Sliding Sight, Setting Suns
‘He is not heroic, he is aware that modern life is full of nondescript melancholy, of discomfort, of queer relationships which beget emotions that are half-ludicrous and yet painful and that an inconclusive ending for all these impulses is much more usual than anything extreme.’
Virgina Woolf, on the short stories of Anton Chekhov
I’ve said it before, I do not credit the epiphanic, the seeing through that reveals all, triggered by a mastering of detail…Life’s moments truly come at us heedless, not at the bidding of a gilded fragrance.’
Richard Ford, The Lay of The Land
Paul Graham’s route-less journeys around America that had begun back in the summer of 2004, went on during 2005 and for most of 2006. He continued driving, to and from places, visiting and not visiting; the locations, towns and cities becoming less and less relevant and more and more representative. He would drive, and stop, and walk, sometimes for a few minutes, at other times for hours, maintaining an unstructured and intuitive itinerary, and photographing all the while, keeping restraint in mind, never dwelling too long on any one subject or being drawn too far beyond that initial point of fascination. It is from these underlying principles that a shimmer of possibility emerged in 2007, its monumental 12-volumes spanning the nation with single or interlocking narratives of life as it passes by or as it is happened upon by Graham and his camera. The volumes range between relatively extended passages of more than twenty photographs over sixty pages, to a book that cradles just one picture, a story with no beginning and no end.
We might take his four hour drifting walk along Everett Avenue in the Chelsea district of Boston on 26th August 2006, near the end of his work on Shimmer, as in some ways representative of Graham’s evolved approach. Over seventeen photographs his attention is taken here and there, his eye is flitting around, alighting on something: a hesitation, a picture, and then moving on. People cross the street, they get into their cars; the American flag hangs in the background; a street corner outside the Chelsea Trial Court coheres momentarily as a tableau, a brief mirage of American photography’s past; signs declare Cheques Cashed, Dunkin Donuts, 7 Eleven, the Elegance Salon. Graham takes a few steps to follow a young mother carrying a child back to her car: two pictures and then across the street to notice… well, not very much, a non-descript slice of time, an unanswered question. Then in the Boston book, in large pictures at each end of this sequence a butterfly floats up in solid blue space, as if to speak of the lightness of everything, this ephemeral watching, and perhaps also to let us know there is a season behind it all, that despite the strange docile weight of everything on the ground, Spring is in the air.
Graham has said that a shimmer of possibility was in part inspired by Chekhov’s short stories, which achieve the greatest atmosphere from ordinary situations, the most vivid sense of time, place and character, with the most minimal of means, and with plain words beautifully arranged often in long lilting sentences. Whilst too literal a comparison would be unhelpful, Graham’s photographic sequences do have a Chekhovian pace and phrasing, one that makes effective use of the pause – in Graham’s case blank pages between images – and that strikes a balance between formlessness and structure. In the Shimmer books, formless photographs, or perhaps more accurately photographs where form is incidental, are variously sized and irregularly placed on the page but in carefully planned succession. The sudden shifts of subject and viewpoint and the use of repetition deliberately dislodge the narrative flow but also allow us to share in Graham’s watchful fascination. Virginia Woolf, in her essay ‘Tchehov’s Questions’, noted something similar in Chekhov’s ‘choice of incidents and endings’ that unsettle the reader, giving the impression ‘that the ground upon which we expected to make safe landing has been twitched from under us.’ But somehow, she argued, things imperceptibly ‘arrange themselves, and we come to feel that the horizon is much wider from this point of view; we have gained an astonishing sense of freedom.’
In much of this freedom, this opening out of photographic seeing, however, the forlorn presences of American Night reappear, the poor and the destitute who inhabit the streets that Graham came to walk along almost everywhere he went. Now, as the significance and importance of the single image falls away into what has been referred to as a ‘filmic haiku’, the desperate circumstances of these people is elaborated and reinforced as Graham unravels the visual threads of his various encounters. Typically in Washington an African American woman with dyed red hair sits eating a take-away on the street. The first picture, a profile portrait, registers discomfort, both hers and now ours as onlookers. Graham then notes the meal on her knees in its polystyrene tray, hands cupped around it; then a similar picture, though larger, and shifted very slightly to the left. Two photographs of discarded bones and a soda can follow, thrown randomly onto the sidewalk and similarly framed by the camera but in shifting focus, and then Graham moves back, to the woman smoking after the meal, her fingers, the cigarette, her inhaling cheeks, crystal clear to us as we look over her shoulder. Throughout this Shimmer volume, interlacing pictures from Washington and South Broad, New Orleans (2004-06), Graham leads us through these dispiriting details, in which a melancholy languor persists, rising in three pictures into an extraordinary louring sunset and then down onto a New Orleans sidewalk again where some fluorescent red glace cherries seem to be melting away in the sun. Graham’s intention here is ambivalent. So much of what we see seems to suggest critical social observation, but then the atmosphere lifts for a moment and Graham diverts the attention away on a tangent as things occur and are seen. Nothing seems resolved, no particular side is taken, everything is inconclusive but there are constantly questions. Again Graham’s photographic attention here seems rooted in something Katherine Mansfield said about Chekhov: ‘What the writer does is not so much solve the question but…put the question. There must be the question put. That seems to me a very nice dividing line between the true and false writer.’
