The Present by Paul Graham

Paul Graham, 23rd Street, 2nd June 2011, 4.25.14 pm, Diptych from The Present

The Present is the third in Paul Graham’s trilogy of projects on America beginning with American Night in 2003 and followed by A Shimmer of Possibility in 2007. While the previous projects focused on people who are socially and economically on the margins of American society, in The Present Graham moves closer to a geographic centre, focusing on pedestrians on the streets of New York. Graham’s shift from impoverished urban dystopias to the very centre of finance functions as an uncanny reference to the global economic downturn and a crisis in Capitalism. The architecture of the city (much of it either built by or for the banking industry) functions as the ideal backdrop for Graham’s long-term project on representing social asymmetry and injustice.

Paul Graham, 34th Street, 4th June 2010, 3.12.58 pm, Diptych from The Present

Crucially, the photographs presented in the book are diptychs. Graham photographs the same scene twice, often from exactly the same angle, and only seconds apart, to create two images that are essentially in conversation with each other. While the city as backdrop remains the same, the flow of pedestrians and traffic subtly changes from image to image. In some cases the difference is emphasized by a new subject entering the image, while in others Graham simply shifts the focus of his camera to draw the viewer’s attention to another detail in the image. Here, Graham essentially creates a visual game as the viewer is invited to figure out how the images relate to each other. It is a very subtle, sometimes funny, sometimes disturbing, but always a surprising connection that Graham presents the viewer with.

Paul Graham, Penn Station, 4th April 2010, 2.30.31 pm, Diptych from The Present

The amount of work involved producing these diptychs must not be underestimated. Working in the tradition of ‘street photography’, Graham does not come across unusual patterns of behaviour because of luck or by accident, but because he must have spent hours and hours searching for these patterns to emerge in the first place. Graham’s amazing feat is that he does not produce one visually compelling image, but, in fact, he produces two images that aren’t as much compelling as they are visually complex in relation to each other. A man blind in one eye juxtaposed with a man squinting against the bright sunshine. A businessman seemingly unmoved by his surroundings soaks up the sun while the world passes around him. Two cops apparently wish to check on a suspect backpack on the ground, while they actually seem more concerned with a tourist taking pictures (a reference to Graham’s very own position as photographer).

Paul Graham, Fulton Street, 11th November 2009, 11.29.10 am, Diptych from The Present

One of the most surprising diptychs presents a smart business woman and a number of men, all seemingly strangers, walking on the sidewalk. In the next image, the woman lies on the ground and the strangers have gathered around her to help her up. A man’s open-palmed hand (a universal signifier for help) is dramatically lit by a ray of sunshine as the woman contemplates accepting the man’s help. The sheer beauty, the dramatic lighting and clarity of gestures adds a cinematic quality to this and many other photographs in the book. The clearly defined focus too, has helped to produce images that appear as if they were photographed on a movie set. As the final project in Graham’s trilogy on America, The Present concludes a totally new way of photographing, perceiving and understanding the urban environment as an ever-changing matrix of social interactions.

The Present is available as a book.

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