The visual links are easy to make – it is possible to identify the same figures in both pictures, the same buildings and signs, the same children playing and buggies rolling by – but each time the viewpoint has subtly shifted. Figures come into focus that were blurred outlines a second before, and trucks disappear to reveal entire streets that were blocked from view. What may at first seem an insignificant pairing of pictures, upon closer study brings about a greater consciousness of everything that makes up the scene – every person, every gesture, every tiny human drama – that comes together to suggest the flux of daily life.
Using the physical structure of a book and its layout to reinforce its content is characteristic of all Graham’s publications. To some degree the new book – entitled The Present – advances the approach that began in his second book about America, The Shimmer of Possibility, published in 2007, which came out in a first edition of 12 discrete volumes (later as a combined paperback). Each volume contained sequences of photographs taken during a two-year trip across the country, many of them in the marginal landscape of American suburbia, a no-mans land of mini-malls and parking lots, where the poor and the unemployed hang about killing time.
The sequences, some of which follow individuals – a man mowing a grass verge; a couple wandering back from the liquor store, the man balancing a 12-pack of Pepsi on his shoulder; a cat in the grass, stalking its prey – are presented as a series of stuttering visual narratives across a number of pages, suggesting how ordinary lives and events occur in parallel, or briefly intersect, within a limited period of time and place. The effect is to slow the viewer down, to stop the search for the Eureka moment and instead to contemplate these microcosms of society, to recognise poverty and racial division and to empathise rather than judge.
Photography, at its simplest, is a moment sliced out of the continuum of life. What Graham is after is “the breaking down of the decisive moment, not allowing life to become this single frozen shard, trying to reflect something of the flow of time in the work”. In his New York pictures, this is carried out with even greater economy. “You don’t need a multiplicity of images. You show what happens, then what happens next. And so you shift your focus. You don’t need to show 10 other moments, you’ve implied that it’s a continuum and what you thought mattered shifts quickly and transforms itself into another thing that matters for that instant.”
So why not use film? “Obviously it’s a question I’ve asked myself. But a lot of film, I find, is neutered by the tyranny of narrative, by having to have a storyline. And this way of working allows you to escape that. To me this is much more an accurate reflection of the way life comes at us, unbidden, and without perfect little narratives.”
Credits: copyright Paul Graham, courtesy of Mack