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Paul Graham

09/12/2009
Paul Graham, from a shimmer of a possibility

Paul Graham, from a shimmer of a possibility

A British photographer born in the 1950’s, Paul Graham – paulgrahamarchive.com – was one of the first noted photographers to mesh the qualities of contemporary color photography made popular by artists such as Eggleston, Sternfeld, and Shore, with social documentary concerns.  His most recent – and sprawling – project, a shimmer of a possibility is presented as a 12-volume edition of books published by Steidl and is said to be inspired by Chekhov’s short stories.  According to THE EXPOSURE PROJECT, shimmer “explores the triviality, insipidness and understated theatricality of our mythologized suburban culture.” The images capture everyday life in America and are set into short sequences throughout the multi-volume set.  On the occasion of an exhibition of the works at MOMA, the following was written:

“The aspects of American life that Walker Evans, Robert Frank, and Joel Sternfeld identified 80, 50, and 30 years ago—the embattled contrasts, the racism and economic disparity, the consumers, the loneliness, the bad architecture, the disenfranchised—are also present in a shimmer of possibility, but Graham’s attention deflects their predictable impact on us, so that instead of only recoiling at a problem we feel we can’t do anything about, we let our attention be drawn to the normalcy of life and the small pleasures people experience.” – Susan Kismaric, Curator, Dept. of Photography, MOMA.

Graham walked the streets of residential neighborhoods in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana, and the sidewalks of New Orleans, Las Vegas, and New York, and when he encountered someone who caught his eye, he photographed them: an older woman retrieving her mail; a young man and woman playing basketball at dusk; a couple returning from the supermarket. Graham followed people navigating their way through crowded city sidewalks, and tracked and photographed lone figures crossing a busy roadway, unaware of the camera.

Reviewing several trips’ worth of photographs on the large, flat screen of his computer, Graham realized that the more or less randomly gathered pictures could be united into multipart works. As in a poem, where language and rhythm organize words, lines, and stanzas into an imaginative interpretation of a subject, Graham’s imposed yet open-ended structures imply—through close-ups, crosscutting, and juxtapositions of people and nature—specific narratives and overarching ideas. Images of people placed in tandem with other people and with nature suggest the flow of life, pointing to the unknown and the possibility of change, with nature acting as a balm, whether as raindrops, trees silhouetted against a burning sunset, or the bright green grass on a highway meridian.

In his reconstruction of the world in pictures, Graham describes an America at odds with itself, filled with contradictions and inconsistencies. Yet, through the gloom, the small felicities of life peek through. Fluid, filled with desire, and marked by extremes, his view is what the late curator, critic, and photographer John Szarkowski called, in another context, a “just metaphor” for our times.

MOMA

Much has been written online and in blogs about the image below, perhaps the most famous from shimmer:

Paul Graham, from a shimmer of a possibility

Paul Graham, from a shimmer of a possibility

About the image Graham writes:

This picture is actually part of a sequence of photographs I took on the first evening of a two-and-a-half-year trip around America, starting in Pittsburgh in 2004. I was just travelling with no particular purpose, taking photos along the way. This was in the car park in front of the motel where I was staying, and there was this guy cutting the grass of an entire huge field with a very loud old push-mower.  He saw me and lifted his hand at one point, but he didn’t really care. So I kept on taking pictures, with the sun shining directly into the camera. (It’s lovely to do everything that Kodak tell you not to.)

In one image from this sequence, he is to the left, then he’s to the right, then he’s wiping his face with a cloth. Then this beautiful moment happened: the sun burst through and the rain came down, and all the raindrops were illuminated in the shaft of light. It was quite extraordinary.

I like this shot because, besides the obvious reason of its beauty, it confers a nobility on what the man is doing. He was working with dignity on this unbelievable task – and, with perseverance, he was probably going to get it done. Many moments are mundane and seem worthless, but they form and shape our lives. They are quite different from the Herculean labours and extraordinary moments that photographers are addicted to.

from The Guardian’s Best Shot

Some other images from shimmer:

Paul Graham, from a shimmer of a possibility

Paul Graham, from a shimmer of a possibility

Paul Graham, from a shimmer of a possibility

Paul Graham, from a shimmer of a possibility

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