“The basic impulse of any art is formal. If not, it should be, for the basic purpose of art is to make form from chaos, to give the artist’s raw material shape. Yet too much has been made of the ‘empty formalism’ of 70s American photography. Although Winogrand, Lee Friedlander and others may have been out on the streets making pattern, they were also (if they were any good) giving us their take on American society – their points of view as well as their viewpoints.“ — Gerry Badger “Invisible City – The L.A. Street Photographs of Anthony Hernandez” in Waiting, Sitting, Fishing, and Some Automobiles.
For all the faceless and impersonal metrics by which we measure time, and history, our primary experience of both is deeply personal. Ours is not an environmental present any more than it is a postmodern present – not as we live it daily. Our sense of time, and of our history live in our minds as a continuity harnessed by the images of memory, and those images suffice to draw us back into an experience of past moments as we lived them.
Virtually since its advent, photography has incorporated history and the construction of a sense of historical time into the many functions it serves. Signal moments in personal and societal terms are ingrained in our minds in relation to images that were given to us by photography, and it has served as a powerful measure of the changing make-up of our own lives, and the nature of the societies in which we live them. This is so much the case that one history of the changing make-up of New York can be observed in the record of the public life of its streets.
History is forever being constructed by means of a narrative capable of making sense out of specific forces, to particular ends and in particular ways. The same, obviously, is true of photography. What has united the vast, and diverse array of great talents who have made their work on New York city’s streets is an interest in uncovering and illuminating the peculiarities of their present moment, and doing so with whatever idiosyncratic strengths and sensitivities each individual photographer has been able to muster. The form they have given to that work brings with it a particular point of view, one that if effective can persuade us not only of the fact of what was depicted but of its necessary importance, its integrality to the particular historical moment of its expression. Straight photography has assumed this particular task in vastly differing forms for over a century, and the matter of our own particular present, of its plurality, its complexity, of its persistent threat of crisis and catastrophe, of its deep and ever widening divisions, can be made visible with stark clarity through the photographic act, even as the policies that govern that reality seem ever more blind to its nature.
“So long as a man’s eyes are open in the light, the act of seeing is involuntary“ — Herman Melville, in Paul Graham American Night
The Street, and the Decisive Moment.
Paul Graham’s The Present is the third book of photographs he has made in America since 1998, in a sequence that began with American Night, and was followed by A Shimmer of Possibility. Each of those two earlier books sought strategies for the construction of the images that married critique to pictorial effect, that operated both metaphorically and literally. The irradiated, sharply overexposed imagery of American Night alluded to snow-blindness, to an excess of light that somehow made seeing impossible, however ‘involuntary’ the act. The irony, couched in the form of the images, was plainly that here was a reality that from so many perspectives was ostensibly invisible, and that even the lucidity of the photographic lens could not fully approximate or clarify. In Shimmer, rapidly differentiating shifts of focus around the same subject were made to serve individual or individuated narratives, and in the balletic relationship between camera and subject, the story of the photographic moment was given vibrant, palpable life. The images operated at alternating distances from their subjects, and were exposed in a range stretching down to the limits of visibility – thus forcing the question of vision, and visibility into the act of viewing. Both American Night, and Shimmer incorporated the question of spectatorship into the experience of seeing work that often alighted, with patient and intent fascination, on strange elliptical beauty, on desperate hardship and inequity.
“the new work employed technical improvisations, which were then carefully developed to delve further into the aesthetic possibilities and political implications of photographic seeing, to explore Graham’s perennial fascination with the tension between what is visible and what may be hidden“ — David Chandler “A Thing There Was That Mattered” in Paul Graham
The question of form, wedded to a long-term interest in how visibility functions in society, and in the photographic image, was addressed to a nation that was likely as unfamiliar to a recently arrived expatriate artist as it is mind-boggling in its enormity, and in its starkly contrasting composition. Graham’s pictures in American Night point up that vastness and its steep divisions, and Shimmer zeroed further in on the nature of those contrasts even as it expanded on the improbable character of American inequalities. In sequential terms, however, one can observe a pictorial shift from American Night to Shimmer toward a photographic vernacular that more closely mirrors the way in which the naked human eye apprehends the world. In practical terms this meant shallower depths of field, clarity in more attenuated spaces and to lesser degrees. More than this, however, that shift also meant the incorporation of pictorial sequence, in such a way that we become visibly aware of the path that the photographer selected to navigate around a broader, less concise, and more elastic photographic moment.
