Ordinary lives observed at Pier 24
by Sura Wood
How does one photograph the banal and the quotidian without producing art that's mundane, obvious and ordinary? This conundrum was the challenge facing British photographer Paul Graham, and it's one, despite instances of brilliance, he doesn't always surmount. The question of whether or not Graham transcends the banality of his life-as-it's-lived content will confront visitors to The Whiteness of the Whale, a solo show of the artist's color photographs at Pier 24, the venue's first exhibition devoted to a single photographer. With its expansive, underpopulated spaces and chapel-like serenity, 28,000-sq.-ft. Pier 24 is an ideal place for work that requires time and an open mind to absorb, and for an impeccably installed show where your response will be contingent on the associations and experience – of life and photography – you bring to it.
The exhibition assembles an informal trilogy, three bodies of work made over the course of 13 years that observe American society, its class and racial divides, and the rhythms of existence in a variety of regions, from an outsider's perspective. Graham, who moved to the US in 2002 and lives in New York City, spent more than a decade traveling the country, at first leaving his camera behind, unsure if he had anything to add to the contributions of Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander and other American chroniclers who had preceded him. Inspired by Walker Evans and color photographers William Eggleston and Stephen Shore, he's arguably built upon the legacy of Swiss photographer Robert Frank's The Americans, a milestone in photography from another detached outsider. But Frank's stark, black & white compositions and arresting, even harsh imagery land on you in a way that Graham's do not. Frank's opus was published in the 1950s, a different time it's true, and Graham's terrain is more urban and suburban than rural and small town U.S.A., but the comparison is unavoidable. But Graham's progressions of individual images, presented mostly in series or pairs of series juxtaposed for effect, are cinematic. "California," for instance, cuts between a boy eating his burger and fries on an outdoor table, and kids skating in a park that may or may not be nearby; either by accident or design, your eye is directed from one scene/image to another and goes on auto-pilot, editing them together into a sequence. We live in an age when movies shape our lives at the same time we're turning our lives into movies. In this way, Graham seems a perfect fit for the times.
He has often disseminated his work in a more traditional form, books. The show's title, a literary allusion to Moby Dick, and its division into three main sections: American Night, a shimmer of possibility, and The Present, reflect a thematic approach. Each grouping has a tenuous connection to a different function of the camera: Aperture, Shutter and Focus, respectively.
What are we to conclude from the collective impressions of modern American life by an artist from across the pond? We're afflicted by a numbing sameness, economic inequities and the hopelessness engendered by poverty. Our inner cities, with their grubby, trash-strewn streets, and the faceless poor and homeless we don't see, are nearly interchangeable, as is the crappy, empty-calorie architecture we ingest as we go about our routines. There are people in wheelchairs, seemingly abandoned, some missing limbs perhaps from diabetes, a product of a fast-food diet whose purveyors and products show up here.
In the first gallery, American Night (1998-2002), large-scale, overexposed, whited-out images of lower-middle-class neighborhoods, whose details are difficult to make out in the foggy glare, are interspersed with crystal-clear, full-color photographs of a Disneyesque suburban enclave with cookie-cutter mini-mansions, utterly without character, like the assembly-line, brightly colored compact cars parked out front. The clash of economic strata is interrupted by a specially constructed interior gallery within the bigger space containing a handful of vivid pictures of the inner city. Apparently shot in the waning hours of a hot summer afternoon, a man with a bandaged eye ("Blinded Man") walks down a busy street baptized with graffiti; another, who's wheelchair-bound, shields his eyes with his arm. A shock to the system, raw, bold and bracingly alive, the dirt, debris and visual cacophony – you feel the steam and smell coming off the New York streets – come as a relief after the blandness outside the enclosure.
The Present (2009-11), the least engaging portion of the show, centers on the ceaseless ebb and flow of humanity in Manhattan, focusing on details of the passing parade that don't register unless one is paying attention. A businessman carrying a briefcase crosses the intersection; a youngish fellow stands on the sidewalk smoking, a cab pulls up and drives away before he finishes his cigarette ("51st Street, 18th June 2010, 1.28.45 pm"). We're born, we live, we die, barely leaving a trace; the pictures don't add anything particularly new to the concept.
But a shimmer of possibility (2004-06), a meditation on the evanescence of time, features some of the exhibition's most memorable photographs. They were originally showcased in a dozen volumes that rocked photography circles when they were published. (Each volume gets its own gallery here.) North Dakota moves toward twilight with a spectacular blend of natural and artificial light converging at a gas station; a series of different-sized photographs tracks the devolution of a fiery sunset, viewed over North Dakota's rugged hills, and at the end of a two-lane road, as its glory fades into darkness. And in Minneapolis, the stunted branches of an aging, white-barked tree point upward like fingers on a hand. Perhaps waiting its turn outside a body shop, the beat-up chariot in the masterfully composed "Camaro, Louisiana" (2005) was once a speed king and someone's pride and joy. Now, exquisitely battered, the Kelly green and cerulean paint peeling off its hood lays bare an uncharted world. Oh, the places it has been, the stories it could tell.
Through Feb. 29. Free, by appointment, which can be made in advance online at pier24.org.