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Photography and the New Pictorial Mark Durden, May 2008


Art photography today is best seen to be characterised by its openness. The strictures and prohibitions of theory-driven practices in the 1980s, the anxieties over what one could and could not do with a camera, are long past, and so are the anxieties over technology. The digital age has not meant the death of photography, far from it. The digital has led to a greater circulation and immediacy of image capture and distribution. And at the same time it has ushered in a revival of older forms of photographic production, display and distribution— slower, more archaic and traditional practices and forms persist. The screen has yet to replace the book as a central form through which to situate and view art photography today.


It is very much a new vitality, energy— and, to a certain extent, innocence— that has come to characterise photography now: one very open to the pictorial and affective capacities of the medium, a photography tied to the lifeworld, the pulse and animation of being in the world. Take Paul Graham’s extraordinary A Shimmer of Possibility— a boxed collection of books, 167 colour photographs sequenced and organised within twelve individual volumes. The pictures are caught up with the naïve thrill at the pictorial possibilities of things in the world. Graham gives us little observed epiphanies from American life, like the rich floral patterning of a tattooed arm as it reaches out from a car to collect fast food at a drive-in, the textured surface of the bonnet of a battered car— the image of which is seen to be enough to warrant a volume in itself— a sequence showing a black male figure mowing grass and the transformation of the scene by the sudden downpour of a shower of rain, sunsets, animal hairs on a sweatshirt, grubby jackets, the unappetising display of food and commodities in small dime stores. All loosen and pull against the overriding documentary impulse and legibility


of the volumes— collectively his latest pictures mark out the social and racial divisions of our contemporary Apartheid America. This was the more explicit theme of his previous publication, American Night, a book that used the very light and dark binary of the photographic process as an allegory of the contemporary social divide. The recent photography owes to literature, according to Graham, taking its inspiration and point of reference from Anton Chekhov’s short stories, where certain events and things were simply described in detail, descriptions that elevated and enriched what was (for Chekhov) the familiar and everyday.


Alec Soth’s metaphorical photography echoes the lyricism that marks Graham’s recent multi- volumed publication. The large format pictures that make up Soth’s book Niagara, 2006, have as their subject love, passionate and romantic love. The sublime landscape setting of the Falls serves as an exposure of the tawdriness of the human affairs of the heart. The tacky love motels with their heart-shaped red baths and towels folded into kissing swans, the bitterness and sadness symbolised by the single whisky glass, the pawned rings, all establish an iconography of love that is then played out against the mesmerising void and beauty of the Falls, and also played out against the physical display of couples’ naked bodies. This is very much a project about limitation and the incommensurable— the gulf between these physical bodies, their naked and fleshy presence rawly detailed by the camera lens, and the terror, splendour and magnificence of Niagara Falls. Soth also introduces us to the excessive language of lovers, photographing pages of their intimate letters and giving them the same visual weight and import (in the book) as his views of the Falls. The love letters’ language— florid, over the top, romantic— might be seen to begin to approach the sublimity of the Falls. Yet the handwriting, the


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crossings out, the spelling, the grammar, brings us up against less idealised, more human and limiting realities.


Soth’s pictures are marked by an enchantment and hypersensitivity to things in the world, a mirror of the condition of the lover perhaps. But at the same time this state of awe and enrapture before things is undercut by the cruelty of irony and the sharpness of the lens, particularly in its rendition of flesh. Graham very often sequences his pictures, clusters of images track small events and fleeting encounters, but also set up divisions. While we become conscious of the different economies and social relations in our viewing of the volumes that makes up this work, what is different is that Graham makes palpable and sensuous the more familiar documentary subject matter. The detail of hands holding a large white Styrofoam cup that opens and closes one volume, for example, alludes to begging, but avoids the emotional pleading of the humanist documentary tradition. One begins to sense Graham’s viewpoint in the portrait of a woman at her mail box, from a series showing the big houses of a tree-lined estate— eyes closed she is caught at a point of haughty indifference to us and the world Graham makes present. Class-marked judgements of taste are also part of our relation to Soth’s book, for all the abstraction and universality of love, signs here betray and mark out a certain economic group. But such documentary legibility is not central. This is the important difference with this new work and the exciting shift it signals, with photography now much more open to the medium’s lyrical, pictorial and emotive potentialities— despite its propensity to the cool, detached and deadpan— and a sense of the importance of the elliptical and open against the fixity of the illustrational and polemical.


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