Monday, November 5, 2007

A Shimmer of Possibility by Paul Graham

Truth be told, when I first saw written material on Paul Graham’s twelve new books from Steidl called A Shimmer of Possibility, I was ill at ease with the continuous mentioning that the project was inspired by the great Russian writer Anton Chekhov. What made me feel uneasy was my impression that when an artist so specifically names an influence, he or she seems to be inviting, if not begging, for a comparison to be made to that influence. This often has the air of pretension. It is as if the artist is suggesting that he or she may be seen as equals to the named influence, and they both, so to speak, sit at the same table. This rarely proves to have merit which was the cause of my concern. Luckily for Graham, Chekhov was interested in having all ‘sorts’ around his table, ranging from card-cheats and prostitutes to high officials and religious dignitaries. Doubtless that there would have been an open chair for Graham, or perhaps even for me had I been of the era.

This was the arrow of criticism I was ready to aim until I actually saw the books (upon seeing them, I re-aimed my arrow towards my foot). What Graham has achieved with these twelve books may prove to be one of the more important advances in contemporary photographic practice that has taken place in a long while. He should be naming Chekhov, as he has learned some of the greatest gifts that that writing has to offer. The economy of Chekhov’s writing was his strength. It is spare, and he gives a full impression of a character with little more than a description of one of their gestures. Graham achieves a similar accomplishment with these ‘filmic haikus’ as he has described them in print.

Let me back up and provide some important details of what we are given in this work. This is a set of twelve individual books, all alike in trim size and basic layout, but varying in length and number of photographs included. Each presents a different implied ‘short story’ if you will. Some do so with many images over the course of a book, and one suffices with only the inclusion of one single image. All of the images were made in the US. Each book is covered in a different colored cloth that makes them true eye candy when seen together.

Perhaps I have made too much mention of Chekhov. Do not mistake these books in any way to be illustrations of that master’s written works. It was the ‘less is more’ approach that Chekhov mastered and this is the lesson Graham has learned and applied to his craft. Graham conveys so much about his subjects in so few images. He sets us within the flow of their life for small amounts of time and paves the way for a chance at revelation if we are open to it. Mind you, these are revelations that are not defined by a neat and tidy beginning middle and an end. These are open ended moments where we pause to notice and experience these subjects, and as they move on in their own direction and continuum, we move on our way too. Ships passing in America.

In some of these books, the tone of Graham’s last work, American Night, is felt. In American Night, he is describing people living on the fringes of society. Many poor, or perhaps even homeless, appear in these narratives as well. American Night, for me, was a condemnation of what people are willing to see and what they are willing to ignore. It had a political tone that was infused with an application of guilt. The photos of the homeless in that book were printed so light that they almost do not exist and thus are not seen or able to be committed to memory. Those images sat alongside photographs of affluence and symbols of the desirable commodities of our society; SUV’s and McMansions. This work in A Shimmer of Possibility has political undertones as well but they do not overwhelm or provide the easy explanation. The strength here is the avoidance of summation.

Another strength is in the consistent, fine quality of imagery. Graham does not rely on weak photographs that become ‘whole’ due to the camouflage of their association with others. Each photo provides the proper sentence needed for the narrative. Towards his subjects, he is skillful at wading into an environment where he is comfortable both as our narrator, and at charting the territory for his own benefit. The subjects seem absent of any knowledge of our existence.

I have been hell-bent on trying to think of another artist that has pursued a similar tack in sequenced picture making. The other that comes to mind is so literal that I am at a loss for comparison. This why I think that Graham’s accomplishments here are an example of prodding the medium’s well formed traditions of ‘social documentary’ into new territory where it may sit more comfortably now that the strict truth telling aspects of the medium have been called into question.

I have decided not to include images in my composite as is my usual habit. The reason is that, to take images out of their context I think would be a disservice to these particular works. Part of the meaning and enjoyment of each of these books is in the layout and sequencing of the photographs. The pictures appear on the page pushed high or low, left or right and sized large or small seemingly to imply a continuum but also to avoid locking it into a timed sequence. The result feels more like glimpsing occasional moments that define perfectly what is necessary at the right time and place.

In the book Pittsburgh 2004, a man pushes a lawn mower over an area of grass that he does not seem to own. The day is very hazy and within one photographic frame, the sun emerges and it rains simultaneously. These images of the man mowing are alternated with images of grocery store shelves of canned goods that seem to become thinner and leaner as the man works to complete his task.

In the book Louisiana 2005, a cat and a man walk towards us on a no man’s land of a sidewalk under a few highway overpasses. As we pause to converse with him, perhaps asking directions, the cat explores the surroundings, garnering most of the camera’s attention. The man then leaves, walking in the direction of a motel carrying the cat under his arm. This is one of my favorites in the group for a couple reasons. The first reason is for a device that Graham employs. He includes two images of the man in succession that are so similar that they appear to be the same photo. This at once could be seen as a call to ‘look closer’ and a representation of a passage of time. I also like that, intentional or not, Graham has made a mocking insider’s joke at the expense of Chekhov by having a cat as a worthy additional subject of one of his haikus. Chekhov was known to have despised cats.

