‘Noticing’

Paul Graham 1981 & 2011, MACK Editions, 2011

‘Noticing’ is an essay commissioned for Paul Graham’s Hasselblad Award publication 1981 & 2011 (published by MACK in 2012). The book brings together Graham’s first major project A1:The Great North Road with The Present.

 

Noticing

by David Campany

With the people struggling and changing reality before our eyes,we must not cling to “tried” rules of narrative, venerable literary models, eternal aesthetic laws. We must not derive realism as such from particular existing works, but we shall use every means, old and new, tried and untried, derived from art and derived from other sources, to render reality to men in a form they can master …Our concept of realism must be wide and political, sovereign over all conventions.

Bertolt Brecht, ‘Popularity and Realism’, 1938

 

What are the relations between looking at the world, photographing the world and looking at photographs of the world? This is the most profound and perplexing question that photography asks of us, or that we can ask of it. It is a medium that may show us things as we never see them (microscopy, high-speed photography, X-rays and so forth) but it is also a medium that at times seems to come very close to how we see. And yet eyesight is such an elusive, variable phenomenon.

We catch something out of the corner of our eye. We stare in concentration down a road as it curves away. We glaze over at the density of a forest or the complexity of an automobile engine. We approach or move back. We hold an object in our hand and feel the strain on our binocular, liquid eyes. We follow something on the move. We see the same thing at different times, in different atmospheres, different states of mind. Our eyes may switch between two unrelated things and a mental connection is made. We look with curiosity but slip into reverie, mind and vision diverging. We gaze into the depth of clouds or the heavens and perceive only flatness. We stumble into blinding light or palpable darkness. We may recoil from what we see, confused, intrigued or seduced, sometimes all at once. There are moments when our eyesight is all we want it to be and moments when it betrays us. Moments when the meaning of the world seems to be right there, inscribed on its surface and moments when appearance is inscrutable. All this before we even pick up a camera or look at the image it produces.

To become a photographer it seems reasonable to presume one would need to notice the potential of the medium. This may happen through seeing possibility in one’s own amateurish snaps, but it is more likely to result from noticing the advanced work of others. Paul Graham ‘discovered’ such work in 1976, aged 19, firstly in the pages of Creative Camera, one of Britain’s few serious photo magazines. He soon came to know the work of Walker Evans, Paul Strand, Bill Brandt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, William Eggleston, Robert Adams, Edward Ruscha, Lewis Baltz, Tony Ray Jones, Paul Hill and Chris Killip. All ‘hunter-gatherers’ yet extremely diverse in their ways of noticing and photographing, and only one working in colour. But one is enough.

Graham decided photography was for him (or he was for photography) and began working through his influences. His first series Café Interiors, 1977-78, showed English décor attuned to the colour of light and the everyday things upon which it falls. The austere House Portraits, 1979, melded the architectural formality of Walker Evans and Lewis Baltz with the large format work of Stephen Shore.

But noticing the photography of others is not enough to make one a photographer, at least not an original one. One needs to notice the world. What is striking about even Graham’s earliest work is the understanding of what happens to subject matter when shot in what Walker Evans called a ‘documentary style’. The image becomes as much a set of propositions as facts. Things become signs of themselves, clear to the eye yet ambiguous in meaning. Making images in that idiom, and then sequencing them without recourse to the explanations of language has become one of the richest ways for a photographer to work. The result, if done well, can be a complex arrangement of intelligent, provocative challenges; a commentary on the world and the medium that makes it noticeable. This is the direction Graham took with his first major project, A1: the Great North Road.

The A1 had been the ‘spine of England’, the first road to connect London with Edinburgh 400 miles north, just into Scotland. In the 1950s traffic and commerce began to shift to the new motorway system, leaving the A1 and its hinterland to stagnate. It became a decelerated world, eclipsed by modern progress. Graham chose a suitably slow way to notice and photograph it. A 5×4 inch camera imposed a measured stoicism on landscapes and interiors, while a 10×8 exacted an intimate discipline on the portraits. Self-designed and self-published in 1983, the book of the project featured forty photographs, sequenced as a journey. We travel from the Bank of England, up through Holloway and Highgate, out into the open spaces and onwards. Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear. Cafés predominate, interspersed with car parks, scrubland and topographic views of farmed fields and industry. The light is muted, the air is damp and the mood is sombre, somewhere between resilience and resignation.

