Paul Graham: The Present @Pace

JTF (just the facts): A total of 16 color works, framed in black and unmatted, and displayed in the entry and a winding series of three large rooms. There are 14 diptychs and 2 triptychs in the show, many hung very near the floor. All of the prints are pigment prints mounted on Dibond, with individual panels sized either 28×38 or 56×74. The works were made between 2009 and 2011, and are all available in editions of 3+2AP. The images are titled precisely by location, date, and exact time of day, down to the second. A monograph of this body of work is being published by Mack Books (here). (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: Paul Graham’s new street photographs are undeniably the most thoughtful body of new photography I have seen this year. I use the word thoughtful with special care in this case, in that there is a sense of deep, persistent, historically-aware thought that lies as a backdrop to these images. Graham has taken the traditions of the genre of street photography and systematically and meticulously destroyed them. This disassembly exercise is not a rebellious, thumbing his noise at history stunt, but instead a cerebral investigation of and meditation on the true nature of street photography. These pictures break every rule about what masters like Winogrand, Callahan, Meyerowitz, Friedlander and others have trained us to expect, and thus require a kind of mental rebooting to get into them. But once inside, there is a strong sense of Graham innovating within the confines of photography, rather than trying to show that he can go somewhere else. He is firmly rooted in the nature of straight photographic seeing, but he continues to ask questions about its limits.

My first reaction to these pictures was a profound sense of being entirely underwhelmed. The images are extremely unassuming, stepped back in space, with subjects basically centered, with a narrow band of focus positioned on the main figure. People walk past on sidewalks, exit from banks and fast food restaurants, cross streets, and linger outside landmarks like Penn Station. Aside from one woman who trips and falls, there is a singular lack of noteworthy action. Unlike every other street photograph you have ever seen, there is no coalescing of something dramatic, no juxtaposition of something ironic, no lucky matching of something happening. Most notably, there is no obvious narrative, no succinct, lucid story being neatly told in a single frame. In fact, nothing happens at all – people pass and move on; the flow of time continues.

Using pairs and triplets of images taken in the span of a few seconds, Graham shifts our attention away from traditional storytelling, making us see how his eye has wandered. His focus moves from one figure to the next, or to one in the foreground or background, quickly shifting and darting from moment to moment. A woman eating a banana traverses a crosswalk; a fraction of a second later, a blind man with a cane is right behind her. In the span of three frames, his focus moves from an apparently homeless man, a man with a plastic shopping bag, and a woman with a poodle, a bunch of tourists getting a sidewalk pitch from a tour salesman lingering in the blurry periphery. There is no clever connecting theme, no visual thread to unravel. Graham is exploring both the nature of eye movement and the compressing and expanding of time. Let me be clear, this is not cinematic. It is a jumpy, erratic progression, elusive and imperfect.

This is not to say that these selections are void of wit. Some of the pairings are quietly tricky: a man with an eye patch followed by a man winking, a woman with bright orange hair followed by another drinking orange soda, a man in a dapper suit followed by his alter ego in rags (in exactly the same spot), a policeman leaving a drugstore followed moments later by a mailman. Graham’s powers of observation are clearly on high. But he has refused to follow the agreed upon rules. His pictures are about the interaction of time and photography, and about the uncertainty of selective focus. It’s as though there is a “normal” street photograph to be had in all these fragmentary scenes, and yet Graham has opted instead for its alter ego, its negative.

For those who would claim that everything has been done in a genre like street photography, Graham’s work is proof positive that there is always room for frame-breaking, original innovation. His images are both an homage and a deconstruction, an appreciation and a rejection. In some ways, they aren’t about the images at all, but about capturing the in-the-moment present tense of the street that swirls and changes continually around us without ever being actively noticed. The only reason I can’t find my way to three well-deserved stars for this show is that I find the pictures so disposable and boring. Of course, I know, this is exactly and entirely the point, but my mind is hard wired to seeing in the old way, and I need some more time to get my head around experiencing the world as gaps and absences. But without a doubt, the ideas here are revolutionary, and they merit a robust, public airing, if only to show that we can still coherently parse this ever-changing medium. This is the kind of show we should be talking about, folks, not the packaged-for-easy-consumption art with which we are all too familiar.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The smaller “stacked” diptychs (28×38 panels) are $35000 each. The larger diptychs (56×74 panels) are $65000 each. The triptychs are $80000 each. Graham’s images (from all periods of his career) have been remarkably absent from the secondary markets for photography, so gallery retail is still likely the best option for interested collectors at this point.

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Read more about: Paul Graham, Pace Gallery, MACK Books


  1. bryanF /

    Fantastic review. Thanks!

    LPV Magazine

  2. dlkcollection /

    As a side note, since I posted this, I've been thinking about the relationship of this series to Eve Sonneman's late 1970s work, also using paired diptychs and time lapses.

  3. Peter /

    Good review, thanks!

    As someone who studied Graham's work, I'd like to add the larger point that he has always engaged in some form of deconstruction of the tropes of photography in whichever genre he was operating in.

    With his works of 30 years ago, like A1 and Beyond Caring, he upset British Social Documentary by working in color. In the conflict of Northern Ireland he entwined landscape with war photography, very radical at that point, to open a space that many subsequent image makers have based their whole career on. Poverty in America? instead of grainy shadow filled Magnum type reportage, he made the images near invisible, where hard to register figures wandered around a vast leached-out landscape. The great Pan-America road trip work? His 'A Shimmer of Possibility' shifted the paradigm from the Decisive Moment to the flow of life. Even his overlooked Japanese work of 89-95 'Empty Heaven' could be approached as a critique of the 'Pictures Generation' by mixing appropriated and original imagery, politics with pop culture.

    With all this taken into account, perhaps we should not be really surprised when Graham's 'street photography' refuses to play by the rules of single shot, wide angle, deep focus, with lots of drama and action. Our expectations have been embedded by years of repetitive post-Winogrand work, or Jeff Wall type staging. My reading of this exceptional show is much like his 'Shimmer of Possibility' works: look quietly at life and see how incredible it really is.

    The exhibition is beautifully installed and printed by Graham himself I am told, and is fully deserving of 3 stars IMHO. Though I read this week that Graham was awarded the prestigious Hasselblad Prize for 2012, so I doubt he cares much about that missing star!

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