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Paul Graham - The Whiteness of the Whale

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Paul Graham - The Whiteness of the Whale

It may not be very appropriating to call myself a fan of Paul Graham’s work since every time I see it questions arise. What does it mean? Why is it represented this way? Graham’s works are not always love at first sight but are definitely thought provoking. They keep drawing me back again and again. Especially as a documentary photographer, I always try to break the mold of narrative cliché in my work; Graham’s work can provide some hints on how I should move forward. Sometimes we may try hard to construct eloquence in the arena of straight photography. But for me Graham deconstructs it and goes back to focus on how each photographs can do its own job.

This photobook consists of Graham’s three seminal works about contemporary America: American Night, A Shimmer of Possibility and The Present. Graham’s works are somewhat traditional as he targeted pretty much the same subject matter, like race or poverty, that Walker Evans and Lewis Hine did in the past. His working methodology is much like his predecessors Joel Sternfeld or Robert Frank. But what makes Graham special is his restraint in aesthetic or emotional elements in the images. Sometimes we may find Graham’s works distant, even detached, since he never invites emotional engagement from the audience. But this feeling of detachment or alienation may be a representation of the embodiment of America, also providing the audience a unique psychological space to read his photographs.

Graham shows his ambitious efforts in this trilogy but the approaches are not complicated, he simply carefully reconstructs the narratives after breaking them down. In American Night, he uses polarity. Overexposed, washed out images of black people in their neighborhoods are contrasted with bright, saturated colors in photographs of nicely built houses and cars. In A Shimmer of Possibility, he uses images of random moments of life, juxtaposed in a way like Japanese Haiku. The Present, which is about the streets of New York, is presented with paired images of the same scene separated by a very short moment. The tradition of street photography or decisive moment is no longer echoed here. These reconstructive approaches are fresh for the audience since they are rarely utilized in a strong, even traditional, documentary context like this. While Graham blurs the boundary of documentary and fine art photography, he also tries to re-examine the whole documentary tradition.

Graham’s works are always inspired by fictions. The title of the book, The Whiteness of the Whale, is from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. A Shimmer of Possibility was inspired by Anton Chekhov’s short stories and I think this can sum up the style of the whole trilogy. Just like Chekhov’s fictions, the presence of a stream of consciousness is very strong in Graham’s works. He makes use of fragments of everyday life — not the pursuit of twists and turns of the plot or any dramatic situations, but the clever details that illustrate the possible subtext of life. And in the end the book is filled with subtlety and ambiguity to be savored, which will keep drawing me back again and again.


(Originally written for