This trajectory of Graham’s formal methods moved toward making photographs whose compositional rigour was cumulative rather than singular, because in sympathy with an expanded and more elastic photographic moment, the pictorial crescendo – the cohesive totality of form and content – could be spread across a sequence, and needed not be fully comprised in one concise declarative image. This way of working explodes out the individual elements that would typically comprise a taut, singular image, so that in Shimmer the moment before and after the rain begins to fall on the man mowing the lawn is fused in our minds with the moment when the first raindrops can be seen to arrive; in The Present, this means that the ironic conjunctions that typically make a successful street photograph poignant in a traditional sense (mirrored gestures, the coincidence of opposites), can be spread across two or more images, and in their seriality can bring alive the moment of photographic recognition that gives them their poetic edge. Working in sequences and diptychs, and shooting in shallower depths of field also depicts the effort of vision, the work of intention, and brings a tangible sense of the passage of time into the cumulative expression of the photographic scene – and in all these things asks more of our imaginative engagement with the photographs.
This trajectory continues in The Present, where Graham has opted to go against the more traditional use of a wide-angle lens, set to an aperture that produces what he has called the “false democracy of deep focus”. The differentiating factor between this deep focus method, and the far more ephemeral and selective focal depth Graham uses in The Present is that it again foregrounds the selectivity of viewing, and does so in a compositional format that very closely resembles human sight in all its partiality and relativity. Vision, and the making of some things visible at the expense of others, is here fused with the matter of the life he encounters on the street. The effect of this can be jarring. We are accustomed to the uniformity of deep focal clarity, and to the way in which it suggests that at any moment each of us is coincident with, or consubstantial with anyone else – the ‘false democracy‘ to which Graham referred. The steeply variegated focus of the pictures in The Present shows us as proximate but separate, and shows a particular urban separateness that is made synonymous and synchronous with the present circumstances in which these photographs were made, in New York, from 2009 to 2011.
Here again, then, critique is wedded to pictorial effect, making the overall construction of the images at once metaphorical and descriptive. This way of making photographs is eloquently summarised by John Berger, in his essay “Painting a Landscape”: “The nature of metaphor depends on innumerable varying factors; but its raison d’être is always the same: it is what connects the event and the artist’s judgement of it: it is the means of rendering the subject and its meaning visually inseparable. The thing interpreted becomes the interpretation.”
The use of a selective focal depth in photographic diptychs and triptychs such as these foregrounds the editorial function of the photographer, by depicting the sequential iteration of two or more instants at which an image of two subjects or one location were made. We are encouraged to see the orchestration of a sequence the photographer recognises as imminent, charged with potential for cumulative synthetic meaning, and unfolding for him in a reciprocal process of editing that occurs in camera, within a photographic space already modified for the act of tying discontinuous fragments into momentary unities of meaning. The sequencing of these selective focal shifts also illustrates the photographer’s clockwise and counter-clockwise ‘dance with the Brownian motion‘ of a complex, rapid, dynamic matrix of disparate forces. For this he needs a view broad enough to anticipate and choreograph these miniature constellations, and a willingness to lend to each subject something of the time of their successor – a willingness to abandon the individual who drew his attentions in the expectation of a complementary and yet to be realised succession. In these pictures we see the synthetic act of stitching together disparate times into the continuum of an ephemeral and beguiling photographic moment.
