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The Present - Paul Graham


Book review for Hotshoe Magazine (June-July 2012)


The Present is Paul Graham’s latest contribution to the hallowed tradition of street photography.  Given his admiration for the mid-century masters of the genre, he admits to being daunted by taking on this heavy mantle.  “I regard [the work of] Gary Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, and…Robert Frank, as major post-war artworks…. You want to pay tribute to that legacy and at the same time, you want to take it to a fresher place.” Graham has done just that -- admirably, respectfully and innovatively -- though purists may take umbrage with its conceptual premise.  If the “decisive moment” as coined by Cartier-Bresson has been the primary tenet of the genre, The Present seeks to do away with that moment altogether.


Taken as the third in an unofficial trilogy that includes American Night (2003) and the critically acclaimed a shimmer of possibility (2007), The Present (2012) likewise focuses on contemporary America, but takes as its subject the definitive modern American city: the chaotic, fast paced, melting pot that is New York: his adopted home since 2002.  As a social documentarian, Graham renders the city’s inhabitants sympathetically but also with detachment, recognizing their inherent isolation. Through unconventional and inventive ways, all three bodies of work explore photography’s core concern with time, as well as its potential for revealing the means of our perception, our seeing and our non-seeing.


American Night used intentionally over-exposed images that bleach out disenfranchised Americans, making plain their invisibility. The subjects are usually African-Americans walking in the liminal spaces of American cities, and the viewer struggles to “see” them. The point is clear. The boldness of this approach is appropriate for the subject of racism in America, which is, as Graham says in an essay interview with David Chandler, the “elephant in the room”.


The images in a shimmer of possibility evoke a quiet, poetic grace in the form of small vignettes of overlooked moments in time: an African-American woman with dyed orange hair sits on a New Orleans park bench eating take-away barbecued pig’s knuckles, the orange bones lie discarded on the pavement while she goes on to enjoy a post-meal cigarette. This is a “non-moment” with subtle political overtones that reflect life as it is lived in its passing.  


The trajectory of Graham’s work in America becomes clear in The Present where themes of sight and sightlessness are further developed, as is his interest in the nature of time and the manifold speeds at which it passes.  Forging a seamless intersection between street and fine art photography, Graham successfully reinvents street photography for an age of abiding distraction.  If we take theorist Paul Virilio’s description of our modern technological era as a “rushing standstill” to heart, Graham’s response to it is in the sixteen diptychs and two triptychs that make up this mature work. 


Exuding the frenetic pace of the city that is most emblematic of late-stage capitalism in the west, Graham presents us with one picture and then another taken seconds later from virtually the same location.  As one person comes into view, with a slight shift of focus, another takes their place---the serendipitous resonances between the subjects revealing a brief, transient alignment. Often it is colour that draws the parallels: the red hair of one woman, followed by the red soda pop drunk by the next, or the woman in a pink smiley-face shirt crying into her hand, as another woman in a pink shirt raises her own under the same pink awning.  Other sequences highlight the rich heterogeneity of New York as a man in a yarmulke is replaced by a man in a turban, or an upright African-American businessman is followed by a stooped homeless one.  Nearly all are carrying bags or phones, burdened by their belongings, an anonymous, oblivious changing cast of characters.  Mostly devoid of the small dramas and interactions that are associated with street photography, awareness (or the lack of it), takes centre stage as we witness the continuum in arrested motion.


By splintering the decisive moment into sibling doppelgängers that allow us to look both backward and forward within the immediate past, Graham is dissembling the very mechanics of photography, making visible its ability to expand or compress time. Temporality is the subject, as a progression into and out of time. The use of single and double gatefolds acts as speed bumps, allowing the viewer to make the connections, contemplate, and perhaps reflect on their own way of going through the world. The spacing of the images also has its own tempo, and mimics the way our awareness changes and our attention shifts. Further, his dramatic use of light and narrow focus create cinematic images that spotlight the different moments, and the people that move through them.  Graham is at the height of his powers in The Present, eloquently capturing the fortuitous convergences of time and place while allowing his own subjectivity to generously interact with that of his subjects.