Paul Graham, car, shop, person, car park,

A Shimmer of Possibility

In Issue 9 of Photoworks magazine, art critic Martin Herbert looked at Paul Graham's project a Shimmer of Possibility.

Outside the hotel, under a blurry late-afternoon sun in a sky that threatens and then releases showers, an African-American man mows grassy grounds. Inside the supermarket, basic items sit on half-filled shelves: cans of corn and beef stew, white rice, soap. In the bright parking lot lined with young oaks, a chocolate-coloured GMC Safari people-carrier waits alone. Such are the particularities between which Paul Graham shuttles us in one of a dozen photographic sequences – all shot in the USA, this one in Pittsburgh in 2004 – that comprise his latest body of work, a shimmer of possibility. Particularly in book form (aside from being exhibited, it’s being published as a set of twelve individual volumes), the work has a cinematic propulsion: one shot following another, inferring connections. Here, Graham alternates between lawnmower man and supermarket, lingers temporarily on the menial worker trudging back and forth, and caps the sequence with the car. It’s not hard to assume here a fragmentary consideration of America’s haves and have-nots (measured through a juxtaposition of vehicles), social diminution along racial lines, the cost of fuels.

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At the same time, though, and despite the UK-born, New York-based Graham’s long-running gravitation towards social inequalities, blunt dialectics have never been his thing, and the cycles in a shimmer… rebuff imputations of liberal hand-wringing. They are too attentive to how we see, nudging viewers with contextualising techniques but leaving resolution open enough that any reading is merely inference. California (2005-06) opens and closes with tight close-ups of hands around a polystyrene cup: in the sunlit first, the hands look tanned, the cup clean; in the shadowy second, the cup looks dirty, the hands dark-skinned. Vacationer to vagrant, one might dangerously think. (It may not even be the same cup.) In between are juxtaposed shots of a lone black girl, her toys arrayed at the side of a sunny suburban road, and a white homeless person outside a burger bar. Presently the milieu shifts to manicured parkland and shots of glossy kids skateboarding and lunching with their families; completing this inner sequence, a lone well-tended sapling. The result is a complex of sparked thoughts around support structures and/or their absence, tailed by awareness that we don’t really know what this adds up to, can only perceive it in small parcels and, as storytelling creatures, are rushing to judge. Unexamined assumptions, Graham suggests, can be as pernicious as blind indifference.

Highlighting the pitfalls of perception means constantly taking audiences by surprise, or so Graham’s slippery career over the last quarter-century suggests. a shimmer… bears some iconographic and geographical resemblance to its predecessor, American Night (2000-02), which counterpoised photographs of lone African-Americans pedestrians (hugely overexposed and whited-out or shot in semi-darkness, either way turned nearly invisible) with bright, ‘normal’ photographs of attractive suburban houses; but the recent tilting of vision is evidently different. The 1999 series Paintings inveigled the viewer through its very title to accept the aesthetic value of toilet graffiti, and indeed when photographed it had some, though one was made uncertain of this through having been pointedly coerced. The teenage and twentysomething clubbers in The End of an Age (1997-98) are similarly surrounded by a nimbus of doubt. It’s too easy to bracket them, or limn them with faint melancholy, because of where they are. Really we know nothing about them, not even how much they are ‘acting’ – on their own impulse, or Graham’s.

In Union Jack in Tree, County Tyrone (1985), from the series Troubled Land (1984-87), a beautiful photograph superficially similar to the aforementioned recent image of a sapling, one must look fairly closely to see the particle of conflict. By then the image has likely done its work as an ensign of its own, from a whole history of pastoral landscape imagery. If it now recalls a long history of embattlement, still it is a fragment, and in its own way a reminder that photographs like this are dangerously rhetorical. The real, Graham reminds us, is always apt to slip into metaphor.

Graham has long been attuned to literature (lines from TS Eliot’s The Waste Land accompanied his post-Soviet series New Europe (1993), quotations from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness bookended American Night) and one avowed if indirect influence on his recent photographs has been Anton Chekhov’s short stories. The Russian author typically dropped audiences into the midst of a situation and departed without overt conclusion: his is a literature of intimate observation, but also, significantly in relation to Graham, of a fluent interchange between realist description and implicit analogy. The passengers in his early story “On the Train”, while richly and variously themselves, also imply an entire compacted society moving forth and bustling together. When Chekhov writes ‘all the lights are green, but somewhere down the line I’m sure all hell will break loose,’ he speaks both of the rail journey and of a realist’s lifetime. One wonders how much he trusted the universal to rise naturally out of the local, how much he engineered it.

Graham’s photography is pervaded by this doubling, this expansion. It is dotted with simple, almost tragic moments of artful observation, generously attentive to the changeable texture of the real: the woman symmetrically cradling her fast-food container on the street, beaming red berries on pavement, and stranded paraplegic in New Orleans (2006), for example. Again, however, subsidiary details nudge one towards a simplifying, holistic reading. And so one must become an active viewer, realising that the specific injustices to which Graham gestures are enclosed within a larger point. Social realities and tender individualities are brought to light here, but one must be wary of their compounding into a narrative and recognize when Chekhovian realism-into-metaphor, temptingly presented, is merely an easy option that shuts down thought, and blinds one to life, and perhaps to empathy.

Accordingly, one might compare these probingly open-ended suites of photographs, giving shape to the everyday, to haikus (and not only because Graham once made an extensive series in Japan) and perhaps even to koans: ambiguities toward enlightenment. They feel quietly ambitious. A culture of deception, of easy answers and generalisations, has annexed the surface of the visible, they imply; there is no solving of socio-political problems until we learn to truly question and dive beneath it. Here, shimmering with possibility, are a dozen places to practice in. —MARTIN HERBERT

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