Monday, October 4, 2010

Paul Graham: Empty Heaven

"Paul Graham: Empty Heaven - Photographs from Japan 1989-1995"
by Paul Graham
Scalo Books, New York
96 pp., 54 full-page color illustrations, 9x12"

Printed pink graces the cover and dust jacket interiors to Paul Graham's "Empty Heaven." It's pink like half-tone dots spreading and assembling into the color to represent Hello Kitty, princesses everywhere, and the antithesis of the horrors of life. Pink like perfect sunsets and the lips of the young Japanese woman on the cover, a woman who appears transfixed yet vacuous in her off-camera gaze.

When I first heard of Paul Graham it was about ten years ago when my friend Christian Widmer left a message on my answering machine saying something to the affect of, "I have found God. I have found God. Call me." At the time it was a typically strange message from Christian, who at the time was completing his MFA thesis work at Arizona State University and would persistently call me Wlliam T. Shaffner after the great Star Trek, William Shatner. Schaffnerd was also a common moniker. "God" in this case happened to be Paul Graham, a British photographer essentially unknown in the United States despite a substantial body of acclaimed work known in Europe. Christian had procured the books "Empty Heaven" and "Paul Graham," a Phaidon contemporary artists monograph, from the ASU library system. How he heard of Paul Graham, I don't know, but he, another friend Mike Williams, and I gathered in the print-washing area of the photo program to examine this new artist.

Until that time, I was still looking for my photographic "voice." I had come a long way since my beginnings as a street photographer shooting black-and-white at the Phoenix flea market known as "Park and Swap" but still had yet to find a present day image-maker to be wowed by. Thus, beyond emulating the past heroics of Winogrand, Frank, and Friedlander, or otherwise making adolescent collages or playful staged imagery, my inspiration was still wanting. Utilizing the color darkroom proved to be a big step forward for me, mainly because I was longer confined by the slow production of fiber prints and the attendant high cost of silver. Make twenty prints in a session? No problem. Make a 20x24 print? Easy as pie. With the color darkroom it was miraculous to slide a freshly exposed sheet of photo paper into the Kreonite brand processor (made in Wichita no less) and gaze upon a lush, color image a mere five minutes later. Still, there was still a long way to go before I could produce something with a sustained grasp of composition and content.

Maybe previously I had drawn inspiration from Christian and Mike's work, sort of baffled by how easy they made it look, yet realizing how hard it was to actually execute a picture of daily life without it looking quotidian, snapshot-like, or just plain masturbatory. Graham changed my vision of everyday life photography by providing a new method of working that drew inspiration from the cold irony of Robert Frank's "The Americans" and Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel's "Evidence." In "Empty Heaven" Graham took the alienated, social observation of Robert Frank and combined it with the calculated, scientific nature of "Evidence" to come up with something completely new. In doing so he formulated a vision of Japan unique to the properties that only photography could convey.

Honestly, when I looked at the pictures, I didn't get it. The pictures seemed...repulsive. Women in darkened clubs with their hands awkwardly gesturing, close-up profiles of men with glasses, and new automobile engines looking like objects of worship. Audaciously every photograph was shot with on-camera flash and yet said technique did not override any other content or resemble photojournalism. The book itself was printed full bleed vertical, devoid of any captions, text, or other context to give the viewer a quick explanation. While repulsive it was also terrifyingly engrossing, as if coming to this book was like entering the eyes of a great intelligence capable of deploying photography in hitherto unknown, amazing ways. Personally I consider it a great compliment to any artist who makes me wonder the meaning of a thing created, how that art came into existence, or even cause a pang of jealousy at not having thought about the world in that particular way previously. Paul Graham did that for my friends and me.

Graham employs several tactics in "Empty Heaven" to create some thematic groundwork with which for viewers to engage. As this work was created over six years, it would be interesting to know how long it took to arrive at his subject matter and the technique to photograph those "things" as they became ideas. The majority of images are of women in unglamorous poses, car engines illuminated like reliquaries, pre-made imagery like printed matter or other photographs, and plant life in constraints. Those subjects are accented by pictures less constrained by particular subject, but still open to Graham's critical view of Japan as a place distantly removed from atomic destruction yet still so affected by it that in most surfaces lay reference to the conflict between technology and nature, men and women, or even fantasy and reality. Based upon the sequence of images, the men with glasses seem to view car engines and women with worship, yet distortion, unaware somehow of the potency of themselves or that which they admire, objectify.

Several weeks before writing this essay, I spoke to Mike Williams about our fateful uncovering of Paul Graham's oeuvre. We both gravitated towards "Empty Heaven" from the standpoint of viewing it as a great mystery and yet an answer to how photography could be used to address contemporary issues, history, and do so within the context of street photography. My friends and I were definitely (and continue to be) street photographers. How fresh it seemed that someone like Graham could take the quick, spontaneous nature of street photography and apply it in a highly tactical way to fulfill a vision of Japanese culture. Here Graham made something remarkably tight, yet with open room for interpretation. He didn't hesitate to go all the way with an idea and then disarticulate for fear of drawing in too many lines for the viewer. It is a gentle balance for an artist to create something that means something, is accessible to audiences, and yet doesn't paint in so many details as to become didactic. For those reasons "Empty Heaven" is my favorite work by Graham.

It would be a disservice to delve deeper into this body of work without compromising it, or as Graham might say, "pin the butterfly down." Should further explication be needed, "Empty Heaven" does include an amazing interview with Graham that nicely lays out his interests. The interview is included as a pamphlet contained loosely within the book, printed on pink paper.

In the past several years Graham has gained increased traction in the United States, mainly I think as a result of spending greater time here teaching and working to critique American culture through photography much as he has done in Ireland, Great Britain, Europe, and Japan. His critical reception culminated with the publication of the multi-book set of American work "Shimmer of Possibility" and its attendant exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 2009.

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