“many, if not most photographers of the social landscape – the good ones anyway – are not simpleminded advocates for social groups. Their games are usually far more complex, even those of the politically motivated. If they encompass the aims and aspirations of those whom they photograph then well and good, but although the photographer might tell the stories of his subjects, the story he is most concerned with telling is his own.“ — Gerry Badger “Ruthless Courtesies: The Making of Martin Parr” in The Pleasures of Good Photographs
Rhetorical Distance, and the question of inequality.
“Usually, he witnessed the defeated (they are, after all, the majority) waiting, walking, waiting more, taking very, very humble recreations“ — Lewis Baltz, on Anthony Hernandez’s Waiting, Sitting, Fishing and Some Automobiles
As in Beyond Caring, the composition of the individual images in The Present revolves around the centre of the frame, and those elements that either occupy it, or counterpoint what is occurring there. In Beyond Caring, the centre of the image was often distended by the wide angle of the lens, producing a tension in the arrangement of the image that evoked or alluded to the seething tensions of the unemployed in Thatcher’s Britain. In the photographs of The Present, tension and surprise are produced by the conjunction of one image with another, rather than within the single image, and the centre of the composition serves an impetus to impel the viewer to zero in on the evanescent moment described by these conjunctions. In contrast with Shimmer, however, these are consistently images made from a greater physical, and thus rhetorical distance. The portraiture here is nested within a constant shifting flow of life, and this decision seems to me geared toward incorporating not only the passage of life on the street, but the architecture of the spaces in which Graham’s subjects are encountered, the tangible physical indices of the particular present moment of these photographs.
In a conversation with Gillian Wearing, Graham described the decision to take a pictorial step backward from the action he was photographing in Northern Ireland during the explosively violent and turbulent time of The Troubles:
“You are supposed to be there, running with the soldier on the front line. Through these images I realised that you can reverse that; instead of running with the soldier you can pull back to show the surroundings. Instead of isolating a detail, like the soldier, you can reverse out of that to embrace the housing estate, people going shopping, graffiti, the gardens, paint flecks and so forth.“ — Paul Graham, in A Conversation with Gillian Wearing, Paul Graham
Making the kind of photographs he made in Troubled Land, during so fractious and violent a period of history, Graham’s decision to step back from the action in order to bring its strange normalcy into view brought a broader plurality of meaning into the parameters of his pictures, and withdrew them from the super-cycle of the news story and the press room. With greater rhetorical distance, the competing factions engaged in a struggle for the narrative of the present moment could be depicted – political agency could be described without photographically surrendering to its particular prejudices. Graham goes on to say that “recognising that you had to consider the fractured nature of reality, the invisible, personal nature of it. That made me reconsider my approach to photography – how much of our world you can see and photograph.”
In the Troubled Land photographs, a broader view fashioned from a greater remove enables Graham to interrogate the possibility of the coexistence of these competing narratives, by including the visible traces of that often violent contest within his compositions. Distance, and the arrangement of disparate, enumerated fragments into a cohesive pictorial whole poses questions about the real as opposed to the rhetorical separation of Protestant and Catholic families, and the photographs puzzle at the virulent effect of intangible symbols on very tangible places. In sympathy with this way of working, the broad panoramas of The Present bring their subjects together, but in a photographic grammar that literally highlights their separateness. The photographs compellingly depict the habitual urban solipsism that characterises the means by which we typically negotiate our cities, but in their conjunctions across the breadth of the diptychs and triptychs they show how frequently, and with what great irony our lives are made up of fleeting continuities and complementarities that, however incidental, speak to a more fundamental commonality in which we all might share.
