British photographer Paul Graham marries documentary observation with conceptual innovation. Put more plainly, he brings a sharp eye for ordinary life to the camera, and navigates the basic elements of photography to highlight his perspective.
A new exhibit at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art brings together three of Graham’s collections, made across the United States between 1998 and 2011. The photos look at race and class issues in America, using the three main tools of photography to play with the medium itself – light, shutter and focus.
The first of the three sets of photos is called “American Night” and features barely visible, overexposed images. The next, “a shimmer of possibility,” reveals “the stuttering nature of seeing by assembling sequential frames into subtle stories,” as the High explains. And in “The Present,” Graham uses diptychs and triptychs of street photography to show how subtle shifts in focus can change perceptions of a moment.
Graham has lived in New York since 2002.
In a recent conversation at the High, Graham discussed his images, inspirations, and what intimidated him about photographing this country.
Focus on the Story: Your work is described as being documentary observation combined with conceptual innovation. Tell us about that.
Paul Graham: I’ve always purely been interested in art photography, or creative photography that’s taken from life, as in the work of Robert Frank, Walker Evans, Diane Arbus, Gary Winogrand, those sort of people. That’s always been what’s turned me on as a photographer, the work I’ve found most inspiring and profound.
My heroes have always been those sort of people and that has always been the work I’ve aspired to make. So you can use it under the rubric of social documentary or fine art photography or whatever handle people want to put on it, I don’t really care that much.
FOTS: What drew you to such social observation style? You mentioned some of those predecessors, but why that?
PG: I was stunned by their work, just the depth of it. I never realized you could say things like that with a camera… I never knew you could do that… It was profound 2 min it was historic. It was sensitive to humanity and individuality. The (early books he saw in college) were a form of photographic literature, which no one ever told me you could make, rather than illustrative ideas. It didn’t editorialize the subject. And that was a huge turn on.
FOTS: Photographic literature… Tell me about that. The idea of not just telling a story but being literary about it with your images. You’re being deliberate about that – you’re not just taking a natural photograph of something.
PG: There’s some thought and concept about it but hopefully it’s not becoming a straightjacket that ties you down into making some sort of didactic work. The work that I love balances an openness to life as it happens and comes at you and some intelligent thought, some true creative idea about the world and what it is. And the work that harmonizes those two…. That to me is the great, unique high point of photography, it’s the core of the medium, that dance with life that photography can do at its best.
I was stuck in the southwest of England in a small town. Luckily there was one arts center. They had a bookshelf there, and I learned about photography through books. So I’ve put a lot of emphasis on publishing books. They’re art works in their own right. They’re not promotions for you or your work.
FOTS: When did you realize there was more going on than just being a youngster responding to interesting images?
PG: Oh, instantly. It was like a punch in the gut
FOTS: How old were you?
PG: Nineteen, 20. I was in a science course and I was looking for a creative outlet. I knew about photography a little bit, but I never realized you could say something with it. And then coming across their good work, it was the proverbial light bulb going off.
I was intimidated by that work. And for the first 10 years coming to America, I didn’t even bother to bring a camera with me. I thought I would just end up taking tourist pictures, meaningless. So I didn’t bring it.
FOTS: What was your inspiration for pushing overexposure so far in the first set of photos in this trilogy?
PG: I wanted to talk about the invisibility of people. One of the moments of inspiration, it’s a bit of a highfalutin word for it, was just walking out of a movie house in Memphis one afternoon, after you’ve been an hour and a half in the darkness and you push one of those exit doors and you’re in blinding sunlight. And you notice someone struggling across the car park, some impoverished person, and you realize this is a perfect metaphor for how we psychologically render people invisible so we can go about our days. It was one of the first things that struck me when I came to seriously spend time in the states, was this great divide. Could I Iive in a country with such a clear social fracture between rich and poor, white and black… That was a way of looking at that very clearly, and you see it in these white pictures.
They were just overexposed. There’s no filter, no scrim, no white gauze.
FOTS: Tell us about the inspiration for the trilogy, the inspiration for these three approaches.
PG: It was a very accidental trilogy. It wasn’t preplanned I just did one series, and then I did another and realized as I approached the third, OK, now I’ll take some street pictures and I realized this fit very much into the three principal controls of photography, your shutter, your aperture and your focus. That’s what you’ve got on any camera, from the oldest Pentax to the most modern digital.
A shimmer of possibility is really about the quotidian life in America, if you want me to use a $10 word. They’re non-newsworthy moments of people waiting for a bus, cutting the grass…the most un-newsworthy, everyday occurrences, but somehow when looked at openly and sensitively, they become empowered with their own wondrousness and dignity, or tragedy in some cases. Traveling around America, these nondescript moments of every day life… and the title is a clue. It’s hopefully somewhat uplifting.
FOTS: How deliberate is the storytelling to you?
PG: I tend to resist obvious narrative or story in photography. Different parts of the stories come forward and receive, and different people looking at them have different interpretation, and that’s one of the strengths of good photography.
I tend not to like to pin it down to one single story. All I want to do is give you the material to imagine, to fill in the blanks, not just to fill in the story, but to start to empathize with different people in their lives.
FOTS: How much of this is planned before you go out? Do you need to say I need to find a man on a bench, for instance?
You walk around, you stumble into things, you hate yourself for being lazy. Things you think are good aren’t good, the things you think are rubbish turn out to be good. It’s one of the wonderful and infuriating things about photography.