Tuesday, January 29, 2008
A Shimmer of Possibility
The 12 volumes of Paul Graham: A Shimmer of Possibility (12 Books Set) are ostensibly based on the short stories of Anton Chekhov. "Based on" meaning that each volume functions as a short story, not a specific Chekhov story, but focusing on the specifics of daily life, as one would find in Chekhov.
Such a literary allusion may be misleading, in that looking through the books, I don't quite see a correlation to Chekhov, although the sequencing of images in the contained space of a book does generate a narrative, and with a limited number of images, an intimate narrative is created, although loosely, without dramatic catharsis, or denoument. Graham also plays with this in that some of the sequences conjoin images (all identified only by locale and year) which bear no direct correspondence, such as "New York and North Dakota, 2005" or "Chicago, San Francisco, Minneapolis, New Orleans, 2005-2006." The entire book is a set of untitled books, distinguished from one another by the colors of the bindings, and the discreet notations at the end, indicating place & time. Each volume does place in seeing a sequence of an action, such as a walk, or, by editing disparate sequences together, a cinematic situation is engendered.
The publisher's allusion to Chekhov still bothers me, even when I can separate it from the individual volumes of A Shimmer of Possibility, when I can forget it. I am assuming this was an editorial consideration in making accessible what could be otherwise rather hermetic although very moving photo sequences. Not to diminish Chekhov, but his stories are almost entirely about the bourgeoisie, a haut-bourgeoisie, who in their daily lives face boredom, loss, destabilization - a kind of Biedermeier suffering. Written before the Russian revolution, the stories have been interpreted often as a symptom of the decadence of the ruling classes - not all that dissimilar from the stories and plays of Arthur Schnitzler, which offer more of a psychological analysis and also a sharper, more cynical assessment of human foibles. Curiously, both were doctors, which structurally reinforces a narrative template of symptom/diagnosis to their creative endeavors (not necessarily by them, but by those interpreting the work). & photography, in general, has had a similar use as evidence for diagnosis, from its beginnings in the 19th century, through its uses by the medical establishment, the police, and (as widely as one may interpret this) the state, among others. The photograph used as evidence by journalists, sociologists & documentarians has been the basis for documentary work - the image as cold hard fact, a brutish bit of reality. Used to make a point.
Paul Graham's work comes out of what is now a century-old tradition of documentary work, which in Europe has had stronger political affiliations than in the US (at least since the Cold War & post-WWII "red-baiting"). "Things as they are." Graham's early work such as A1 - The Great North Road, and Beyond Caring were recognizable within existing traditions of photojournalism, as "concerned" photography, although in such work there is a consciousness of the semiology of the down-&-out, & of cultural detritus, a kind of arty sophistication which is usually absent in most documentary work. Graham is aware of the conventions & cliches which can guide documentary projects in articulating preconceived ideas of a subject into an image. There is also a strong sense of the tedium of the everyday, which is almost never presented in classic photojournalism, which exists in perpetual crisis & catharsis, theatrical & dramatic. If anything Graham's photographs emphasize the overlooked, the ignored, the abject, & it's mostly outdoors, or not at "home" - a great invisible outside, the no longer existent public sphere. These are images of the lives lived in the junkspace of our world. Most of the images in A Shimmer of Possibility are of economic poverty, but even those that aren't ("California 2005-2006") have a similar alienation - the McMansions are no less horrible or tedious. To get back to my pedantic points about Chekhov, Chekhov's stories are all about lives in the Tsarist McMansions of their time; Paul Graham's "stories" exist on the peripheries of any enclosed domesticity.
The set of books which make up A Shimmer of Possibility are scenarios of anonymity - the lack of dramatic intrigue, the attention to detail, & the ability to withhold information & image (one of the books consists of 1 image) make the entire "book" an extremely rich (excuse the pun) experience. It is extremely sensitive.
& it also makes one question the efficacy of many documentary images - how quickly are they meant to be seen? Are they just one more consumable aspect to our daily world? A kind of virtual junk parallel world of the suffering of others? Paul Graham's book(s) slow us down & make us look at what is at our feet.