In American Night we might say that those questions were more emphatically put, and that the structures of the work prompted resolution. Here, amid the irregular cadences of Shimmer, ideas are framed with pellucidity and lightness; photographs are the conscious form that ideas then permeate. John Szarkowski was fond of quoting a conversation between Ducasse and Mallarme, where Ducasse says to his old friend: ‘You know I’ve got a lot of good ideas for poems, but the poems are never very good.’ To which Mallarme says: ‘Of course, you don’t make poems out of ideas, you make poems out of words.’ In thinking of this we might look at Graham’s photograph from a liquor store in Washington, that shows worn shelves of bottles, mostly spirits, aligned in a slight diagonal across the picture, but which, with blurred objects breaking the frame and the foreground, is not conventionally ‘well composed’: again a casual thought quickly noted. The photograph is packed with information about what liquor is on offer and what it might cost. We learn, for example, that a bottle of Captain Morgan Spiced Rum is $3.99, or that you can buy a similar sized bottle of 100 Pipers Scotch Whiskey for $4.99. Set within pictures of those depressed and torpid streets, the sense here, of course, is of cheap liquor as a kind of last gasp remedial help, the store might just as well function as a chemist amid all this social fracturing. And yet there is something less accountably compelling about this image, given some emphasis in its Shimmer volume. When Walker Evans took pictures of grocer’s stores in the 1930s it was not just the visible index of goods and the delineating of a local culture from that which held his attention, but the formal arrangements therein, the sculptural form and collaged signage holding such a wealth of accumulated detail that he knew would accord so well with the facility of the camera to describe and to preserve it. In Graham’s photograph there is an echoing of Evans, indeed the ‘vintage’ character and labelling of the bottles gives the whole image a scent of the past. The fascination here for the photographer, though caught up in the general conditions outside on the street, is equally in information so compacted and richly coloured, the textures of a threadbare reality appearing so momentarily concise and tangible.
Again in American Night, Graham was at pains to expose the flip side of this reality in a form of visual collision, murky fragility against too perfect clarity. In a shimmer of possibility those collisions, while still there to be negotiated, are less forcefully directed. When some semblance of that suburban idyll appears again, for example, as it does in Graham’s tree-green volume of photographs from New England taken in 2006, the tone is more ambiguous. The atmosphere in the wooded streets and in the grounds of substantial residencies is exactly balanced on that line between cloying sweetness and something more sturdy and genuinely beautiful that Richard Ford used to set the scene of his novel Independence Day: ‘In Haddam, summer floats over tree-softened streets like a sweet lotion balm from a careless, languorous god, and the world falls in tune with its own mysterious anthems.’ Again it is a spotless world but now lurking here are also notes of doubt and uncertainty. As Graham walks and seems to set his camera adrift in that balm of light and air, he meets an elderly woman retrieving her post. Three photographs ensue: a full figure, a close-up portrait – the woman, eyes closed, with a vaguely haughty expression – and then Graham’s camera angles down to her feet, in old pink slippers against the grey concrete drive. The photographs undermine the woman’s place, her real-estate security, and we are left more with the sense of her vulnerability and the shared indistinctness of ageing. Now the impenetrable time-locked poise of these New England houses and lawns has become invested with fragility, and as Graham moves on another question hovers in front of the lens.
As Lawrence Weschler once wrote on Robert Irwin: ‘Seeing is forgetting the name of the things one sees.’ For Graham a shimmer of possibility embodied this kind of forgetting, but it is also a remembering, a rediscovery of and a reattachment to photography’s essential mechanism, and a letting go of the desire to mould that to an inordinate artistic will. As a form of new maturity in his work Shimmer allows the world to cohere and fade in all its diversity, it does not shy away from the hard and harsh words, the inconsolable moods that it may never brighten, but neither does it self-consciously avoid what is plainly inspirational, both within and beyond human scale. The matter-of-factness of Graham’s democratic, inclusive seeing simultaneously reactivates and expands the tired, over-used formulas of the photographic language, introducing a new syntax and disarming the cliché with bare economy and unflinching emphasis.
‘He sinks shots one-handed, two-handed, underhanded, flat-footed, and out of the pivot, jump and set. Flat and soft the ball lifts. That his touch still lives in his hands elates him. He feels liberated from long gloom.’
