New Orleans (Woman Eating), 2004
By Michael Almereyda
Arranged on a shelf, or stacked flat, the twelve slender books comprising Paul Graham’s A Shimmer of Possibility make for an alluring chromatic spectacle. The bindings are uniform, but their colors range across three shades of green, two grays and two purples, bright red, blue, orange, brown. Graham might have been in danger of generating just another photo book — a production of burdensome bulk — if he hadn’t hit upon the idea of slicing his project into these twelve separate volumes, books containing an average of 14 photographs apiece, images distilled from visits to one or two (but in one case, four) American cities.
There’s nothing systematic about the series. One exceptionally dense volume, Washington and North Broad, New Orleans, features 26 images; another, Camarro, Louisiana, displays a single picture. As each image sequence is independent, sheathed in its own binding, interrelationships among them are flexible and fluid, like songs listened to in shuffle mode. There seems to be, for that matter, a musical impulse guiding Graham’s layouts — in the way pictures pair up, shift latitudes, shrink or enlarge from page to page, in the use of blank white pages to stagger the flow, and in the most basic way Graham fills each book, moving through locations, visual motifs, themes and variations with improvisatory freedom. In the vast history of photo art books, there’s nothing quite like this.
John Szarkowski has made a distinction between serial photographic images that “succeed each other, like marchers in a parade” and those, such as Joseph Albers’ eccentrically sequenced photo collages, that “interact like prizefighters or dancers.”1
Graham’s composites involve the latter, and a more rare, inter-active approach. Pittsburgh, for instance, includes eight pictures showing a hilly expanse of grass as a lone man pushes a lawn mower in light rain. The man is seen at a fair distance; his job looks daunting, his progress uncertain, but his persistence registers as a form of low-key heroism as he marches across successive pages. Graham extends and complicates the scene by inter-cutting, as it were, photos of canned goods shelved in a decidedly humble store — six pictures, arranged to imply that the shelves are thinning, emptying, as the man works. Meanwhile, the sun melts through the hazed sky and Graham is quick to adjust the focal plane; spots of rain snap into focus, radiant stuff spangling the air. Graham presents this picture twice the size of the others, allowing us to better appreciate the sparking rain, to recognize the red-white-and-blueness of the man’s striped shirt, to catch the shirt’s echo in the gas station distantly visible down the hill, and to take in, with only limited irony, the fact that the man’s activity projects a quality of unlikely grandeur.
There’s something unmistakably cinematic in all this — strategies as bold and basic as anything you’d find in a D.W. Griffith two-reeler — but Graham has named a more distant precursor, Anton Chekhov, as the project’s primary influence, citing the Russian’s “openness” and “transparency” and his ability to conjure narratives when “there’s not much happening.” Graham goes so far as to refer to his Shimmer books as self-contained “stories.” I’d argue about how much is actually “happening” in Chekhov’s work, but the photographer, clearly enough, can relate to the Russian’s spareness and indirection, his ever-present class-consciousness, and his uniquely wry mix of detachment and engagement. All the same, it’s appropriate to insist that Graham’s not telling stories in any conventional or even Chekhovian sense. There’s little legible narrative logic unfolding in his sequencing — nothing like the definable stories you find in comic strips, say, or the serial photographs of Duane Michals. Rather, Graham organizes his pictures to yield story fragments, faceted but splintered views of people and places moving through time, and he accomplishes this by drawing on familiarly potent film techniques: close-ups, cross-cutting, abrupt transitions, flashes of blank white leader.
A flaming North Dakota sunset alternates with successive images of a woman with close-cropped hair, in a bright Manhattan street, clutching at her head. Seven pictures of the woman; eight of the sky. In juxtaposing the sequences, Graham allows a sense of awe, even rapture, to co-exist with the woman’s pain. The point may be nothing more or less than an insistence that the sky’s fleeting meltdown, and this woman’s predicament, deserve our attention, equally and urgently.
Collectively, the Shimmer books describe a chronicle of American experience circa 2004–2006, and the world presented, by and large, is a world of isolated figures, near-anonymous strangers moving past one another without much connection. Captured in parking lots, strip malls and suburban streets, Graham’s subjects are mostly on the lower end of the socio-economic scale. A good many are African American. Their faces are often turned away or distant; visible or not, they tend to radiate a sense of dimmed expectation, passivity, habituated disappointment. Money, and its absence, is a binding subtext. Graham includes a few conspicuously prosperous characters, pictured beside glossy cars, substantial houses, but they show little evidence of contentment or joy.
Graham is notably good at hovering around the edges of a scene, studying people waiting and walking. Occasional grabs at nourishment — involving, reliably, some kind of fast food — elicit his most tender attention. A repeated motif is the way an abject hand curls around a takeaway cup or food container, as if holding something particularly vulnerable and precious. Hands, in fact, figure in these books as eloquently as faces. A notably strong sequence dwells on the meaty curled fingers of a woman (in the quadruple-city volume Chicago, Minneapolis, San Francisco, New Orleans) trying to scratch out a fortune on a Lotto ticket with what appears to be an incredibly small coin. The same book includes the stark close-up of another woman’s hand hesitating beside the pocket of her greasy gray windbreaker, a single bill folded in her fist.