Those who knew the A1 and its fate could recognize the value of Graham’s assessment. But the success of the project had to do with wider social forces that allowed for metaphorical, even allegorical readings. This is where noticing becomes properly significant. The book opens with tailored young bankers beloved of the zealous Thatcher government’s free market ambitions (wearing ties of her preferred blue). It is followed by a bleak shot of the imposing Methodist Church in Archway, its retail units housing a video store and an employment bureau. Then comes a photo of a woman at a brutal-looking bus stop scrawled with ‘Mike of NW7. Punks’. NW7 is the postal code of the working class Mill Hill area where the image was taken in 1982. At that point punk was six years old, its bright and brief energy all but snuffed out or diverted by the new consumerism. Graham’s sequence becomes more lyrical as it heads north, lingering with people making do and getting by, but it is haunted by that opening blast. An exhibition of A1, comprised of 8×10 inch prints, showed in London, Stoke on Trent and Bristol. At the time what Graham had noticed, and the way he made viewers notice it, were wholly new in British photography. Today the tone and attitude of the project seem less of a radical departure, not least because of Graham’s profound influence on ambitious colour photography and its audiences. The connection to independent American colour work is clear to contemporary eyes: melancholy diners, sleepy gas stations, fading signs, all observed in such a way that colour serves the social commentary. But even without such points of reference the vitality, intelligence and conviction of A1 ensured its significance.

Graham was in it for the long run but this posed complicated problems. Photographs may contribute to the understanding of their own moment, but if they last their meaning will be shaped by the fate of the intervening years. Three decades on A1 seems at once familiar and strange. A project made in the absolute specificity of time and place, at a political, economic and cultural watershed is still resonant in so many ways. The fate of the Great North Road has become the fate of England: overshadowed, sidelined, scrambling to balance the values of locality and modernization, under the spectre of anonymous global capital.

The implicit politics of A1 became explicit in Graham’s next project, Beyond Caring. It was a response to, and contemplation of mass unemployment. By 1982 there were three million people without work in the UK. Again it was a survey of sorts, but where the Great North Road was an outward journey, with discoveries to be made along the way, this was a message from the interior, addressed to a nation’s increasingly brutalised psyche. Travelling across England, Graham visited hundreds of state unemployment offices: depressing and decrepit rooms in which men and women wait to be told if they if there are suitable job vacancies or if they will receive any state support. There is precious little variation in these spaces. The same cheap benches appear time after time, the same clocks, the same colour schemes, the same fluorescent light, the same government notices on the walls. Photographically the challenge was very different. How to convey this near hopeless waiting, this waste of human potential? How to interest and engage the viewer without resorting to entertainment or novelty? And how to avoid the well-established clichés of the depiction of unemployment?

Graham shot with a Plaubel Makina 67, a simple camera compact enough to fit in the pocket, yet able to produce a sizeable negative. Adopting a similar disposition to his subjects he sat, camera in lap. Superficially his images resembled casual snapshots, but on closer inspection it was clear something very different was being noticed. The dissipated, scattered compositions expressed the dissipated, scattered mindset of unemployment (something Graham knew all too well, having been out of work himself). Slumped against walls, standing alone or hunched on those benches, the people adopt the same flung arrangements in photo after photo. The disconcerting vectors of the pictures trace the strained relations between citizens. Strictly speaking all photographs suspend what they capture but Beyond Caring managed to convey what it is to be suspended, to be plucked out of time and held there, one’s dynamism and sense of purpose sapping away. Beyond Caring remains one of the most acutely observed and articulate responses to that era. And once again, in the midst of global recession and catastrophic levels of unemployment it remains relevant.