John Updike, Rabbit, Run
Sometime during the Autumn of 2005 Graham found himself wandering in the suburbs of a town in East Texas. The streets were like those you might find anywhere in America, modest clap-board housing, simple back lots, a few cars; a poor district but not constrained by space, with lawns and trees and its own sense of order lightly applied. It had been a fine day, but the sky was now growing pale and translucent with the fading light. Stopping to look between the houses, across some unkempt grass and through the almost bare trees, Graham photographs the setting sun, a disc of white light rapidly drawing heat from the last of the day as it hides itself beyond the horizon. The trees blacken into silhouettes, laying a filigree pattern over the grey blue sky and its glowing ember hearth in the distance. The scene is deserted, a quiet evening, there are no lights on anywhere and nobody seems to be about. It is this darkening stillness that registers in the photograph we see reproduced in a shimmer of possibility. The image is printed large on the page, about 15 x 12”, but peering into it is hard on the eye. Then turning the page a very similar picture appears, taken from a few steps back, though now printed smaller, producing a frame on frame, a doubling as if for emphasis, but also it is a form of checking, as if something may have been missed, the image as a kind of premonition.
What Graham at first didn’t see and what can easily be overlooked in his photographs, even turning back to the larger picture, is that some way across the grass below the sinking sun are two figures in white tee-shirts appearing either side of a basketball stand. Once he notices this Graham goes to investigate, following this human connection into the next street. And in his subsequent picture we find him looking at two teenagers, brother and sister, shooting hoops on a broad road in the shading of twilight. Graham has already been seen and they know he has begun to photograph them, but they carry on playing regardless. He moves closer, watching and photographing their leaps and turns, the boy jumping and touching the hoop. It’s an athletic display but not a performance, and not dramatised by the camera; this is something fleeting, it happens and Graham responds. Then he stands alongside the girl, the younger one, and photographs her as she prepares a set. She makes the shot, arms raised, feet planted, perfectly balanced. And then in the next picture we see her, ball gone, watching, peering herself in that murky light, the success or failure of her shot is unknown and unseen to us, and maybe that is the perfect point to leave her.
‘They went on living. They would grow old. A thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter. This he had preserved…’
Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway
A few minutes has passed and Graham has made five pictures. The results are a pleasure to see, as this scene evidently was for the photographer, a slice of life that materialises and then subsides, and we go on. But the thought of that energy, the joy of that movement lingers like the sunset itself.
Then in the same book, after another blank page pause, Graham relocates us to North Dakota. It is twilight again and we are looking at a gas station, free standing in the open landscape, reflecting the late sun, an orange and red canopy on six tall narrow pillars, a kind of magical stage set complete with its own grid of spotlights. Graham stands back to take in the scene, to isolate and bear witness to the gas station as a vision and to underscore its status as an icon of the American landscape, the familiar trope of artists from Hopper to Ed Ruscha, and a something of a photographers’ totem, from Walker Evans onwards. Through several hours and seven pictures Graham watches as this theatre of nowhere plays out in the setting sun. His main subjects are still and in turn his thoughts and photographs are less incidental, more measured and reflective, as if tracing over the contours of a familiar map but one that he has rediscovered in a dream. Cars pull in and leave, a gleaming red and white pick-up parks and Graham takes an admiring portrait, and then he sees another, they appear like the figments of the road, of a particular kind of American mobility that trails across the continent and back in time.
In the last two photographs the sky’s hues deepen; the dying sun gives a last magenta glow to the thinning clouds, and the gas station, deserted now, takes on a painterly softness and an air of mystery in the night. Then for the final image, Graham tilts the camera upward to catch the risen moon, half shadowed by the earth but with its own landscape faintly seen in the expanding atmospheric space. It is a significant connection and another minor crescendo, one of the many in a shimmer of possibility; recalling that same sense of affirmation that elevated Graham’s first pictures of the man mowing in Pittsburgh, that same sense of wonder and transcendence. In the linking of these pictures with those of the young basketball players, Graham makes more of their vigour, building a kind of poetic energy that is understated yet finally unrestrained. At the end of his short story The Student, in a paragraph that is also one long winding walk of a sentence, Chekhov similarly raises his hands in unapologetic celebration:
‘And when he was crossing the river on the ferry, and then when he was walking up the hill, looking down at his own village and across to the west, where the cold crimson sunset was glowing in a narrow band, he realised that truth and beauty, which had guided human life in that garden and at the high priest’s, had continued to do so without a break until the present day, and had clearly always constituted the most important elements in human life, and on earth in general; and a feeling of youth, health, and strength – he was only twenty two years old – and an inexpressibly sweet expectation of happiness, of unfathomable, mysterious happiness, gradually overcame him, and life seemed entrancing and miraculous to him, and full of sublime meaning.'
Anton Chekov, The Student
Excerpt from 'A Thing There Was That Mattered',
from the book 'Paul Graham' published by steidlMACK, 2009