To take on street photography, particularly New York street photography, and make it new would be a daunting task for any contemporary photographer, and certainly for one who counts the greatest practitioners of the 1960s and 1970s among those whose work he most admires. Yet this is the challenge the British photographer Paul Graham set himself four years ago. The results are about to be published in a new book that completes what has developed into an American trilogy, made over the past decade, since he moved from London to New York in 2002.
He agreed with the point readily: “Yes, it’s incredibly daunting and it took me a long while to gather the confidence to do it. I regard some of the great street photography of that period – Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, and, going back further, Robert Frank – as major postwar artworks, not quite recognised fully for the power they had at that time. You want to pay tribute to [that legacy] and acknowledge it, and at the same time, you want to take it to a fresher place. It’s hard to find the right balance.”
But if the street photography of the 1960s and 1970s was predicated on one perfect shot, when all the formal and serendipitous elements of a scene came together – Henri Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment – Graham is looking for its antithesis. What he wants are two good pictures, or sometimes three, taken seconds apart, with only a slight shift of vantage point and a minor adjustment of focus in between them, but which, when placed together, mimic our own visual experience of moving through the world. He wants to trigger “that recognition we’ve all had, in every street, in every city, that cognitive moment of seeing other lives flowing around us”.
His New York pictures deal with questions of awareness and consciousness: with how much we see, and how we see it, how we make the same slight shifts in focus and vantage point, continually moving our concentration from one thing to the next. In the book, the pictures are presented as pairs, occasionally as triptychs. Some images are hidden behind gatefold pages so we discover the second image initially concealed from view.
The visual links are easy to make – it is possible to identify the same figures in both pictures, the same buildings and signs, the same children playing and buggies rolling by – but each time the viewpoint has subtly shifted. Figures come into focus that were blurred outlines a second before, and trucks disappear to reveal entire streets that were blocked from view. What may at first seem an insignificant pairing of pictures, upon closer study brings about a greater consciousness of everything that makes up the scene – every person, every gesture, every tiny human drama – that comes together to suggest the flux of daily life.
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Using the physical structure of a book and its layout to reinforce its content is characteristic of all Graham’s publications. To some degree the new book – entitled The Present – advances the approach that began in his second book about America, The Shimmer of Possibility, published in 2007, which came out in a first edition of 12 discrete volumes (later as a combined paperback). Each volume contained sequences of photographs taken during a two-year trip across the country, many of them in the marginal landscape of American suburbia, a no-mans land of mini-malls and parking lots, where the poor and the unemployed hang about killing time.
The sequences, some of which follow individuals – a man mowing a grass verge; a couple wandering back from the liquor store, the man balancing a 12-pack of Pepsi on his shoulder; a cat in the grass, stalking its prey – are presented as a series of stuttering visual narratives across a number of pages, suggesting how ordinary lives and events occur in parallel, or briefly intersect, within a limited period of time and place. The effect is to slow the viewer down, to stop the search for the Eureka moment and instead to contemplate these microcosms of society, to recognise poverty and racial division and to empathise rather than judge.
Photography, at its simplest, is a moment sliced out of the continuum of life. What Graham is after is “the breaking down of the decisive moment, not allowing life to become this single frozen shard, trying to reflect something of the flow of time in the work”. In his New York pictures, this is carried out with even greater economy. “You don’t need a multiplicity of images. You show what happens, then what happens next. And so you shift your focus. You don’t need to show 10 other moments, you’ve implied that it’s a continuum and what you thought mattered shifts quickly and transforms itself into another thing that matters for that instant.”
So why not use film? “Obviously it’s a question I’ve asked myself. But a lot of film, I find, is neutered by the tyranny of narrative, by having to have a storyline. And this way of working allows you to escape that. To me this is much more an accurate reflection of the way life comes at us, unbidden, and without perfect little narratives.”
“The Present”, by Paul Graham, is published by Mack (£45). It accompanies a show at The Pace Gallery, NY, from February 24, www.mackbooks.co.uk