Set against these ephemeral continuities, however, The Present regularly hones in on the profound disjuncture between the economically fortunate, and those with little or no wealth at all, and does so at a moment of profound economic transformation and dispossession. Having spent little time depicting people in their professional functions in his earlier work, uniforms and professions recur throughout the portraiture in The Present. Nurses and postmen and delivery men and policemen and motormen and traffic cops and bus drivers and bankers and office workers and traders fill the streets. They are outnumbered only by the shoppers. And among their number are a few who could not legitimately be described as working poor, but who are nevertheless people for whom each day is a calculated struggle in improvising a means to keep going. This broad, dynamic cross section of urban New York is emblematic of the fractious struggles that so sharply defined the political moment in which these photographs were made. Graham seeks out some traces of the interrelation of these forces at that time, photographing both where one might find the many (Penn Station, Port Authority, 125th Street) and where one might find the few (Wall Street, Rockefeller Center, the offices of CBS).
Graham’s step backwards situates his individual subjects within the broader cultural and social framework in which he encounters them at this fractious historical moment, but it also parallels our relationship to so much of what is occurring as being fragmentary, opaque and evanescent. A further consequence of the distance Graham takes up, as compared with the portraiture in Shimmer for instance, is that to an extent this distance sublimates the superficial intensity of his political critique, allowing it to settle deeper into the bedrock of the photographic world he depicts. This sublimation simultaneously avoids any sense of a portraiture made up of tokenism, and instead invites the work of our own imaginations to stitch together the relationship between image and allegory, analysis and time.
This rhetorical distance, in other words, has pictorial and critical advantages that mutually reinforce each other. The breadth of view enables Graham to use the idiosyncratic architecture and light of New York to dramatic effect, and the physical distance enables him to draw together a greater range of factors, building up a poetry of repetition and opposites, of coincident figures recast in a kind of sequential metamorphosis: black-suited woman with black hair becomes cream-suited woman with bleached white hair; suited African-American businessman becomes a pauper…
Of his America work, The Present is the most geographically circumscribed, and it is the architecture of the city – which Graham’s broad panomoras make good use of – that helps the images to derive a sense of something solitary occurring on a stage that has been created by the angular, divisive cadence of light falling down the city’s long avenues and narrow cross streets. The nature of the the summery light Graham employs, and his even way of framing produces a perpetual sense of his subjects being horizontally contained beneath a steep verticality, of them constantly emerging from and re-entering the folds of multi-story city blocks that channel light into sharply divided canyons of shade, and peaks of stark, diagonal light. That steep angled light can be used to produce a sort of roving spotlight effect, and this individuation by light is strengthened by his use of very shallow focal depth. Graham patterns his compositions to enhance the delicate separation of his subjects from the colour and deep shade that surround them, and from the ebb and flow of fellow pedestrians that swirl obliviously all about them.
Moreover, working in New York affords Graham the chance to photograph in one of the few remaining major American metropoles where one can still encounter the wealth of plutocrats and the poverty of the indigent on the same street corner. New York is one of a small number of large cities where a vaguely representative cross-section of society shares common space by day – a place where the process of economic segregation is yet to produce social spaces that have been completely hermetically sealed, and divided by class. This guarantees the photographer sufficient variety to elaborate the disjunctive and congruent lines of his photographic portrait of the city during a particularly turbulent period in its economic history.
Portraiture, and the specificity of detail.
If we trace the evolution of Graham’s portraiture from Beyond Caring and Empty Heaven up through American Night to Shimmer, and compare it with The Present, we can observe the progression of his decades-long fascination with the way that the interior world of the people he photographs can be divulged and concealed in their gestures and their posture. Through that portraiture he has sought to create a form capable of uncovering the linkage between gesture and the broader, more invisible structuring forces of the historical and cultural moment in which he has been working. In that evolution, we see men slumped and hunched over, women closing off their faces with demure movements of their hands, men and women crumpled on the ground at the curb of the road, collapsed, doubled over, puzzled, shiftless, bemused, resolute, naked under the indifferent attentions of the light in which they are revealed to us. He has photographed the intersection of history and the present in various forms, and it is often in the portraiture that their interplay is best expressed.
