Wednesday, February 11, 2009
© Paul Graham, All Rights Reserved
The other night Paul Graham gave a talk at the School of Visual Arts in collaboration with Dear Dave Magazine. I missed Graham's talk at Swann Auction Gallery earlier this year because I was teaching - so I was excited to hear about his work and most recent project - a shimmer of possibility. The work is currently on view in a modest show at MoMA, which is fantastic and well worth the trip. The book is also being re-released as a single volume paperback this spring by Steidl. The lecture was sponsored by Dear Dave, a great new photography magazine, and the BFA Photo Department at SVA, who are beginning a series of monthly lectures/conversations with photographers that looks promising. The next conversation is scheduled for April with Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin.
I should prefix my final comments by saying I am a big fan of Graham's work. I think he is a smart conceptually-minded documentary photography - who has contributed greatly to the medium. Although well-received in Europe, his work lacks the critical and appreciative audience it deserves in the US. I especially admire his courage to challenge his own work and practice, and not retread past successes by repeating himself. I wrote about his recent book, a shimmer of possibility, when it came out and think it is a complicated and monumental achievement that will contribute greatly to the medium.
Part of its success lies in its ruthless contemporaneity. Discarding the 'great moment' photograph, the seemingly banal sequenced shots reveal the shabby but beautiful world, and its flow, as it is. As he noted in his talk, we often forget that photographers like Eggleston and other 60s and 70s photographers, were ruthlessly contemporary and often dismissed at the time because of this fact. We look at their work now, not only with a recognition of their prescience and an acknowledgement of their artistic greatness, but also with nostalgia for the material surface of the past. At the time, for many viewers the work of Eggleston, Shore, Adams etc... often looked awkward, ugly and strange. To be truly contemporary requires "piercing the now," as Graham noted in his talk, and not merely retreading visual models of the past. Graham's radical approach succeeds in this regard.
Having read a couple of interview with Graham and read about the work online and in print, much of the conversation about the work was familiar, but still engaging. In addition to comments about the work's inception and creation he talked at length about his relationship to photography. Expressing his affinity and admiration for post-WWII American photography, he offered the interesting insight that much of the constructed, or tableau, photography that has dominated the art world owes much of it success to the transparent nature of its creation. In contrast to the work of Winogrand or Frank, who "just captured a fleeting moment," the work of Jeff Wall or Cindy Sherman clearly reveals it authorial intent and artistic mark in its very staged or constructedness. I think there are other issues at play, but this is certainly a factor and aptly put.
When pressed, Graham was reluctant to over analysis his work for fear of pinning its meaning down. This is greatly appreciated. Too often artists speak too much and either end up diluting the complexity of their work or, especially in the case of photographers, digressing into discussions about the history and academic discourse about their subject-matter. I don't need a lecture on the history of the suburbans etc... At the same time, I was also a little disappointment because one of the problematic aspects of the work was avoided.
a shimmer of possibility clearly deals with issues of race, class and social inequality in the United States. Looking through the books, one immediately notices that a large number of the subjects are socially and economically marginalized, and/or African-American. Graham's last book, American Night, clearly and bluntly dealt with issues of race in America. Contrasting harshly blown out images of marginalized, homeless and physically distant African-Americans on the outskirts of American cities with full-color images of suburban McMansions, SUVs and other iconic symbols of affluence, the work addresses the racial and economical inequalities of America in the 21st century. I appreciate the fact that Graham choose to address this difficult subject, but the work is far too blunt in its declaration for my taste. While the poetic structure and innovate approach of shimmer are often highlighted, its exploration of the racial and social reality of America is often minimized, or secondary. To be fair, the work is relatively new and there is not a lot of critical discourse around the work.
Although Graham was asked about this aspect of the work, he chose not to answer the question. Citing the time limits, the fact that he had not showed his American Night work, which could help him adequately frame the discussion, and the general complexity of the subject, he deferred the discussion to another time. Since I am conflicted by this aspect of the work, I was disappointed. I do not believe, as a white Englishman, he is barred from or incapable of addressing issues of race in America, but I do believe it must be dealt with frankly and honestly. While some of the subjects are clearly aware they are being photographed, others are not. This is not always a problem, but when the subjects are poor and socially/economically marginalized it strays into dangerous territory. There are one or two sequences in particular that are not only painful to view because of the social reality they reveal, but disturbing for their placement within Graham's artistic construct and the manner they appear to have been taken. As challenging, provocative and important as the work is, it is diminished by failing to critically confront this issue. As the work enters the world and gains a broader audience, hopefully, these issues will be addressed and discussed.
P.S. Graham will also be showing work this month (March) at Salon 94 Freemans and Greenberg Van Doren Gallery.
Posted by Adam at 9:09 AM