Their mutilated bodies are surely disgusting, but we feel no pain because they don’t either.

Dead Troops Talk undoubtedly depicts a scene of war, but is in stark contrast to documentary war photography. As Susan Sontag writes: “Pictures of hellish events seem more authentic when they don’t have the look that comes from being “properly” lighted and composed, because the photographer is either an amateur or – just as serviceable – has adopted one of the several familiar anti-art styles”(p.26-27). It is thus clear from this quote and by observing this photograph that Jeff Wall is not seeking to trick the viewer into thinking this is a genuine war photograph. The sheer scale and detail of the photo attests to this: there is no photographic equipment in existence that can produce this amount of detail and that is light enough to bring into a war zone. Documentary war photographs are often characterized by their graininess, which is a result of the use of high ISO film by the photographer. This choice allows shooting in low light situations or the capture of fast moving action shots. In Dead Troops Talk, there is no perceptible grain and no area of the photograph is under-, or over-, exposed. The only way this could ever happen is under a controlled lighting situation, like a studio. Lest we forget, the dead soldiers are awake and happily dangling their charred stumps. One assumes Wall did not intend for viewers to mistake this for authentic war photography.

Dead Troops Talk could be viewed as Wall commenting on war photography in the media. Of course, Dead Troops Talk, was never meant to be disseminated through newspapers or television, it was meant to be in a gallery or museum. Even if it were to be posted in an advertisement for an upcoming Jeff Wall retrospective, I’m not sure that newspapers would allow it. The image teeters on the edge of historical painting and photography, enough to fuel scepticism in both camps. Susan Sontag talks about Da Vinci: “When Leonardo Da Vinci gives instructions for a battle painting, he insists that the artists have the courage to show war in all its ghastliness[…]” (p.74). A battle scene depicted in painting can be beautiful because it is obviously a dramatised representation of a war long forgotten. Sontag also makes the point that artists “make” paintings and that photographers “take” photographs (p. 46). This implies that paintings or drawings that are created by the artist’s hand are less of a testament to the truth because they are subjective. In contrast to documentary war photographs, Dead Troops Talk is, by the technical and formal qualities noted above, a complete fabrication – a “made” photograph. It would not be acceptable for reproduction in mainstream media.

By the same token, it would be acceptable to see these dismembered and bloody soldiers on the silver screen. Most war films re-enact the lived events of a troop or a specific soldier who has lived to tell the tale or write a book. The tacked quotation “Based on a true story” that precedes the credits of certain films is enough to inspire pity or sadness when the film ends. However, the anachronistic underpinnings of a World War II film made in 1995 are enough to confirm that it is fiction. Jeff Wall exploits a significant amount of cinematic mannerisms to create the work of fiction which is Dead Troops Talk. In addition, Wall himself has claimed that his work is cinematography (Wall, p.180). The format of the photograph, outstretched on its length reminds the viewer of the widescreen format commonly seen in movie theatres and is literally the same aspect ratio (16:9). The material in which this work is created also cries cinema: the image is printed on transparency, just like the positive film projected in theatres. It is mounted on a lightbox, which does not project the image like a film projector, but mimics the look of the film reflected off the silver screen. In addition, the characters in the image are not only in a fictional space (Wall’s studio, set-up to look like Afghanistan), but are in a fantasy world – even though they are severely wounded, they continue to chat.

Another interpretation of this photograph could be that they are actors on a film set taking a break in between scenes: a simple photograph about film-making. However, knowing Wall’s attention to detail, a camera or stagelight would have been present to reinforce this meta-staging. In addition, the title of the work, Dead Troops Talk (A vision after an ambush of a Red Army patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986), in all its length and splendor, is very specific in giving a time and place where these events theoretically could have happened. Wall is utilizing the visual methods of fictional representation (historical painting and cinema) to talk about the ultimate failure of documentary war photography.

In conversing and ignoring their death, the Russian soldiers confirm what we know about war: that it is more common than peace. About Dead Troops Talk, Scott Watson wrote: “There’s a correspondence here between the numbness portrayed in the picture and our numbness to the chaos of life in the rest of the war – torn world” (p. 42). Considering the amount of war photographs we are subjected to during our lifetime, is it aberrant to be desensitized? The Red Army troops themselves are ignorant of their own plight because they are not actually soldiers; they are actors and models in Jeff Wall’s photograph. They are the same as we are, people who are affected by war only by the few seconds we see of it until we change the channel. As Susan Sontag wrote: “We don’t get it. We truly can’t imagine what it was like. We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is; and how normal it becomes.” (p. 125)

Word Count: 2590

Works Cited
Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador-Farrar, 2003.
De Duve, Thierry. “The Mainstream and the Crooked Path”, Jeff Wall. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1996. 24-55.
Watson, Scott. “Apocalypse now: Jeff Wall’s recent photoworks reconfigure our historical moment”, Canadian Art. Winter 1993. 40-44.
Wall, Jeff. “Frames of Refererence”, Jeff Wall: Selected Essays and Interviews. Theodora Vischer and Heidi Naef, eds. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2007, pg. 173-181.

Works Consulted
De Duve, Thierry, Arielle Pelenc and Boris Groys. Jeff Wall. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1996.
Vischer, Theodora and Heidi Naef, eds. Jeff Wall: Selected Essays and Interviews. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2007.
Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador-Farrar, 2003.
Watson, Scott. “Apocalypse now: Jeff Wall’s recent photoworks reconfigure our historical moment”, Canadian Art. Winter 1993. 40-44.
Mastai, Judith, ed. An evening Forum at the Vancouver Art Gallery with Terry Atkinson, Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace and Lawrence Weiner, February 1990, Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery, 1990.
Migayrou, Frédéric. Jeff Wall: Simples Indications, Bruxelles: éditions de la Lettre Volée. 1995.
Vine, Richard, “Wall’s Wager”, Art in America, April 1996: 86.
Freedman, Adele. “Vancouver to Paris”, Canadian Art. Spring 1996: 38.
Baudrillard, Jean, Simulacra and Simulation, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1996.

Dead Troops Talk (A vision after an ambush of a Red Army patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986)

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3 Responses

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  1. Anonymous said, on January 14, 2014 at 6:51 am

    I tried to find the Susan Sontag quote “There is no war without photography.” (p.66) but it is not there.

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