From compressed interiors Graham changed tack completely to landscapes, but the subject matter was an unlikely candidate for the genre. The British presence in Northern Ireland was at a critical point. Violence was part of daily life and political imagination was drying up. ‘The Troubles’ as they had come to be called, were at deadlock, fuelled in part by a deadlock in representation. Pictures and words in the mass media relied on the well-oiled and self-perpetuating stereotypes of conflict. So Graham reversed the golden rules of reportage. Instead of getting closer he stepped back. Instead of looking for the decisive moment he allowed in a more expansive sense of time and history. He made broad, topographic views of town and country, containing details just noticeable enough to disturb the tranquillity. Soldiers stopping and searching a car on the epic coast at Warrenpoint. A Union Jack flag right at the top of a tree in a field in County Tyrone. A helicopter, tiny as a bird in the broad sky above the border at Armagh. Troubled Land anticipated the more politicized understanding of landscape that is now commonplace in art and documentary. But once again the form of the work was not driven simply by a need to innovate. The photographs are true to an experience of the place, one not blinkered by ideology. Graham photographed what you might notice if you went there. When the project was shown he was invited to do the same thing in other troubled lands: South Africa and Israel. “It’s tempting of course, but I just can’t do that. I’m one of those artists who, once something is working, I have to drop it and find a new way to scare myself.”

So often in photography, what counts as a style is really a commitment to mastering one particular relation between noticing and photographing. We might think of Henri Cartier-Bresson closing the gap between the two, snatching virtuoso pictures from the almost nothing of everyday life. William Klein’s all-over compositions of crowds. Lee Friedlander’s planes and lines that disorient and delight. Garry Winogrand’s hell-bent stretching of composition until it nearly snaps. In a medium of almost limitless possibility, repetition can be a safety net.

Paul Graham has done without a safety net. He is one of very few photographers who has refused to settle for any specific way of working. Each new project demands its own approach, internally coherent but different from last. At times the jumps have been radical. There has been no Paul Graham ‘style’, no formula to rely upon, no territory to stake out, no ‘look’ to establish in the worlds of photography or art. That is to say there has been no fixed relation between noticing and photographing. It has been a risky path.

Although different in approach A1, Beyond Caring and Troubled Land, comprise a loose trilogy, and have come to be seen at Graham’s response to Britain in the 1980s. For the next fifteen years he made work in continental Europe and Japan, pushing hard at finding forms for ever more complex projects. And then in 2002, he relocated permanently to the USA and began what has turned out to be another informal trilogy.

Now he was living in a culture synonymous with the image and home to a photographic heritage he admired greatly. But what he could not fail to notice was the racial and social inequality. It was so commonplace it had taken on the concrete condition of fact, yet so ingrained it could barely be seen for what it was. Graham has been a subtle observer of the effects of light but in American Night (2003) those effects become the explicit subject and central idea. Travelling by car he explored the country’s various suburbs. Most of the time he overexposed his frames so there was almost nothing there. He took just a few that register ‘correctly’ those generic expressions of political and aesthetic conformity: brightly coloured of cars, manicured green lawns, blue skies and figures tiny in the frame going about their business. Then to the urban centres, making photographs of African-American citizens on the streets in the dirty sunlight of late afternoon. In the book we get page after page of bleached out images, punctuated by vivid colour, then a plunge into semi-darkness, before a return to suburban white-out. The difficulty of actually looking at the pictures offsets the almost too obvious ‘message’. In its uncompromising form and content the book of the project was his bravest to date. In the gallery, the prints were monumental, the sheer presence of light and dark filling the beholder’s field of view, presenting a challenge of ‘perception’ at once physiological and ideological.

Street photography is perhaps the only genre specific to the medium. Graham has been interested in it since the beginning of his career. Indeed the shot of bankers that opens A1 prefigures the kinds of images he is making presently. In the 1920s and 30s most of the innovative street photographs were made in Europe and the Soviet Union. After the war the cultural shift that made America the centre of art also made it the centre of street photography, particularly New York. But by the early 1970s the genre had been pushed so hard it seemed that nothing much more could be done. Publishers and galleries set the achievements in stone (this was the legacy that had so impressed Graham in his early years). Meanwhile photography began to be explored anew in what came to be called conceptual art. It valued predetermination and the critique of everything from photography’s truth claims, to its access to the poetic and the value of spontaneity. System was all and everything else was suspect or sentimental.

