In the mid-20th century, photographers such as Garry Winogrand, Harry Callahan, Lee Friedlander, and Helen Levitt captured the vitality of the modern city and helped define the genre of “street photography.” Until this day, one of the guiding tenets of the genre was the “decisive moment.” Coined by the famous French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, the decisive moment was the rare, but fortuitous, convergence of human drama and compositional elegance that could occur within a photograph in the hands of a skilled and tenacious photographer. Contemporary photographers working in the genre face the difficult challenge of working in a tradition shadowed by so many masters and must seek to find new ways to push the possibilities of the genre. A restless and protean photographer, Paul Graham has continually sought to challenge himself, the medium, and his audience with new ways of thinking about photography and photographic genres. In his new book, The Present, Graham assumes this heavy mantle and offers a new body of work that respects this rich legacy but seeks to push the genre in new directions to expand and redefine the “decisive moment.”
Rather than a singular moment, Graham’s color photographs present us with frustrating non-moments—defying our expectations for drama or narrative. Arranged as diptychs and triptychs, each seemingly distinct moment is paired with the events before or after. In the blink of the eye, figures in one frame shift in the next or are replaced by mirror figures. Gestures are transposed or replicated from one image to the next, creating fractured tableaus of coincidence and human drama. A woman with orange hair passes by only to be followed by a woman drinking orange soda; a man with an eye patch walks by and is replaced with a man squinting in the sun. In one triptych, a young man coolly smokes a cigarette outside Rockefeller Center as taxis, tourists, and fellow New Yorkers swirl around him. While we do witness more traditionally dramatic scenes, such as a woman tripping, the pairings reveal everything that surrounds the “perfect” moment. People familiar with Graham’s critically acclaimed series, a shimmer of possibility, will recognize his continued and creative use of photographic pairing and sequences—a technique he described in that work as “filmic haikus.” Ranging in tone from humorous to melancholic, the best pairings and sequences highlight the fleeting dramas, surprising juxtapositions, and subtle repetitions that make the city streets such endlessly engaging places.
All the images are shot in New York City and display genuine affection for the chaotic heterogeneity of the city. Class, race, and religion collide in empathetic but often pointed ways in the images. In one image, an African-American businessman is paired with his homeless counterpart—captured moments apart on the same intersection. While such pairings feel a little too easy, Graham has never hesitated to show the inequities of the world—be it racial and social inequality in American society in his series American Night, or the plight of the unemployed in Thatcher-era England in his series Beyond Caring. The Present does not shy away from showing the politely ignored social inequities of the urban landscape, but, at its heart, highlights photography’s ability to capture moments of quiet, unexpected beauty.
Graham makes excellent use of light and focus in these images. Dramatic canyons of light and shadow isolate and spotlight his subjects. Narrow focus, both captured in camera and at times enhanced in post-production, directs our attention to the drama of each image. Figures emerge from and sink into the velvety dark shadows and delicate blur of the camera. This technical sleight of hand dramatizes the different moments and people, but also replicates the way our attention subtly shifts, latching onto and freezing particular moments as the world and time unfurls around us. Presented either as single or double gatefolds, the placement of the images also shifts throughout the book, forcing the viewer to slowly move through the book, uncover, and contemplate each image and its pair.
A companion volume to his last two books, American Night (Steidl/MACK, 2003) and a shimmer of possibility (Steidl/MACK, 2007), The Present is beautifully designed and laid out with a handsome bronze-gold cloth cover and fuchsia text. Like the other books in this unofficial trilogy, the book addresses aspects of contemporary American society, while, at the same time questioning photography as a medium and visual language. Although not as revelatory as his award-winning series and book, a shimmer of possibility, Graham pushes the techniques and ideas of that work and tackles the storied tradition of street photography. As the book’s title suggests, Graham confronts and fractures “the present” moment to reveal the strange surprises that the world and city street have to offer.
ADAM BELL is a photographer and writer based in Brooklyn, New York. He is the co-editor and co-author of The Education of a Photographer (Allworth Press, 2006). His writing and reviews have appeared in Foam Magazine, Lay Flat, photo-eye, and Ahorn Magazine.