The opening image of the New York exhibition depicted a posture of which Graham has photographed numerous variants in America: a solitary man with an eyepatch, trudging wearily against a certain immovably arduous trail that the photograph seems to measure not in fractions of a second, but in years. He is older than, and has little of the vim of the man who follows behind in the second image, one eye closed to the brightness of the sun, and we can easily imagine him to have trod the same steps for many years past, and many more to come. This posture surfaces in American Night, in the form of a man naked to the waist and trudging the length of a crosswalk with an empty water bottle into an oncoming evening; in Shimmer it recurs both in the transcendent sequence of the African-American man mowing the vast spread of a lawn the breadth of a hillside, and yet again in another African-American man trudging past a café toward a brief, pensive cigarette break before going on, his hand cradling his head as he walks with such intensity that we imagine the awful proximity of defeat. Graham is sensitive to the tremendous difficulty of persisting in America, even as those hardships traverse colour lines and take on differing forms. The similarity of this repeating bowed posture suggests that the distance between the businessman’s lot and the janitor’s is separated by little more than good fortune.
Where his images concern poverty, Graham doesn’t depict the rictus of suffering, despite often invoking the gloom and desolation of an almost Goya-esque shadow in so many of his images. Rather, he finds pictorial methods to illustrate the hostility of societal indifference in the aesthetic formulation of his images, so that his America work is often deeply sympathetic to the emotional tone of Robert Frank’s critique in The Americans or Robert Bergman’s in A Kind of Rapture, even as his individual photographs themselves stand in stark visual contrast to those vastly different bodies of work. Graham’s imagery is cooler, rhetorically less incandescent with rage and incomprehension, it is often starker and framed at a greater remove – his contact with his subjects here being typically less intense, more fleeting, less tactile, more improvisational in shape. This is not an accident or purely stylistic determination. His is a criticism made up of facts unattached to specific cases, a criticism every bit as trenchant, but in its aloofness perhaps more in keeping with the tenor of our privileged contemporary sense of urban poverty and alienation: something viscerally recognisable but at the same time distant.
By opting to operate at a greater rhetorical remove, Graham is able to illustrate and bring into harsh clarity the awful irony of the experience of inequality for the American underclass. Think how many weary, broken, lethargic, infirm or crippled individuals he photographs, often in and around roads and cars. These figures often likely have no alternative means of getting from one corner to the next, other than their own feet. The occasionally ironic phrasing of the harsh economic realities he encounters arises from the brutality of the overall circumstance, from the situation in which his images encounter and depict inequality, and a great deal of the irony stems from the proximity of freedom to lack of opportunity, of wealth to a poverty of means. He unearths these anachronisms of impossible opportunity because he finds them so frequently and so tightly layered on top of each other: wheelchair-bound men inching across car parks; beggars shuffling along behind suits. Within the complex fabric of the present moment in which these photographs were made, it seems somehow terribly appropriate – in the sense of deep misfortune – that his trilogy of America books should encompass so much of the inequity he pictured in American Night, and draw into that portrait the estrangement that characterised so much of Shimmer too.
In Graham’s use of distance, both in American Night and in The Present, his images to some extent recall the work of Anthony Hernandez, in the seminal photobook Waiting, Sitting, Fishing and Some Automobiles. Hernandez’s view camera pictures also fashioned nested portraits from within panoramic compositions that worked to draw together formal, metaphorical and social commentaries. While the difference of photographic means produces a difference of pictorial effect between their images, both used steep angled planes, pronounced shadow and contrast to evoke a certain hostility of indifference, and to question the terms according to which certain realities are made visible. The choice of working with a medium format camera to produce digital images in The Present permits Graham some of the specificity of detail that Hernandez’s photographs enjoy, and within the broad scope of his landscapes it is the miniature precision of that clarity, its seductive specificity, that enables the work of his sequencing to acquire a sense of the poetic. We feel the transitions and shifts in an almost visceral way.
