The Present
by Paul Graham
MACK, 2012

Reviewed by Leo Hsu


Paul Graham's The Present

Paul Graham is a humanist social critic, finally and fundamentally interested in describing how the forces that society exerts on people are expressed. His American Trilogy is a critical exploration of life in the United States, a photographic study of the mundane details of daily life and of the ways in which social andS economic structure, realized as infrastructure, conspire to position individuals within the social and physical landscape. Graham, in the organization and layout of his books, carefully constructs the platforms for his arguments. Having inscribed the ways in which his photographs are to be read, he then, in the tradition of straight photography, asks the visible to do its own work.

The Present
, published in May of this year by Mack, is the third book in the trilogy, which began with American Night and a shimmer of possibility. While The Present can be read independently of the other two books, the strengths of the new book are magnified in the context of the larger body of work. American Night was relentless in its airless runs of overexposed images, describing the places between places; the book presents a homogenous yet instantly recognizable commercial suburban American landscape of gas stations, discount stores, and people coming and going along roads made for cars, walking without choice or joy. This difficult landscape is contrasted with clear, well-exposed pictures of (similarly homogenous and recognizable) suburban houses.  a shimmer of possibility offers an extended look at the day to day, moment to moment gestures in both of these kinds of spaces: how time is spent and killed, and how anonymous built spaces, many succumbing to entropy, form the backdrops for small human moments that provoke recognition and connection on the part of the audience.

The Present brings the reader to New York — the American City — a place, and not a space between, only to reveal that here, like everywhere else in America, people are engulfed by an unsympathetic environment in which they come and go, making little contact with one another. The idea of the city as a place where rich and poor and every walk of life share the same spaces has been essential to urban street photography from its beginnings, and Graham, in The Present, deploys the trope of the leveling power of the city, suggesting that regardless of our individual station, we have more in common with one another than we do with the stone and steel that has been built around us. And yet connections are rare and unlikely.

The Present is comprised of series of two and three image sequences, mostly made within moments of one another, showing people walking down sidewalks and crossing intersections in New York. The photographs are all made under bright and direct daylight. They are exposed for the highlights, causing some of the backgrounds to fade into a barely legible shadow, and the color is rich, bright and saturated. The printing is nothing short of stunning. The pictures are made with an extremely shallow depth of field, sometimes causing the figures, sharply frozen in motion, to appear as toys or figurines.  A number of gatefolds punctuate the rhythm of the book and create reveals.

Some of the sequences are overt in their construction: a photograph of a man with an eyepatch is paired with a photograph of another man in the same location winking; in another sequence a woman stumbles and falls while walking down the street.  Graham delights in trajectories and in describing different people occupying the same space, moments apart. Sometimes the sequences simply show that a person’s movement through a space leaves no trace at all.

The clarity and richness of the photographs serve the notion that this book is as much about describing the here and now as it is about recognizing the presence of others, strangers, with whom we seldom intersect. The sequences — miniature picture stories — present something akin to musical phrasing: they hold our attention between the beginning and the end of the phrase. With this phrasing Graham produces effects that cannot be achieved by individual pictures.

With these sequential constructions, Graham’s methods appear to be a challenge to Henri Cartier-Bresson's notion of the decisive moment, which privileges not only the photographer's simultaneous act of perception and moment of recognition, but also the individual photograph as the essential meaningful unit of photography. Photographs adhering to the sense and logic of the decisive moment, their form densely packed with information, emotion, and geometry, can be so compact as to become self-contained; they are at risk of removing themselves from the world, untethered. Graham’s basic unit, the short sequence, while far from being arbitrary or indecisive, differs from “traditional” decisive moments in that individual photographs do not inscribe the terms by which the photograph can be read; these terms are instead implied by the structures of the sequences and across the book as a whole.

But there’s a sense in which Graham's use of extended moments and series of moments is not so much a denial of Cartier-Bresson’s idea of the decisive moment as an of expansion of it. Like Cartier-Bresson, Graham is interested in the observation and construction of revelatory moments, which may be spectacular or subdued. Graham refuses to allow a single moment to tell the entire story; the sequences acknowledge our movement through time as well as our movement through space. As the indecisive moments on a contact sheet are edited away, the authority of the instantaneous decision is revealed as a moment that is neither isolated nor necessary, but rather, the product of decisions that may take place long before and long after the shutter is opened. Photographers know that if you are making pictures in the world, much of your work is making your luck, and Graham is still very much making pictures in the world.

What is really successful about The Present, and the entire American Trilogy, is that Graham's photographic invention is placed in the service of a coherent critical imagination.  He is interested not only in the historical present and the photographic present, but in the presence — and sometimes the lack of presence — of the people who he photographs. The sequences are seamed not only in the interest of photographic innovation, but because Graham wants to draw attention to the fractured, disassociated character of contemporary American life and the way in which people cannot keep up with their environments, even as built environments cannot keep up with shifts in power and their own inevitable material disintegration. Graham manages to show us how dated the present looks, and how broken it might be: this is not a photography for posterity, this is a photography for an audience in the present.

Leo Hsu