Paul Graham and the Whales

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In 2010, an essay by Paul Graham entitled The Unreasonable Apple made the rounds. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was applauded and endorsed, given it appeared to express a widely felt sentiment: “there remains a sizeable part of the art world that simply does not get photography.” The art world — that strange conglomerate of mostly poor or middle-class artists and insanely rich people — doesn’t get a lot of things, so if photography is one of them who cares? But let’s ignore the question as it is posed, given that it does indeed point at a larger problem with photography: a lot of people don’t get photography. For example, a sizeable part of the world of photography doesn’t get selfies (to wit).

When I grew up, doing something that a lot of people — especially older ones — wouldn’t get was seen as one of the ultimate goals: could it get any cooler than being at the forefront of some activity, doing something that was so, let’s say, avant-garde that people just won’t get it? As you grow older, you realize that such an attitude is, well, mostly just that, an attitude and less of a sign that something actually has merit (instead of being just ungettable). But I still want to think that doing something that requires a combination of skill, determination, and some form of inspiration, something that by extension requires effort to get, is actually a lot more worthwhile than, well, everything else. So people don’t get photography? How wonderful! What a magnificent medium we got!

The irony here is that large parts of Graham’s recent work have a lot more in common with what Jeff Wall, or Cindy Sherman or Thomas Demand have produced (artists mentioned by Graham as examples the art world can understand) than Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, or any other of the usual “straight photography” suspects. This point is driven home by The Whiteness of the Whale, the book published on the occasion of an exhibition at San Francisco’s Pier 24. Billed as “three bodies of American photographs,” the exhibition/book contains American Night, a shimmer of possibility, and The Present. I’m going to go on that limb that writers can go on and state that the America aspect is if not a red herring, then at least secondary to what this particular artist is doing here.

Before ditching the aforementioned idea of the art world not getting straight photography, none of the three projects truly falls under that category. Bleached out/overexposed photographs are hardly going to be someone’s idea of a straight photography, and neither are carefully controlled photography sequences or pairings. No, seriously, we’re in Wall/Sherman/Demand territory here, where the medium becomes concerned with itself, with its own artificiality, the same artificiality that straight photography asks us to ignore or overlook.

And I don’t mean this as any kind of negative criticism at all, quite on the contrary. Paul Graham has to be looked at as one of the artists exploring how photographs do what they can do. I find that aspect of his work a lot more interesting and deserving of attention than the talk of America and its somewhat dubious record dealing with poor or non-white people, say. This is not to say that I’m not concerned about that. I do care about this quite a bit. But I will admit that it leaves a bit of a funny taste in my mouth to see a body of work centering on the invisibility of poor or non-white people in a space where, well, the same applies.

It’s not very hard to argue at all that the art world, to bring back that lovely piñata, is the embodiment of the very problem this kind of photography intends to shed a light on. Which doesn’t mean that rich people can’t look at photographs of poor people. But if that looking at doesn’t go beyond the process of buying prints or expensive books, if it doesn’t translate into something else that might help those very poor people, then a lot of people might find that problematic. So there’s that whale, one that the world of photography as a whole, or at least the parts that want to focus their attention on social problems and be part of the larger art world, need to deal with.

And there’s the other whale, the big problem of a medium that is just too easy and simple and deceptive. I’m tempted to think that Paul Graham is much closer in spirit to Thomas Ruff than to Jeff Wall, or Cindy Sherman or Thomas Demand. Much like his German contemporary, Graham relentlessly pushes the boundaries of photography, seeing what (or maybe where) he can get with it. Where Ruff seems intent on really just doing whatever tickles his fancy, whether it involves computers or real or imaginary cameras, Graham remains a lot closer to straight photography, focusing less on the making of images than on how meaning can arise from their use. The combination of these two artists makes for an incredibly interesting investigation into their chosen medium.

If anything, The Whiteness of the Whale makes this very clear. If you wanted to see how far photography can be pushed, what you can do with photographs at this point in time, you’d be well advised to get a copy of this book (along with, say, Thomas Ruff’s Lichten or Surfaces, Depths; and while you’re at it, you might as well also get Sally Mann’s The Flesh and the Spirit). This is the forefront of contemporary photography.

In each of the three series, here beautifully assembled, Graham rides that line of seeing how far photographs can be stretched in terms of their process, while still keeping at least one foot in straight photography. Ruff, in contrast, really doesn’t care about straight photography, and there is a lot to be said for that approach as well. But in their own ways, both Ruff’s and Graham’s approaches suffer from minor shortcomings. Where Ruff’s approach is maybe too playfully reckless, Graham’s is too cerebrally careful.

Both artists’ eyes are on their respective balls, but they each might gain a little from focusing less on the ball and more on the play. As a viewer, as much as I enjoy their work, I feel too much thinking in both. Where are the errors? Where are the fuck ups? Where do we get to see that something didn’t quite work out? Not that I want to easily and possibly superficially invoke ideas from a culture that is not my own, but couldn’t there be a bit wabi-sabi?

It’s obvious that everybody reacts to art from their own points of view, their own preferences, this writer included. Still, I just wish Paul Graham’s work were just a little bit flawed, a little bit less careful, less cerebral. That said, unlike, say, Thomas Demand’s work Graham’s never drowns in its own artifice, leaving behind the feeling that what we’re really supposed to admire is the maker’s skills, not the work.

Of course, that’s what you get when you’re an artist like Graham, having pushed your artistry to such high levels. People are never satisfied. But then, neither is the artist himself. He could have just made variants of the early work he got well-known for, playing it safe. But he never did. There is a hunger for something more that, let’s face it, is not that common in the world of photography. That hunger has given us the work in The Whiteness of the Whale, and I’m sure it will bring us a lot more.