It is for this reason that the modest scale of the photobook, and the reproductions within it seems somewhat antithetical to the form of the images themselves, and to the basis by which they acquire such mesmeric clarity as prints on the gallery wall. The delicately graduated progression of contrasts and complementarities described by the images is diminished by their scale in the book, and in the loss of some of that clarity and scope, the sense of their progression, their ephemerality, and the tension between that ephemerality and the size of the city in which it is depicted is lost. For despite the decision to work at a greater remove in making these portraits than many of those in Shimmer, none of the visceral power of Graham’s portraiture has been lost so much as diverted into a different form. Any comparison between the prints and the book must, I think, acknowledge that some of that lustrous clarity, that lucidity and its visceral poetic has been lost in the translation.
Synthesis, Straight Photography and The Present.
“Over the last twenty years, Graham has become a canny practitioner of a pointedly allegorical photography, in which the apparent or superficial subject both parallels and illustrates a more profound one“ — David Levi-Strauss, Artforum, March 2000 on End of an Age
“Chance favours the prepared mind” — Louis Pasteur
“Art, whilst it may be many things, may also be this: an accounting to others of the world which we together inhabit, to the end not that we escape history, but that we together may stand face to face with the world” — Craigie Horsfield, lecture in symposium “Photography in Contemporary Art“, Akademie Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart, 6 December 1989
In February of 2010, Graham gave a presentation of an essay entitled The Unreasonable Apple, in which he lamented a narrow schematic neglect within the art world for straight photography, an essay that was written while he was in the midst of making the photographs that comprise The Present. In that essay he writes:
“How do we articulate this uniquely photographic creative act, and express what it amounts to in terms such that the art world, highly attuned to synthetic creation – the making of something by the artist – can appreciate serious photography that engages with the world as it is?”
It is too tempting by far to resist conjecture about the connection between that particular question at that moment in time, and the pictorial form of the work in The Present, which (in contrast with the American Night book and others that preceded it) shows the act of photographic synthesis through the constant evolving state of reciprocity between the photographer and the world. The pictures illustrate this photographic act of synthesis through the elaboration of their brief, cinematic sequences, and the aesthetic decision to show, in pictorial form, the evolution of the photographer’s intentionality in relation to a moving world enables Graham to illustrate what he has called “the measuring and folding of the cloth of time itself”.
Graham’s critique of the narrowness of the terms according to which the broader art world accepts and meaningfully engages with ‘straight’ photography is, or at the very least was in the moment of its expression, legitimate in my view. There is often and has for some time been a perpetual air of benevolent compromise about criticism within the broader art world of work made from unbidden or essentially uncontrollable events as they appear to the camera lens. This criticism has tended at the very least to imply, if not to regard such work as the fortunate issue of happenstance. At the root of the assumptions underlying this condescension is the notion that intentionality is the measure by which we can assess intelligence, lucidity, significance and ultimately successfulness or the greatness of the work of any particular artist. Christopher Bedford observed this deficit from which straight photography suffers in his essay “Qualifying Photography as Art, or, is Photography All It Can Be?“. He noted that the same world from which painters and sculptors fashion their work “arrives in the hands of the competent photographer – assuming he or she possesses the requisite instinct for detail, composition, and topicality – as a readymade of sorts”.
I do not view the function or intent of The Present as being to dissent from that view – the work manifestly is not a group of protest pictures. However, there is a point clearly being made in the qualifications that Bedford lays out in his writing: “assuming he or she possesses the requisite instinct for detail, composition, and topicality“. The measure of the excellence of straight photography is as much as anything in the sum of insights about the world that it can marshall within the confines of its individual frames, and within the construction under which those individual images are set to work as a coherent body of work. Graham’s instinct for detail, composition and (crucially) topicality, as one views the images in The Present within the context of his two previous America books is nuanced, penetrating, coherent and acutely relevant to his narrative of inequality, invisibility and alienation – three dynamics that are among the many at work not only in this book, but his broader America trilogy. The work has succeeded in encompassing a broader range of interests than just these three factors, and has depicted a broad swathe of the normalcy of American life with a persuasive clarity and an often enigmatic curiosity, but in all three books Graham’s photography has attested to the virtues of using detail, composition and topicality to simultaneously depict, marvel at and interrogate the strange nature of our present moment.
