Moholy-Nagy, page 14 + 15 soiled in August of 1988

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Paul Graham at Pier 24

The retrospective at Pier 24, the first exhibit by a single artist, is not a mid-career survey, but a survey of a portion of Paul Graham’s impressive mid-career. Much of the writing about Graham’s work of this period (1999-2011) focused on his method of avoiding the decisive moment and replacing it with sequences of frames. 

Brought together as The Whiteness of the Whale, the content in Graham’s trilogy, spread across a sprawling, concrete art cave, becomes as significant as his method. The exhibit reveals a rigorous investigation of the details and textures of contemporary America; the cars, fashion, rainbows of plastic, and debris. The people portrayed have an array of gestures and gaits that begin to feel distinctly American. The exhibit guide has a reference to Walker Evans, which I doubted at first, but was in agreement with after an hour in the exhibit. 

One feature of Evans’ America is how modern advertising made its way to every rural corner, no matter how remote, encroaching on any surface. He documented advertising’s incongruity with its surroundings. Graham describes American consumerism at a personal scale: the fonts on small liquor bottles, the bright colors of fast food and soda, a shattered jar of insanely red cherries that exists only for cocktails. From the intimacy of gambling to billboards for liquor always in the background, the designed environment strokes, cajoles and addicts. But just at the point the exhibit starts to feel like a structured social observation Graham intersperses the phenomenal.  

The earliest series, American Night, offers the most obvious statement. The fantasy of middle class America is laid out; new homes in California, depicted in a style worthy of advertisements, are alien ships plopped down in arid subdivisions. Surrounding them are whited-out landscapes with barely visible figures. This is Graham’s rejection of two-stop-underexposed contrast porn, that gritty cue so many documentary photographers have used as a crutch, like dramatic music in bad movies. I loved them in print, but on the wall the American Night prints are very large and look muddied by a white layer rather than luminous from overexposure.

In book form a shimmer of possibility felt like short stories without plot, in the unusual format of 12 small thin books, each with a cover of a different color. It was widely praised as one of the best book projects of the last decade. Seeing the entire series on the wall, which takes up the majority of space at Pier 24, is a superior experience. The work retains its poetry, each segment with its own wall or entire gallery, yet because of the print size it’s a more analytical and physical experience. You notice details in individual photographs, using your legs to scrub back and forth between the frames to decide which came first. Because of the layout at Pier 24, after seeing the complete series you can’t help passing back through a gallery to reconsider an earlier sequence. The only sequences that didn’t work on the wall are the two that juxtapose sunsets with people suffering in visible anguish. In the books, the viewer creates the contrast by turning the page, on the wall the curator has done it for you.

As with the whited-out landscapes of American Night, much of shimmer is not set in the dense areas of cities, but the in-between areas. These are places where people in cars don’t get out, and people without cars are stranded in. This is punctuated by one sequence (“New England”) in lush suburbia, an older woman checking her mail. Here the homes are fabrications of the past, but the mailbox is hulking, contemporary black plastic, offering security for the mail. 

Graham’s method intensifies with his final series in the trilogy, The Present. Shot on the streets of New York, spaces are condensed and the sequences are reduced to two or three frames, with light bouncing off glass buildings. The contrasting frames offer up obvious humor. These are not the subtle visual jokes of classic street photography that promote the photographer’s sophistication. The humor in the diptychs of The Present are dad jokes. A man with an eye patch paired with a man winking. A man with a turban paired with a man with a yarmulke. A man in a suit paired with a man in rags.

The prints are similar size to American Night, but every detail is luminous. Graham mentioned in an interview how quickly he abandoned film for digital, but at Pier 24 you can see, as with other photographers, there was a progression of camera technology and printing technique. Early digital looks like early digital. Whereas the earlier work are large prints you don’t want to get too close to, The Present prints are hung low to the floor, but invite you closer until you want to bend down to see them straight on.