At the same time, the penetration of corporate values and bland imagery seemed to level out appearances. By the 1980s citizens and their cities had become so saturated with pictures and so anxiously image-conscious that the relation between surface and deeper meaning became fraught, threatening to become indecipherable. This was the postmodernization of daily life. How can we read appearances when denim and sportswear are worn by bank CEOs and bank cleaners, when the whole population appears to shop at GAP? What happens when locality is smothered by architecture and commodities designed by the same globalized software, following the same committee criteria? Or when the same branding is found in every main street? The subtleties that make life worth living (and looking at) do not offer themselves up as readily. It is easy to give up noticing.

In America, Graham found his way into street photography first by leaving the big city behind. In the secondary places – small towns, semi-rural settings – the pressure is gentler. The present and the past intermingle, offering up spaces for the observer to enter. Street photography is, in essence, at attempt to bring noticing and photographing almost into one action. For that reason perhaps it has tended to pursue the isolated, ecstatic single image. But in reality noticing is an ongoing experience, at least partly at odds with the snap of the shutter and its freezing of motion. Although he has made exceptionally singular pictures along the way, Graham is committed to the internally organised body of work, often aiming somewhere between cinema and literature. Loosely inspired by Anton Chekhov’s short stories, he began to make short sequences of intimate public moments.

Eight shots of man mowing a lawn, the sun streaming through a sudden rain shower. A woman eating fast food from a polystyrene container at a bus stop. A man selling roses in the night. A man taking a cigarette break, out behind his place of work. Each brief passage of pictures is as improvised as the incidents depicted, the photographer moving with the rhythm of his subjects. Eventually this work became

a shimmer of possibility (2007), published astwelve slim volumes. Sometimes a volume gives us just one sequence, sometimes two are cross-cut. On the page the varying size and position of the pictures help to suggest a sense of place and the intervals of time. In the gallery Graham was equally innovative, drawing on all his experience of just how differently we engage with walls and books. Instead of turning pages held in the hand, the gallery goer moves – in and out, backwards and forwards, looping without beginnings and endings, noticing in different ways.

Graham has had little cause to look back. While each project has been an opportunity to challenge himself he has never waivered in his commitment to noticing and photographing. And while no project is a culmination, we can certainly see his latest as a supremely confident restatement of intent. For The Present, Graham has put his head right into the lion’s mouth of photography, making fluid work on the streets on New York City. His diptychs and triptychs revel in the ephemeral pleasures of being alive in the here and now. Nothing much happens but everything happens. Taken a few instants apart and presented large on the wall, each is a supreme intensity of photographic seeing. But what is photographic seeing? For The Present at least one of the keys is the use of shallow focus (a rarity in these days of pin-sharpness). Enabled by the immersive scale of the prints, our eyes travel into the image, seeking the detail. But what do we do when we get there? We take it in, and we flick to another detail, perhaps in an adjacent image. We look back to the first. Or we look at what is not in focus. We step move around, take in the composition. We contemplate light, bodies, clothes, gestures, sidewalks – all vividly there and yet all enigmatic. We contemplate seeing. We contemplate photography – framing, timing, colours, resolution, even shutters and lenses. We may wonder whether what catches our eye is what caught Graham’s eye. And finally we may notice those profoundly ineffable relations between looking at the world, photographing the world and looking at photographs of the world.

In the early 1980s Paul Graham had a modest but appreciative audience and a limited network of support. These grew steadily as his projects accumulated. Then, a shimmer of possibility touched the nerve of a much wider public. It prompted several curators and commentators to look again, often realizing with some astonishment that this was the same photographer who had made A1, Beyond Caring, Troubled Land and many other bodies of work.

The recognition of Graham’s achievement has had only a little to do with the much-hyped triumph of photography in contemporary art. What is much more important is that audiences, curators and critics have come to understand that the documentary impulse cannot be removed from photography nor channelled into simplistic formulae (as it had been by the mass illustrated magazines). Documentary form is not a given: it must be hard-won, fought for, often against received wisdom and expectation. It is of necessity experimental and thus artistic. This is what has led to a flourishing of documentary forms on the wall, on the page, and sometimes in the illustrated press that survives. From this perspective it is possible to see all of Graham’s remarkable innovations for what they really are, and to see that the tension in photography between art and report is vital.

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