The year is running out so it makes me think that A Shimmer of Possibility will be the book event of 2007. For the 1000 people that will be lucky enough to own this set of books, these will continue to reward. My only criticism is that the expense and limited availability of this set will limit their finding homes in every university and institution that teaches photography. This work is an important contribution to the medium. It should be seen and inform future generations of photographers as widely as the literary art that lent it its inspiration.

Buy online at Steidlville (A Shimmer of Possibility)

Buy online at Steidlville (American Night)


Anonymous said...

Hopefully with this new project, Paul Graham will get the long overdue respect he does not seem to get in this country. It saddens me when I ask photo/art students if they have ever seen his work and they say they have never heard of him. I think he might be one of the most underrated photographers that exhibits in the U.S. Does anyone out there know if Paul Graham will be showing his new work anywhere in the U.S.? I know he is represented by Greenberg Van Doren, but they do not have any info about an upcoming show. Also, Photo-Eye magazine has an excellent interview with him, where he discusses "A Shimmer of Possibility."

Mike C. said...

Damn, I was telling myself I couldn't afford this one, but you've talked me into it.

I used to live in the flat above Paul Graham, during the period he was self-publishing "A1". I had just begun to find photography interesting, but when "A1" appeared in the local bookshop in 1983 its originality was so invisible to me, that I only bought a copy because the publisher's address was also mine. Gradually, my eyes opened to the book (too slowly to get the thing inscribed) and I learned an important lesson: be slow to judge the work of those who, somehow, are able to place themselves "ahead of the curve". (I should've known better -- I couldn't hear Hendrix, either, in 1968...)

Other essential books from that time and place are Jem Southam's "Red River" and Peter Fraser's "Two Blue Buckets", two photographers who also continue to produce work of understated brilliance and originality.

Anonymous said...

I heard that you can't get this book on Amazon (though they advertise it for sale at a good price) as the publisher has too few copies to supply discount retailers.

this has the ring of truth, but if anyone has received an Amazon copy, please let me know. Otherwise, I guess I have to order it direct from Steidl.

Anonymous said...

This is a phenomenal book - it has made me think more about photography and how it can work than any other book I have seen.

I think the most interesting thing is how unphotographic the images are - there aren't weak images in there, but they are pretty humdrum - very straight, direct and undisguised by light or composition. But that doesn't matter in the least bit. It's a phenomenal book.

You can't buy it on Amazon - Paul Graham says that - so the best bet is joining the steidl book club as Jeff said. There is also a chance it will be published as one volume in the future - but I think the 12 volumes is very special.

Anonymous said...

Alas Steidl is not counting Shimmer as a 'Book' but rather a 'Special Edition' so the discount is only 10%. Boo hoo.

Anonymous said...

I stand corrected by Rob.

To anyone interested in buying a set of Shimmer...I would do it through Steidl. They are having a sale that gives 25% off for all regular books and 10% off for special editions. They are also giving free shipping within many countries in Europe. For the US, that discount easily covers the shipping and more.

Anonymous said...

"Another strength is in the consistent, fine quality of imagery. Graham does not rely on weak photographs that become ‘whole’ due to the camouflage of their association with others. Each photo provides the proper sentence needed for the narrative."

I find promising that statement of yours about this new work, Jeff. One of the troubles I had with "Empty Heaven", his work on Japan, was that it was fascinating on a conceptual level -Graham is really smart and he lays out his ideas very intelligently- but (that is what I felt) not at all interesting on the image level. I am a big fan of his earlier work "Troubled Land", where the images were both seductive per se and dense with meaning. And I can perfectly understand that he didn't want to repeat that formula on his following work and preferred to push the envelope. But the formulas he proposed thereafter, I personally found not entirely satisfactory.

I attended a lecture at the Tate Gallery about ten years ago and he is very articulate -knows about photography and knows how to speak interestingly about it. In the case of his previous work to Shimmer, "American Night" I find another interesting idea that doesn't completely engage me on the visual level -the "white" images seemed to me visually (not politically, mind you) a bit intolerable.

So I really look forward to this new set of books. The writings and reviews so far all seem positive.

Anonymous said...


I didn't like American Night. I probably should own one as it does challenge book making with its printing approach but I never picked one up. For me it mostly comes down to the images and in that book I just didn't get into them. In Shimmer, as I mentioned, The images are what holds you.

A friend was over my apartment yesterday and he was challenging me on my remarks about Shimmer. He thought maybe I was sending too much praise towards the set. He looked through all of the 12 books and an hour later when we came back to talking about the pictures he started to adamantly disagree with me in regard to their individual strength. To illustrate his point he started grabbing books off the stack and flipping through them looking for pictures that couldn't stand on their own. It took him about four books in to find an example. No doubt, there are weaker photos among the 160 but they are necessary and could not be edited out.

