Thursday, August 20, 2009

a shimmer of possibility - Paul Graham

Last year I got rather bummed out when the pre-publication order I placed with a well known bookstore for the original edition of this book/collection never got filled. And when I looked around elsewhere it had already gone out of print.

Because it was such a popular book (for a photobook that is) Steidl decided to reprint it in a new, softcover, somewhat cheaper, all-in-one edition and, having come across my blog, were kind enough to send me a copy of the new edition. You may remember that the original was published as a set of twelve thin hardcover books together in one case - which, although I have never seen a set first hand - looked quite elegant and seemed a very suitable way to present the work.

Now, as I had only ever seen the original set in the catalogues, and hadn't read all the little technical detail, for some reason I had come to assume that this was a set of smallish books in a case. So imagine my surprise when this all-in-one version arrived in a rather large package which, when opened, presented something as large as the yellow pages for a metropolitan city and which was quite a bit heavier as it's 375 pages were made of nice, heavy, glossy paper.

It was only then that I looked back to the original version in the catalogue and realised that the individual books were about 9.5" x 12.5" in size. Aha... now it makes sense.

Anyway, this is a very physical book due to the size and heft, which makes it materially different from the original edition which, while still presenting the same size of page real estate, is made up of the the twelve individual books.

Physical appearance aside, the photographs are much as I had hoped. In one sense, this is pretty much postmodern street photography at its best (zenith?). And yet the blurb around the book also indicates that Graham was inspired by Chekov's short stories. In many ways I can see that their form is indeed inspired by Chekov's 201 short stories, but in terms of content it is very much Chekov by way of Don DeLillo.

There is a whole play and interplay not only between the "narrative" content of each individual story, but also between the stories themselves. I hesitate to use the term "narrative" because to me there is a certain implied forward motion in that word whereas these photographs (as with almost all photographs) not only look back, but their meanings also comes from complex interrelationships which move both backwards and forwards within the book form as well as between the books - and which is probably even more apparent in this one volume set. Their nature is in many ways very different from the textual story or narrative form. It is the sequencing, and the ability of the viewer to manipulate the sequencing, that gives these photographs much of their power and potential. And as the two different editions allow for different levels of manipulation by the viewer I would suggest that they allow for two different sets of meaning making. In essence, they aren't quite the same book.

If I hadn't seen the list of widely varied locations at the back of the book I might have titled these photographs "Walks With My Dog". Not in any negative sense, but in the sense that they really do illuminate the ordinary in a way which so many photographers attempt and yet fail at. Like DeLillo's stories they depend absolutely on an acute observation of the everyday. Yet like many of Chekov's short stories they take an ordinary event and find the one small spark of the other that so often permeates what we frequently fail to notice around us.

As Graham says:"I know it seems crazy, but I'm asking you to trust me and enjoy this quiet journey. Just slow down and look at this ordinary moment of life. See how beautiful it is, see how life flows around us, how everything shimmers with possibility."

My only wish would be that Steidl publish them/this in a smaller sized edition - a set of the 12 books but produced around the size of a regular - if thin - paperback. Perhaps a bit bigger then the Photo Poche series, or about the size of Moleskine's bigger notebooks. Big enough to still be able to read the pictures easily, but small enough to fit two or three of the individual books in a pocket or messenger bag pouch. I think that would probably be the best edition of what would then be three. Perfect jewels.

(All photos Paul Graham)

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