A few weeks ago an article in the Financial Times about Paul Graham’s new work ‘The Present’ appeared in my Facebook feed. The project is Graham’s contribution to the tradition of street photography, the genre that first really got me interested in photography. As anyone whose read LPV over the years knows, I’ve been fairly active in the online street photography community. It’s a genre I’ve spent a considerable amount of time studying.
Street photography has become incredibly popular on the internet, and there have been a few prominent gallery shows, like Joel Sternfeld’s ‘First Pictures.’ And of course, the Vivian Maier story has brought a certain amount of mainstream attention to the genre. All of these are welcome developments for street street photography, and yet it’s been my experience that street photographers don’t feel the genre gets the respect it deserves.
In fact, Graham’s essay ‘The Unreasonable Apple’ caused a bit of a stir amongst bloggers a couple of years ago. Our contribution came in the form of Blake Andrews’ excellent article‘The Beautiful Burden,’ which is worth reading if you haven’t seen it. Essentially the argument goes that the art world doesn’t understand or appreciate straight photography. I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole again but if you’re interested, Harlan Erskine has a nice roundup of articles addressing the essay.
It all seems a bit ironic now, considering Graham is represented by The Pace Gallery. Some of the other artists on Pace’s roster include Sol Lewitt, de Kooning, Chuck Close, Kiki Smith and many, many others. This makes the argument that the art world doesn’t understand or appreciate straight photography a bit challenging to defend. I’m sure Graham stands by his essay, and I think he’s more than likely an outlier, one of the few that’s been anointed.
With this new work though, I think he’s going to be scorned by a majority of street photographers, who will raise grievances about the work being overly conceptual and not ‘real’ or ‘authentic street photography. Graham has committed the ultimate sin against the genre, he started with an idea before pounding the pavement.
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.”
After reading that I’m certain many street photographers blood will boil and they’ll take to the keyboard to air their grievances in forums around the web (HCSP, I’m looking at you!) They might have a point and before viewing the show I was skeptical too but not because of the concept, rather the photographs didn’t look all that impressive. In fact, they looked like mediocre street photography!
I convinced my friend Kramer O’Neill to join me at the opening, which was only a short walk from where we work. I figured he’d be a good person to discuss the show with since he’s also been immersed in street photography for the last several years, and always has reasonable insights to share.
The show featured sixteen diptych and two triptych prints that were hung a few inches from the floor. The large prints and perspective gave you the feeling of being on the street, immersed in the scene. As we walked around looking at the prints, Kramer and I both commented on the quality of the prints and how nice it must be to print that large. It’s really something to see street photographs blown up that large. It’s too bad most of the scenes weren’t very interesting or compositionally messy. I felt like I was falling right into Graham’s trap.
As we continued around, we arrived at a photograph of a woman who had fallen and was offered assistance from a few men in suits. We both thought it was a nice, almost classic street scene. Hmmmm, fuck. At this point I knew Graham was fucking with my mindset as a street photographer. I started to realize he was addressing issues that all street photographers confront. You spend hours and hours making photographs and not many of them are very good. But in order to get a few good photographs, you need to make all of those bad photographs. It seemed to me that what Graham was saying is that those photographs right before and after the “traditional keeper (decisive moment)” are valuable, and in fact incredibly important to the practice of street photography.
This is something that all experienced street photographers understand but they’d never show those photographs.
“Only show your best work! You’re lucky if you can get two or three keepers a year!”
That’s the standard thinking, and Graham knows it.
After we viewed all the photographs, Kramer and I chatted in the center of the gallery, now surrounded by what I’d call the ‘art world’ crowd from my few visits to openings in Chelsea. It wasn’t the type of crowd you’d see at a smaller photography show at a photography only gallery.
I told Kramer what I found interesting was that Graham seemed to be specifically addressing the tradition of street photography while also producing a body of work that a broader art audience would find potentially compelling (I’m not sure of the art reaction, haven’t read anything yet.) We both found it interesting but weren’t exactly blown away by the actual photographs. I ended up talking mostly about the ideas and the concept, which I found interesting and worthy of discussion.
I appreciate how he attempts to create value in photographs that would normally be discarded. This isn’t exactly a new idea, but I think it’s refreshing in the context of street photography. If you think about it, it actually sort of mimics the way many people view street photography on the web. You often ended up sorting through numerous mediocre photographs to find the gems. In fact, my friend Justin Vogel’s Flickr stream sort of follows the logic Graham embraces in this show.
Kramer patiently listened as I sipped my beer and rambled on.
“Yeah, those are the type of things you can think about when you’re wealthy, old and have nothing to do but make photographs,” he quipped at one point.
Then out of the corner of my eye I spotted a famous face. “Is that David Byrne?” I asked. “Yeah, I think so,” Kramer replied unimpressed.
After that we left. I told Kramer that I thought street photographers were going to hate these photographs. In fact, I know they will, which is too bad because I think this work intelligently addresses some of the concerns and challenges all street photographers face. As a body of work, it attempts to deconstruct a bit of the magic that can happen with really good street photography. That’s probably the problem.
I’m not sure street photographers want the genre to be deconstructed or challenged. They like it just how it is, which is fine I suppose. They’re a stubborn bunch, but I think if they look closely at this body of work, they’ll see that Graham has a great mount of respect for the genre and how difficult it is to create compelling images. This body of work seems like a great homage to not only the tradition of street photography, but where it stands in the present.
Paul Graham: The Present
Feb 24, 2012 – Mar 24, 2012
The Pace Gallery