While many photographers shoot street at f8 or f16, The Present favors wider shots that have a simple composition of a single person or couple in the middle of the frame. The depth of field is so shallow it sometimes feels as if Graham has deployed a tilt-shift effect. Negative takes on the The Present seemed based on the book, not on these prints. And perhaps my perspective is skewed in the other direction; I’ve seen the prints a number of times since their original exhibition in different settings (even a dreaded art fair) and they are great in every context. If you’ve read Graham’s Unreasonable Apple essay, you’ll recall he outlined a divide between the art world and straight photography. With The Present, he has offered his best apple to the art world, conceptually and in the quality of the merchandise.

“Perhaps instead of standing by the river bank scooping out water, it’s better to immerse yourself in the current, and watch how the river comes up, flows smoothly around your presence, and gently reforms the other side like you were never there.” – Paul Graham (wall text at Pier 24)

The sequence from a shimmer of possibility I’ve seen reproduced online and discussed most often is “Lawnmower man.” This is a handful of frames of a man mowing the lawn, and then it begins to rain. The sequence that caught my attention on the wall at Pier 24 that had not done so in the books was “Texas, 2006.” If you’re familiar with the work, we can call it “Pepsi 12-pack man.” Following a woman and the man with boxes of soda on his shoulder, we go from a wide scene, to a shallow depth-of-field shot to see he has a tattoo on his hand. Graham racks the focus and we notice the couple is passing a cemetery. He continues following them, turns to capture an unrelated scene of a child playing, and they continue off into the distance. In “Lawnmower man” the appearance of rain filtered through clouds feels like a climatic moment. In “Pepsi 12-pack man,” Graham dances around that moment with shifts of his attention. 

Photographers were using sequences in the 19th century, from panoramas made of multiple frames, to Muybridge documenting motion while simulating a static frame (that wasn’t actually static). In the last century Duane Michals used sequences for mystical parables and Chris Marker used stills to create a potent science fiction film. John Gossage’s The Pond is one of the great photobooks, which simulates walking along a path around a pond. Are Graham’s studies of flowing moments cinematic keyframes, a transition to something like Marker’s film? Is Graham’s wandering attention the limbs of Muybridge’s animals?

David Hockney’s critique of the medium created a list of problems to solve: photographs are flat, with single point perspective, capturing no sense of time. The experience of seeing is nothing like a single photograph, in reality the eye wanders, attention focuses in and out. Photographs are images that are not interesting to look at for more than a minute. Hockney’s solution was “joiners,” collages inspired by cubism made up of dozens of photographs. Not every object and surface is treated equally, things overlap, there’s no attempt at smoothness or cohesive forms, though his landscapes do end up feeling like a modern take on traditional multi-frame panoramas. The joiners are never as difficult to read as dense cubist paintings. 

Graham has solved some of Hockney’s problems with the narrative of attention. Hockney’s reference for still life and portraiture is painting. Graham’s subjects are not sitting still for their portraits. Graham assumes the viewer can follow if he turns his head left or right. Hockney’s portraits have a fixed period of time, while Graham’s walkabouts are open-ended and circular. In Walking In The Zen Garden, Ryoanji Temple, Kyoto 1983 Hockney studies his own movement, walking across a contained space that happens to be a rectangle. The time Hockney is capturing in his joiners is the meticulous quilting process of shooting dozens of frames. The time captured in Graham’s shimmers is flâneur time.

The Whiteness of the Whale continues down a path established at Pier 24 favoring an entire series, instead of the museum approach, which uses selects to draw the arc of an artist’s career or the history of the medium. If there were many other places, or any, using this approach it would seem curatorially mute and conservative. Instead, it feels like a patient, slow-motion survey of different photographic methods. Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Robert Adams, Doug Rickard and Paul Graham, each method a harpoon hurled from photography’s Pequod, each somewhat insufficient for the beast that is the United States.

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