Here is Chris Killip's review of Paul Graham's exhibition, A Shimmer of Possibility at MoMA from Feb-May 2009. The review was published in the May issue of 8-10 Magazine, London. It is well worth a read.
From the poem Watching the Spring Festival by Stephen Burt, “A good photograph tells you that everything that’s really going on is invisible.”
The first exhibition I saw that indelibly altered how I perceived photography and its possibilities was Hamish Fulton’s debut exhibition in London, I think in 1969. Fulton’s photographs (mainly of his recent travels in the USA) were strategically placed to respond to the room that they were in. It was a revelation, as it was such a break from conventional single line rigidity. In Fulton’s installation his photographs achieved a sculptural presence taking command of the space. Paul Graham’s current exhibition. A Shimmer of Possibility at MoMA, NY, has in different ways, profoundly affected me again, by pushing forward the possibilities for photographic presentation.
Graham’s exhibition is based on his 2007 publication of twelve separate slim volumes, published as an entity and bearing the same cautious title. The photographs themselves made between 2004-6 are from a variety of locations in the United States. The published volumes are somewhat hampered by the overbearing presentation; artfully colored bindings coupled with an excess of blank white pages serve to distance the work and seem at odds with the content. As a body of work, it is uneven and rather fraught with signaled intent, but I was intrigued by much of its content and by the basic fact that it was a work like no other. The twelve volumes have approximately thirty-two serialized moments and only nine are presented in this exhibition. Graham’s edited presentation is succinct and the scaled-up work benefits from the judicious breathing space between the differing sequences of images. The varying sizes and juxtapositions reflect their former presentation in the individual books but in this new setting the retelling is more compelling. There is also a very unexpected contradiction in that the work has a greater feeling of intimacy, despite the largeness of the room, testimony to Graham’s deft and careful handling. He is not only photographing at a telling and measured distance in relationship to his subject (which in turn serves to reflect his respect for the people he portrays); the exhibition’s presentation echoes this distance and sense of closeness through its formal arrangement, which in turn allows for, and even nurtures, contemplation.
These color photographs are open-eyed examinations of other people’s lives; specific quotidian moments taken over brief passages of time, and in all but one case are presented as a series around one subject of four to eight individual photographs of differing sizes. The work is challenging in that it largely abandons the notion of a defining decisive moment in favor of uncertainty and doubt. Graham’s riffs on imagery, using varying distances and multiple viewpoints when describing the same scene, confound the possibility of a single reading and in doing so help avert the camera’s power to colonize.
These photographs are of strangers. Many depicted here are people of color. The majority come from what Americans so chillingly call the underclass (or in some cases, the working poor) presented here living out their lives within the impoverished urban banality that surrounds them. In order to survive this landscape you would need, in some way, to distance this reality from your thoughts. Money or education could provide an escape, but without either the task is just one of survival. As in so much of urban America there is not much sense of community here. The concentration on isolated individuals serves to emphasize the gulf that now separates us all from each other. The specific details in these images remind us how class, race, education and money have all played their part in this separation. Graham is not wearing his heart on his sleeve, but these issues are clearly and firmly on the agenda.
In this brief review I describe only two of the presented scenarios. In one surprisingly confrontational series Graham photographed up close, a middle aged African American woman in a plaid shirt who sits in what appears to be a bus shelter. She is eating a take-out meal, perhaps a pig’s foot or hock, from a polystyrene container. This meal is balanced on a plastic carrier bag, which acts as a napkin on her knee to protect her white skirt. Her hair is a strange artificially orange color. On the ground in front of her are other previously discarded containers. In this first and largest image she is intent on eating her meal and takes no notice of Graham’s camera. The next image is solely of her food and, by now, greasy hands. Two similar smaller photographs follow, taken from very slightly different angles, looking down at the debris strewn ground. The final image shows the woman as she inhales hard on a cigarette at the end of her meal. These brief unscripted moments of her immediate circumstances brings a paradoxical sense of separation and distance, completely contradicting the closeness of the images, making it, for me, part of an overwhelming sense of estrangement. If this is the status quo, then I want to change it.
In a corner of the gallery Graham juxtaposes two unconnected sets of images very differently from the printed volume. One series shows a somewhat overweight, late middle-aged man in a short-sleeved pattered shirt, smoking a cigarette by a wall on a sunny day. The other is taken at night of a rather disheveled man in his thirties with long dark hair and a beard holding flowers; it’s a biblical look
The prints of the younger man are dark, precariously balanced on the edge of readability. We see him up close twice, once looking down, then looking up. He has a rather kindly face. This is followed by two small close-up images of only the flowers, one more focused than the other, but both are beautiful. The final photograph is a little more revealing, a dimly lit close-up of his hands. In his left hand he loosely holds most of the flowers. His right hand, empty and clenched, turns upwards and just visible in the darkness is the scarring on his upturned wrist. He has been hawking flowers on a badly lit street, two blue irises and six to eight long stemmed red roses. It’s hard to tell quite how many, but it isn’t twelve.
The other older man is intently going through all of the motions of smoking a cigarette. He is unshaven and alone and seems, in different frames both distracted, then lost in his thoughts. He wears a wedding ring and because of the urgent way that he is smoking could be on a work break. He looks familiar, like so many other older men near the end of their working lives. Are these images perhaps a reminder of an inherent truth, that a photograph of a person is, inevitably, a chronicle of a death foretold?
In the original volume Graham intermixes these two sets of images as a juxtaposition of tensions and differences. In the exhibition they are together and overlapping, one set hanging over the other. This more restrained intermingling utilizing the corner of the room creates an impossible crossing of paths of two unfathomable stories. Their depicted moments gently unfurl like images flickering on a screen. I wanted to reach out and touch them, but both are outside my reach.
The photographs in this exhibition unexpectedly reverberate back to what was good about Robert Frank. How Frank, some fifty years ago, lifted up an unedifying stone and found a way to look squarely at America. These Paul Graham photographs of now are hardly reassuring, but in this delivery have achieved a telling relevance, which needs to be seen.