A masterly anti-hero
Recently, courtesy of an unexpected win of a large number of book tokens, I’ve bought a cornucopia of photography books. Of all of them, the one that’s most impressed so far is Paul Graham’s The Present (Pub Mack).
It’s not just the bronze silk cover with its minimal pink embossed title, or the numerous elaborate gatefolds inside that act like waving pieces of origami, that make the book impressive. In spite of the fact I’m not a street photographer, and usually have little interest in the genre, I can’t help but be wowed by by the way Graham has shoved photography towards film and made another ambitious step towards making banality a hero – or should that be anti-hero?
The photographs taken in New York are of streetfuls of ordinary people – the suited, t-shirt wearing, colourful, the normal, normal. The premise is that each picture is taken a few seconds after the first so one gets a slightly different array of figures in the same territory. The comment on time, which might founder in lesser hands, is made extraordinary by a masterly use of shifting focus and cinematic exposures.
Graham, with what looks like an extremely sharp lens, picks out one person in the mid distance. As in many a movie, the rest of the street and its inhabitants are out of focus, directing our attention to the figure of interest. In the next picture the focus has usually shifted to another figure who was just coming into view in the first photograph. This is continued in sequences of photographs of the same spot in the New York streets. This is where the gatefolds and Graham’s cryptic placement of images come into play, making us react to the sequences in an almost physical way.
Add to this dramatic shadows from tall buildings, the city light ranging from harsh to gilded, and the effect is uncanny like being immersed in the streets. (Of course, looking closer at the pictures one can see the photographer playing games with colour, and an indecisive man who seems not to know which direction to walk in).
And why should this be so exciting? Because it’s challenge to the long tradition of the heroic, the pleasing, the exciting and the coherent, in photography. It reminds us that we need to be closer to the language of film, the camera phone, the huge democracy of images all over the internet. Only a master could raise the seemingly mudane to this level.