Anonymous said...

Just ordered the book(s). before your text i saw it in and thought that i really want that but didn't buy it and after your text, well i decided it's going to be my christmas present. I haven't seen the american night as a book but i saw it in arles festival this year and i have to say that it didn't impress me although i have to admit that i'm not an exhibition person, prefer books much, much more. anyway. thanks for your review and for the whole blog.

Anonymous said...

a friend pointed out that the last 3 major works done by Paul Graham have something special about them:

End of an Age used focus - sharp/blurry. American Night used exposure - light/dark, and this new one Shimmer of Possibility uses time - fixed/flowing. So thats Focus, Aperture and Shutter... the three principle variables of photography.

of course the work is far more than that, but its very, very clever nonetheless.

Anonymous said...

Great observation.

Anonymous said...

I too was not that crazy about the "American Night" and "Empty Heaven" series (visually speaking), but I thought his ideas behind them were very clever. Graham is one of a very small minority of photographers that continues to challenge himself in new ways. Most artist-photographers, as we know and understand, rest comfortably with their successful work, afraid that they will pull the carpet out from underneath themselves if they deviate too far from what the art world expects from them. This is why I am always eager to see new work from Paul Graham because it usually is a bit of a surprise.

Anonymous said...

By the way Jeff I want to thank you for the extensive and insightful reviews you publish on this blog. The "props" you get around the web on other sites are very well deserved.

Anonymous said...


You still take pictures right?

Cause your getting a little to good at this book reviewing game for comfort.

That, and you keep making me want to do stupid shit like spend my sheet film budget for the next two months on dumb pieces of paper sewn together with pretty pictures inside.

This book project sounds particularly amazing though. I'm always interested in seeing the succesful incorporation of cats into a picture or series of pictures as the case may be. I'm none too familiar with Graham's work, and I'd rather just splash out money I don't have on the book than google him and stare at this fucking screen for another hour.

That said, I think I'll do neither.

Hope your taking care of yourself and all that...

Anonymous said...


Yeah, Yeah, I think you know me well enough to know that for me to stop photographing is not an option. I just like the exercise my mind gets from this. It makes me happy.

I would spend the money on your sheet film. Paul's book set is great but for young photographers like yourself, make your own first. ICP library should have a set at some point.

Hope you're well.

Anonymous said...

"I have been hell-bent on trying to think of another artist that has pursued a similar tack in sequenced picture making. The other that comes to mind is so literal that I am at a loss for comparison. "

Who is the other that comes to mind?

Anonymous said...

Duane Michals.

Anonymous said...

Has anyone received their copy of this book, not a review copy? Mine has not shipped after weeks. Will it come out in 2007?

Anonymous said...

From what I've seen, it's supposed to be available on Dec. 1,2007. Hopefully people will have them sometime next week.

Anonymous said...

The books were available at the Steidl stand at Paris Photo. It was a great opportuneness to leaf trough :-)

Anonymous said...

unfortunately it is selling out whenever it appears. Paris Photo sold all 50 copies in 2 hours, so it seems that direct from Steidl is the best way to get one. Friends in Europe have got theirs that way.

they apparently have a big USA shipment of 400 arriving next week, so hopefully most US orders will be fulfilled in Dec.

Like the publisher says, do not order on Amazon. it wont happen.

Anonymous said...

For these books order directly from Steidl through my link (I do not get money for this) I do think that they will not be available through Amazon. I was also told that Dashwood books in NYC will have some before Christmas. If you are in NYC then I suggest you call and reserve a set
212 387-8520.

Anonymous said...

Jeff are you sure about Amazon not having "A shimmer of Possibility"? They have it listed on their website and they have been taking pre-orders. I think it would really suck for those people that have placed those pre-orders if Amazon does not get any. It's great that Dashwood Books is getting some, that store is amazing and David is a really nice guy.

Anonymous said...


To be clear, No I am not sure about that. I just know that ordering from Steidl will definitely get you a set before they sell out where Amazon depends on whether DAP (the distributor) will get some to them. If they can sell these books without giving a bunch to Amazon at a bigger discount then I imagine they will avoid doing so. I have ordered books from Amazon before that were not available for whatever reason and they just refunded my money. I know they are pricing at a large discount and you would save almost a hundred bucks but I think it is not a sure thing that the transaction will go through.

Anonymous said...

Jeff, Thanks a lot for the clarification. I checked Amazon and they are selling it for $250.00. When I checked a few months ago it was about $100.00 less. It is very curious. Maybe selling it for the same price as Steidl and Photo-Eye will inable them to receive some copies. Who knows.....

Anonymous said...

nice to see that even Amazon has to bow down to market forces on this one, and sell at full list price.

kudos to Steidl!

P AL said...
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