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The names Lewis Hine, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks and Walker Evans conjure immediate and iconic images of social issues in America — child labor, Dust Bowl privation, racial inequality in the doleful expression of a woman standing before the American flag with broom and mop, or poverty in the beatific gaze of an Alabama tenant farmer’s daughter in a straw hat halo. Photography has a long history of vivifying social issues. Paul Graham: The Whiteness of the Whale, an exhibition of photographs by the New York-based, British-born (1956) photographer on view in the High Museum’s photography galleries through October 22, continues in that tradition by interrogating “the process and politics of looking while challenging photography’s conventional role in addressing social issues.”  

Photography while road-tripping is also nothing new. When Robert Frank crisscrossed the country in the mid-1950s, he rode on the shoulders of others who had come before: Evans and his experience of 1930s America, and French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose 1947 images of the American South and West pre-figured Frank’s own. The lyrical images in Frank’s book, culled from his Guggenheim Fellowship-funded ramblings to 48 of America’s states and collected in The Americans (1958), are indelible now 60 years later. (Think Trolley – New Orleans with its hierarchy of faces, reading left to right, gazing out from trolley windows, or Fourth of July – Jay, New York, with its scrim of an American flag presiding over an eponymous American celebration.) After Frank came others. Danny Lyon photographed the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Stephen Shore, whose 1970s snapshot-sized photographs of the mundanities of the road trip – diner receipts, motel televisions, parking lots – banal at the time they were made, glow now with the yellow haze of nostalgia. Garry Winogrand’s street photography preserved time, and William Eggleston’s saturated color photographs gave presence to place.

Jack Kerouac, one of American literature’s most famous road-trippers, posed the question to readers of his laudatory introduction to the first American edition (1959) of Frank’s book, “Is a jukebox sadder than a coffin?” Kerouac noted that after seeing Frank’s pictures “you end up finally not knowing [the answer to that question] anymore.” He meant it as a compliment.

Like Frank, Graham made his pictures while traveling across the United States – from 1998 through 2011 — and like Frank, a Swiss expatriate, he made them as an outsider. How are we to read Graham’s images in light of his predecessors? Are we even to try? Is that even relevant? Wall text would suggest so if, as mentioned earlier, Graham is “challenging photography’s conventional role in addressing social issues,” the same as his predecessors, but Graham furthers his goal by using “photography as metaphors for inequality, invisibility, and the power of photographic images to shape our perceptions of the world.”

That’s a tall order that manifests in varying degrees of satisfaction as it unfolds in the three bodies of work within the exhibition. American Night, a shimmer of possibility, and The Present are best viewed chronologically in that order. American Night (1998–2002), a show of 13 large-scale digital chromogenic prints, the first body of work Graham produced in the United States, pushes the idea of invisibility. Images of suburban houses in lush, vibrant colors, most notably the jolting red, shiny new cars parked outside on immaculate driveways in two of them, are juxtaposed with over-exposed and all-but-invisible images of solitary figures in urban settings. In one such pairing, Large house with Dodge, Los Angeles, 2002, hanging beside Man under trees looking back, Atlanta, 2002, a man walks alone beside a six-lane road while cars blow past. The work, made in Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, Richmond, Memphis and Atlanta, was conceived by Graham as a meditation on “society’s willful blindness to socioeconomic disparities.”  Graham traveled to “the nation’s four compass points” in order to “demonstrate the pervasiveness of inequality.” The pictures are compelling, and almost beautiful, as if to seduce a viewer to really look. And yet, they are painful, desolate, and their subjects, oh so lonely. The suburban houses are empty, all artifice, void of presence beyond that implied by the flashy, well-cared-for cars. Is their juxtaposition against urban scenes of solitary figures on the streets – all of whom are Black – an exploration of Graham’s stated “pervasiveness of inequality”? And, if so, because of that, are we to assume that the faces inside those sealed houses are white? I am not convinced. While the anomie of asphalt might not necessarily spell “inequality,” it does spell Atlanta, though hopefully we are working our way from the car-centric Atlanta of 15 years ago.

There is a hypnotizing, snow-blinding quality to these glaring over-exposed images the size of bay windows, a quality that perhaps finds allusion in the show’s title, which (wall text again) is referred to as “a phrase taken from Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick (1851) [and which] speaks to the fallibility of vision brought on by single-minded perspectives.”

Any allusion to Melville’s masterpiece automatically sets up a pretty high standard that implicates the shorthand of that statement. I’m not exactly sure what it means. “Whiteness of the Whale” is the philosophical heart of Melville’s book, and the title of its 42nd chapter. In it, Ishmael, Melville’s narrator, ponders the significance of the color white, as both a symbol of purity, innocence and peace, and of fear as well, at least to him – of blinding snow (as opposed to the gentle new-fallen snow), the transcendent horrors of “the white bear of the poles . . . the white shark of the tropics,” or the albino whale himself. Ishmael’s meditation is Melville’s map for his reader, a way of understanding the symbols of Nature as both beautiful and terrifying, the definitional sublime.

