Paul Graham: The Present
The Pace Gallery
545 W 22nd St
New York, NY 10011
February 24, 2012 – April 21, 2012
The enigmatic thread that ties Paul Graham’s The Present together invites the viewer to spend hours mulling over its exact identification. Graham denies any easy or obvious answers. As a result, this body of work becomes a meditation on the photographic medium and the ambiguous effects of its time-based nature. Two overarching yet opposing themes unite this work: the solitude inherent to the crowded urban spaces and the principle that we are not so very different.
The streets of New York City provide Graham with a canvas based in chance. He records unintended comparisons through shared experiences. In so doing Graham poses provocative questions about cultural and socio-economic divisions. E53rd Street, 12th April 2010 9.45.55, 2010 contrasts perceived economic success with destitution. Both men couldn’t be more contradictory in appearance, yet they quite literally walk the same path. In effect, his implicit message so much as states: that which divides us does not deny us similarities within the human experience. His work provokes suspicions similar to any good photography. The sun’s rays cascading down from the skyscraper filled sky appear to adorn these figures in radiant coronas of light. Nothing a little dodging and burning in Photoshop can’t produce.
Graham’s work poses questions about instantaneity versus imperceptible transitions. His sleight of hand (or turning of the tripod) for 53rd Street & 6th Avenue, 6th May 2011, 2.41.26 pm, 2011 disguises the passing of time itself, demonstrating his capacity for casting visual spells. The profound and humbling presence of the central figure (the focal point) of the second panel eclipses the calm moment of meditation in the first. Appearing as if out of nowhere, and like a moon moving over the water, the central figure in panel two makes the crashing waves seem insignificant. Suddenly, a change in focus thrusts whatever thoughts could be occupying the contemplative businessman into perspective.
In both placing and denying the importance of his subjects through his manipulation of the focal point and framing, Graham either engages strangers in random encounters or emphasizes their disengagement. 23rd Street, 2nd June 2011, 4.25.14 pm, 2011 aptly demonstrates this endeavor. In the first photograph of this diptych two figures appear as if they are about to interact with one another. This modicum of familiarity is quickly broken in the sequential photograph in which the subjects are shown to have merely caught one another’s gaze by accident. Graham’s clever use of framing moves from an intimate pairing to a slice of urban life by including peripheral figures cut from the shot. What isn’t clear is whether or not these extras came from central casting or were genuinely and randomly present.
Although Graham has long been praised for the unstaged, photojournalistic nature of his work, the near impossibility of stumbling upon some of these vignettes raises suspicions. Leaving the female figure’s unlikely predicament aside, the sheer drama of Fulton Street, 11th November 2009, 11.29.10 am, 2009 transforms a passerby into an allegorical apostle from a Caravaggio painting. Here Graham displays his cinematic, Jeff Wall side. The two protagonists fatefully walk through the same spotlight as the photographer discreetly snaps away. If only perhaps for this diptych alone, Graham provokes a close examination of the surrounding works, goading the viewer to sniff them out for the presence of hired actors.
Furthermore, in transitioning from diptych to triptych his work takes on a narrative quality such as 51st Street, 18th June 2010, 1.28.45, 2010. What looks like a shared thought or moment of recollection fades completely by the third panel. The triptych format lends itself to Graham’s tendency to repeatedly question his subject’s significance and swap out protagonists, once again underscoring the lonely condition of the metropolis.
Everything about The Present exploits and extrapolates upon the time-based medium’s possible interpretations. Even Graham’s placement of the works within the gallery space at and below the typical sight line and his alteration of scale, play upon his process of viewing. This is one way in which his exploration of the qualities that are particular to photography surpasses Robert Frankian observations. Graham’s use of context, framing, and perspective engage the interaction between fiction and nonfiction, acknowledging the fine line that separates the two genres.
Stephanie Peterson is a New York-based writer. Her research interests include figurative painting in Europe, intersections between traditional and contemporary media, and the revival of historical techniques and themes as a means to cope with trauma. She is currently enrolled in the art history PhD program at the CUNY Graduate Center.
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