During the period of the making of The Present, Graham may have been testing some of these problems, discovering ideas as he made these photographs and as he wrote The Unreasonable Apple, but his pictures do not merely seek to solve a problem of criticism in art, or a problem of form in photography, but manage at one and the same time to address those very local concerns while engaging thoughtfully, and with quiet passion with some of the other essential themes that have defined his work for thirty years or more: How have we come to live as we do with each other? What is the nature of that experience? How clearly is it seen? How do the varying narratives of our own self-identity correspond to the way we live? Which history determines the parameters of the present? How clearly can any of this be seen through the camera?
In sequences like East 53rd Street, 12th April 2010 or Penn Station, 4th April 2010, or again in the ballad of three bags shot at Port Authority, 17th August 2010 we are given stories about a diversity of experience characteristic of the complexity of modern life, we are given indications of real social progress and the collateral damage that has underwritten it, we are shown the antithetical forces determining the successes and the transgressions that make up the life of a city, and by extension characterise the nature of our societies. We are, to quote Tod Papageorge in his essay on Garry Winogrand’s Public Relations, “thrown back by his work, back to what seems to be the surface of life itself – a theater of quick takes, foreshortenings, and contingencies.” Graham has succeeded, operating in the same vein as Winogrand albeit to differing pictorial effect, in harnessing photography in an effort to show that “the “practical” meanings of things are in fact transformed when photographs are made of those things, and that by describing new, discursive forms he would, with them, claim new meanings.”
Both Shimmer and The Present outline a very modern plurality that is coincident at a moment of great difficulty and likely far-reaching significance. These photographs repurpose the grammar of cinematic sequence to produce a photographic form capable of depicting and critiquing the prevailing dynamics, the prevailing problems of our contemporary social reality, in its deep air of disenfranchisement, social atomisation, its anonymity and its tendency toward expropriation. It is in this sense that he is, as David Levi Strauss suggests, “a canny practitioner of a pointedly allegorical photography, in which the apparent or superficial subject both parallels and illustrates a more profound one.”
The work of The Present shows a world of often disjunctive and sometimes coincident elements encountered in close but indifferent proximity, and maps out not a unitary but a dynamic, mixed, variegated continuity from the intersecting individuals and communities of which it is made. They are harnessed together not by local or political affiliations, but by the particular form of photographic time that arises from each diptych and triptych. These compositions invite our imagination into the interstice between events, casting back across the divide to tie together the forces that give the images their tension, and their often simple enigmatic beauty. The recognisable character of the present illustrated in these photographs depends on our willingness to lend to them the work of our imagination, in order for its intricacies to develop the force of their own particular compelling observations. “Meaning,” as John Berger has written, “is discovered in what connects, and cannot exist without development. Without a story, without an unfolding, there is no meaning. Facts can be fed into a computer and become factors in a calculation. No meaning, however, comes out of computers, for when we give meaning to an event, that meaning is a response, not only to the known, but also to the unknown: meaning and mystery are inseparable, and neither can exist without the passing of time. Certainty may be instantaneous; doubt requires duration; meaning is born of the two. An instant photographed can only acquire meaning insofar as the viewer can read into it a duration extending beyond itself. When we find a photograph meaningful, we are lending it a past and a future.”
If we allow images from A1 and Beyond Caring, from Troubled Land and Shimmer to work their way back in at the periphery of these photographs, it becomes clear that the changes in Graham’s formal approach have not vitiated his capacity to speak critically and with an open mind to the nature of our present circumstances. His ability to marshall an imagery that invokes so many of the deeper problems of our culture at this moment is an indication that he does possess the ‘requisite instinct for detail, composition and topicality’, and by implication his work confirms the continued fitness of straight photography for treating with and pondering about the world, in the present, as we find it.