If the sense of sublimity introduced by the exhibition’s title was indeed Graham’s intent, there is more of the sublime in the next body of work, a shimmer of possibility (2005–2006), than in the other two. In two connected galleries, Graham offers viewers the apprehension of a moment by using sequences of linked images, one scene or related scenes, taken moments apart. These series evoke the mantra of French philosopher Simone Weil that attention is a form of prayer, and the idea that the mundane can be rendered remarkable through the act of paying attention. Though this is an act available to us all, admittedly, it is all too often underemployed. Photography can do the work for us by making visible the very fact of the wonder in the everyday, and Graham comes through. Pittsburgh, 2004, a series of nine mid-size pigment prints that capture a man in the Sisyphean act of pushing a lawnmower over green grass on a hazy day, is shot through with a moment of sublimity when the light from a worn spot in the sky turns raindrops over the laboring man into shards of gold.

Paul Graham, Blinded man, New York, American Night, 1998. (© Paul Graham; courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York.)

New York & North Dakota, 2005, is an array of 15 photographs that weaves images of a sublime sunset, luridly red over black, vacant mountains, against those of a despairing, solitary figure on a city street. The sunset has in it a bit of the sublime of the nineteenth-century Romantic landscapes, say, of Caspar David Friedrich, as if to point out that this is an emotional response unavailable to this beleaguered woman. Museum text describes Graham’s use of the array as a replication of the way the human eye takes in information: “not in single flashes but across space and time.” His series portrays such scenes of everyday life in America, mostly of the less fortunate among us, in Las Vegas, New England, New Orleans and Texas. In Texas, 2005, one of the best and one of the loneliest series, Graham gives us eight views of a late fall twilight, evocative in the way of Terrence Malick’s rendering of a summer evening in 1960s small-town Texas in his movie The Tree of Life (2011). Teenagers shoot hoops under a darkening sky; in the best of the lot, a preteen girl eyes the basket with a hopefulness that the tired surroundings of her street belie. This one – not as part of a series across space and time, but as the single one my eye lingered on — offered all the information I needed for the empathy required of truly seeing. Is my reaction an affirmation of a disputation of Graham’s assertion? I’m not sure.

The Present (2009–2011), the last in the exhibition’s chronology, offers six sets of large- to mid-scale related photos – four pairs and two trios of street scenes that purport to “challenge the conventions of street photography.” In Broadway, 3rd June 2010, 2.10.12 pm, 2010, two men wearing religious headwear, one a Jewish yarmulke, the other a Sikh dastar, or turban, are captured in a separate photograph of the same spot moments apart. In the first of this series, the man wearing the yarmulke is barely visible in approach; in the second, he has taken the place of the man in the dastar who has all but vanished from sight. A man in white with the bright red bag over his shoulder, present in both images, has moved farther down the street, connecting the two in time and in its passage. The photographs seem less a challenge to street photography and more a nod to the passing of time, and our perception of it, of what we can notice in the changes from moment to moment if we pay attention. Interesting . . . The conceit works. I must have paid attention because I can remember almost every detail. (Or can I . . . ?)

Though these photographs were taken on the streets of New York, rather than challenge the notion of street photography, they seem more important to raise questions around the puzzle of human perception – the incremental moments of time, what we notice, what we miss and what comes between. The art in The Present arrives in the act of perception, and in the fact that Graham elevates the observation of the changes that happen between moments to the level of the moments themselves.

Paul Graham, Man walking with blue Bags, Augusta, American Night, 2002. (© Paul Graham; courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York.)

On my last visit to the exhibition, I had an interesting conversation with an insightful guard, an artist himself, who has spent far more time with the work than I have even after three visits. To him, these images are less about the text’s lofty verbiage (my characterization, not his) on the provocations of street photography than about the visual puzzle of looking – in the way of those old children’s magazines in which you had to puzzle out the one tiny difference between two ostensibly similar pictures. He suggested this “gimmick” actually distracts from seeing. I can see his point, and I mostly agree with him, but the images remain with me exactly because I did look so intently.

In another large-scale trio of works, Port Authority, 17th August 2010, 11:01:33 am, 2010, we witness the same sequential process of passersby on a crowded street like actors on a stage. The image changes moment by moment, but ever so slightly, altered by the fractional passage of time as subjects step in and out of frame and foreground/background shifts as the camera changes its focus. Like the flow of time – or life itself – in succession, one moment subsumes the other.

And it is Time and our perception of it, rather than social inequality, that seems to be Graham’s true subject and where both he and his subject shine. Issues of racial inequality are the most important of our time and deserve our personal and our professional attention, but in Graham’s art, it is Time that is sublime – fragile, beautiful and terrifying – like the great albino whale itself.

Kerouac concluded his introductory to The Americans with the encomium: “To Robert Frank I now give this message: You got eyes.” Like Kerouac, who, after experiencing Robert Frank’s photographs, ended up not knowing anymore “if a jukebox is sadder than a coffin” and meaning it as a compliment, I don’t know if I am any clearer on the issues of social inequality Graham purposed to address; I don’t even know if he was. And I mean it as a compliment.

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