Sunday, September 16, 2007

Paul Graham's Chekhov

I was just reading the current Photoeye Booklist magazine (well worth subscribing to btw - usually lots of good reading) and there is a very good interview with Paul Graham about his new book (or rather collection of books) A Shimmer of Possibility. Though the interview also covers a lot more ground than just the new book.

Graham is probably one of the most influential contemporary British colour photographers. I remember encountering his work in the mid 80's and how - at that time - it pretty much blew me away. He could probably be credited in large part with dragging British Photography out of it's 1950's documentary/photojournalism style which had dominated right through until the 80's.

His books A1: Great North Road and Troubled Land are two superb books of photography that still hold their own today. The latter is one of the best representations out there of Northern Ireland during "The Troubles" of the 70's and 80's. The somewhat later New Europe is also worth seeking out. As he says in the interview, he doesn't generally stick with one tried and tested way of doing things, but explores new possibilities.

A Shimmer of Possibilities is described as: "Inspired by Chekhov's short stories-and by his own contagious joy in the book form-photographer Paul Graham has created A Shimmer of Possibility, comprised of 10 individual books, each a photographic short story of everyday life. Some are simple and linear - a man smokes a cigarette while he waits for a bus in Las Vegas, or the camera tracks an autumn walk in Boston. Some entwine two, three or four scenes-while a couple carry their shopping home in Texas, a small child dances with a plastic bag in a garden. Some watch a quiet narrative break unexpectedly into a sublime moment-as a man cuts the grass in Pittsburgh it begins to rain, until the low sun breaks through and illuminates each drop."

Here are a few selections from the interview (Photoeye has the full text online):

Richard Woodward: Let’s start with this new book, which is actually a series of books, and work backwards. How did the project originate?

Paul Graham: My principal sources were Chekhov’s short stories, and the critical essays around those. A lot of people have tried to understand why this writing works so well, since in the stories there’s not much happening. They’re dealing with the simple, everyday things—in one of them a woman is combing her hair for six pages, remembering that night at the theatre; in another a school teacher is coming home in a cart dreaming of meeting the landowner, who does ride past and they exchange a few pleasantries, but nothing more. But there’s something magical about how perfectly described they are, the transparency of what’s happening, without guff or show, simply described, with nothing proscribed. I’ve been traveling around the States for a while now, and wanted to do something looser and freer, to take pictures of people at the most ordinary, everyday moments — cutting the grass or waiting for the bus, smoking cigarettes or traveling to and from the supermarket. I wanted to reflect Chekhov’s openness, his simple transparency; this was something I tried to move toward. I’m not, of course, literally illustrating Chekhov’s stories, but similarly isolating a small rivulet of time. So, each of the individual books is a photographic short story, a filmic haiku. They are quite short, but complete in their modest way...

...RW: But if you’re going to travel to Europe and Japan you must have figured out ways to support yourself.

PG: You sleep on friend’s floors. I traveled in an old Mini—the original Mini—and I slept in the back of that for a long time. I ate in truck drivers’ cafes. I had a friend who found out-of-date film for me. Then you do some teaching and get a small grant. The documentary-style tradition is very strong in England. Eventually I met up with Martin Parr, Chris Killip, Graham Smith, John Davis. Then my first book, A-1 The Great North Road, came out in 1983. It was a journey along the main artery of the UK, much like Alec Soth did with the Mississippi recently. Large format, color, landscapes, portraits, buildings, etc. The book proved quite poisonous to that black-and-white tradition. It’s been forgotten how radical it was to work within the social documentary tradition in color, at that time. Now it’s so commonplace, people wonder what the issue was. Within four years I published three books: A1, Beyond Caring and. But by 1987, I could see this juggernaut of color documentary photography in England; it had really taken off. Martin Parr switched to color, so did people like Tom Wood, and then our students, like Paul Seawright or Richard Billingham too. But I felt it was time to move on from that, before it became exhausted. For example, the mixing of landscape with war photography in Troubled Land was striking and quite successful—I had shows in NYC galleries—but what happens is that you hit this resonant note and everyone wants you to repeat it. I was invited to duplicate Troubled Land in Israel and South Africa. Commissions, dollars, travel, the whole nine yards. But I thought, I can’t do this. For better or worse, I’m one of those artists who once something is “proven,” have to drop it and find another way to scare myself...

RW: So you went to Europe?

PG: In the early to mid 80s I had made friends with a group of German photographers who were quite distinct from the Bechers’ Düsseldorf school. They were mostly around Essen- Berlin: Volker Heinze, Joachim Brohm, Gosbert Adler and Michael Schmidt too, who was running these workshops in Berlin and inviting people like John Gossage and Lewis Baltz to come over.

RW: It’s funny that school is so unknown here. Michael Schmidt even had a one-man show at MoMA.

PG:Yes, a great show and few remember it. It’s as though the Gursky show wiped out people’s understanding of everything else in Germany. Gursky is much more accessible. He goes for the jugular because it is about “the great photograph.” Of course, he succeeds, but it’s recidivist, in a way. Photographers have been trying for years to make bodies of work where images work incrementally to build up a coherent statement. It’s not about one great picture by Robert Adams; it’s about twenty or thirty pictures that build a sensitive, intelligent reflection of the world. It’s the same with Garry Winogrand, or Robert Frank. Gursky brings it back to that “wow” moment. It sort of undoes that way of working, and reduces things to the “What a great shot!” appreciation of photography. I’m a sucker for that as much as anyone, but want people to appreciate what Robert Adams does more so...

Finally, I'd add that there's a dearth of Graham's work online - you're pretty much forced to buy the books (though you can almost guarantee they'll go up in value...)

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