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)