In one of the more straightforward, mobile sequences, Austin, Texas, Graham shadows a couple traveling on foot after a trip to the store. The woman carries two limp plastic bags while her companion balances a pair of Pepsi 12-packs on his shoulder. (The woman’s shirt is red; the man’s sweatpants are blue, his t-shirt light gray — cheerily color-coordinated with the red-white-blue Pepsi insignia.) In the course of nine pictures, Graham gets close enough for us to take in the tattoo encircling the base of the guy’s thumb, though his face remains obscured; the Pepsi packages appear to be growing out of his neck. The couple are presumably heading home, but their journey — past a Jack-in-the-Box, a patchy suburban space, a cemetery separated from the street by only a chain-link fence — seems at once hapless, endless, and epic.
Why not take Graham at his word when he described his early work as “my own mash-up” 2 of William Eggleston and Robert Adams? This is, after all, no mean feat. If Eggleston’s uncanny, freewheeling appreciation of the visible world, keyed to the descriptive power of color, happened to be charged with an engaged political conscience — and if Robert Adams’s astringent moral discernment, weighted by the sobriety of black-and-white, were to be loosened and sweetened by an embrace of color — you might get something like Graham’s latest work. But these older masters wouldn’t necessarily come up with Graham’s defiantly odd juxtapositions, the floating rhythms of his sequencing, or the way his unexpected cross-cutting can seem to approximate the impressionistic fine print of subjective consciousness.
For whatever it’s worth, Camarro, Louisiana (the single-photo volume) presents the most Egglestonian image of the lot: a parked muscle car whose scarred scraped hood matches the frothy blue-green of a neighboring sign for Kool cigarettes. But, Graham will tell you, it’s not just about color. The car’s decay can stand as a metaphor for American democracy, “suffering from each hand-along, from re-painting, weathering, from each new owner’s ambitions and hopes — that now the illusion is threadbare, it’s designed in wish-fulfillment, and its aspirations to fulfill the dream is all the clearer.”
Across town, in Washington and South Broad, New Orleans, Graham is operating at the top of his game. This is the thickest book in the series, the most expansive, featuring pictures taken over the course of two years. It amounts to a composite portrait, both a patient exploration of this particular place and a parade of personalities drifting through it. Graham shuttles between vantage points often enough to confuse the fact that you’re looking at the same frayed crossroads in differing seasons and times of day, but it doesn’t take much study to recognize the Clean Team trash receptacle, the Spur gas station, King’s Meat Market, and the paired billboards, unlit at twilight, one steadfastly advertising Ebony Beauty Supply.
Graham’s camera is cagily specific, often as not stationed low to the ground. (He has said he was simply sitting on the curb for extended periods, part of the scenery, waiting for things to happen.) And so we get two intensely matter-of-fact views of the street, asphalt decorated with shards of trash, bits of gnawed pork, a crushed soda can. The two images are nearly identical, printed on facing pages, but with a shift in focus between pork gristle and crushed can. As with other pairings in other books, the shift in focus accommodates a feeling of stunned or stalled consciousness, and of one moment slipping free from another. In any case, positioned between photos of a woman eating pig knuckles from a Styrofoam container — a woman with her hair dyed a cheerful scorched orange — the doubled pictures prepare for a particularly compelling image, printed big, showing two dozen maraschino cherries splashed across a stretch of wet sidewalk. This is one of the lushest pictures in the entire series, some-how as lyrical as it is violent. Surrounding images give a complementary sense of down-and-out-ness, of ruin, diffidently recorded.
A wide shot inventories candy, pain relievers and, most abundantly, liquor bottles jumbled across a wall of shelves, handwritten prices provided for each item, with a special sign posted for something designated “HpnotiQ 750,” ($22 a bottle). A legless man in a wheelchair, in glasses, gray-bearded, sits beside a sign’s blue concrete base. In the course of three pictures, he brings a hand to his forehead, seeming to borrow the gesture from the woman in New York. Meanwhile isolated shoppers, echoing figures in other volumes, venture into and out of the Meat Market. One man has a child in tow, another carries a kid on his shoulders, and on the street we see two unlikely limousines, part of the random flow of traffic, while parked trucks dispense their wares, Pepsi arriving as soon as Coca-Cola departs. The sequence gathers a magical impression of slowed and fast-forwarded time, of lives eddying in a casual tide of debris, traffic, consumer culture at its most measly, though the pictures aren’t remotely as judgmental as this description implies. After sustained viewing, they remain mysterious, and bleakly beautiful.
Graham has given himself a task that’s both modest and ambitious, on a Chekhovian scale: to track the richness of particular experience while allowing stories, hidden and explicit, to ricochet off the unforced eloquence of dryly described facts.
Graham’s color palette is seldom as hot and bright as his books’ bindings. As a colorist, he’s distinctly subdued, favoring shadowy spaces, crepuscular half-light, or wan, worn tones in clear, hard light. Nature, sidelined or ignored in most of Shimmer, accounts for the wildest color. Hot blue skies bracket views of a street leading to a hospital in Boston, and dramatic sunsets — skies burning like fires — are imported from North Dakota for two volumes. (Actual South Dakotans don’t seem to have engaged Graham’s attention.)
“One uses colors, but one paints with feelings,” 3 Jean Simeon Chardin is reputed to have said. It’s possible I’m over-reaching, but the genre scenes of the eighteenth century French painter register as a fair reference point for measuring Graham’s achievement in shimmer. The photographer is, of course, a realist, fairly hard-nosed in his romanticism, harboring a self-described adherence to “the classic British obsession with social critique.” But his didactic streak is tempered by qualities shared with Chardin: a sense of reticence and restraint, a preference for stillness over action, a tendency to surround figures with open space, to favor muted color, to avoid strident emotion, and finally, radiating from all this, an ability to draw an impression of suspended time from scenes of mundane activity, confirming the suspicion (for those metaphysically minded) that eternity is folded into the lining of everyday experience and ordinary matter, if these things are rendered accurately, humbly, truly.
John Berger, in his latest novel:
“No need to evoke a hell in the afterlife. A hell for the excluded is being constructed in this one, announcing the same thing: that only wealth can make sense of being alive.”
I’d venture that the portrait of America provided in Graham’s project is not far from Berger’s description of hell on earth. Graham goes out of his way to include the excluded, showing people adrift in the purgatorial shadows of low-income existence, detached from the world of enterprise and power. But Graham approaches this condition with compassionate tact, and he documents a number of escape routes whereby life, while stopping short of making sense, yields a succession of grace notes:
A young man and girl (brother and sister) play basketball in gray dawn light at the end of a sidewalk-less street.
Earlier in the year, soon after Graham’s books landed on my shelf, I attended a lecture by Fredric Jameson. 5 I took notes, up to a point, fighting jetlag, as Jameson talked about “history as catastrophe.” What we regard as history, he said, is measured by natural disasters, wars, famines — “events that break through mere ordinariness.”
Is daily life, ordinary life, non-historical? my notes ask.
Jameson continued, and I wrote:
For Heidegger history designates moments in which Being — Being with a capital B — appears. My knotted handwriting gets increasingly hard to decipher, but I can make out a few more broken sentences:
Utopia — manifests itself in history like a diseased eyeball in which flashes of light appear.
St. Augustine — time — the eternal present… Augustine is like a little boy with a sand bucket filling a hole in the ocean.
I was thinking, even then, that I’d like to write about Graham’s books, but I didn’t know if I could do them justice. I suspected Graham’s work could support the scrutiny of someone conscious of the big picture, someone more thoughtful than I am, more knowledgeable, someone with more time to spare. Capitalism is always in crisis, which it solves through expansion. But then too I suspected that what I liked about the work, what seemed most original, daring and profound in it, was open to anyone, and bound up with the idea that history is personal, that it can be measured more intimately than we usually assume, tracked and comprehended in terms of small, random, profligate perceptions: glimpses, fragments, undercurrents and details — history’s wildness and sorrow summed up in spilled cherries, a lotto ticket, a battered Camaro, pig knuckles, the precise postures and faces of three dozen anonymous citizens, and a bottle of HpnotiQ 750.
At the end of the page, chasing Jameson’s words, I scratched another note:
Art is one of the only ways truth gets to work.
A man strolls with his cat along a weedy expanse under a highway overpass. The guy offers one of the rare smiles in these books, an uncertain, wincing smile, but he seems at ease as he gestures for the camera, displaying the cartoon cat tattoo on the inside of his forearm.
A boy on tiptoes, arms lifted, shouting, reaches for (but doesn’t quite touch) a transparent plastic bag hanging aloft in the air, while another boy looks on. They stand under a yellow awning with the words “Elegance Salon” written on it. On the following pages, an abrupt double spread, we see a Monarch butterfly spinning up into a big blue sky.
Suffice it to say that Paul Graham finds multiple ways, volume by volume, page by page, to earn his project’s bravely hopeful title, whereby the elusive lower-case shimmer of possibility opens out into a fierce sense of wonderment, consolation, and acceptance.
Photographs by Paul Graham.
SteidlMack, 2009. 376 pp., 167 color illustrations, 9½x12½”.
A Shimmer of Possibility. (12 Volume Set)
Photographs by Paul Graham.
SteidlMack, Gottingen, 2007. 360 pp., 160 color illustrations, 13×10″.
ASX CHANNEL: PAUL GRAHAM
(© Michael Almeryeda, 2009. All rights reserved.)