In conversation with Paul Graham

This exhibition documents the joyful, unstaged spontaneity of pre-Covid America
By J.L. Sirisuk | Art | 6 August 2021
Above:

Curran Hatleberg, ‘Lost Coast’ (8), 2014

“The thought of you reading these words is a promise, sealed by your eyes reading this. Time binds us,” Paul Graham writes as a message to the future in his introduction to But Still, It Turns, a deeply provoking manifesto for photography published in conjunction with an exhibition at the ICP in New York. As a renowned photographer, Graham has played a crucial role in breaking the barriers between documentary and fine art photography, fusing colour photography with social documentation of people engaged in the natural and unstaged fluidity of daily life “as it is.”

It has been said that life is stranger than fiction, and in Graham’s curated world of photography, life is even more touching and surprising than anything manipulated or staged. With But Still, It Turns, Graham has brought together nine contemporary photographers who work directly with life’s unexpected moments as they unfurl in twenty-first-century America. Over the past year, society has restricted its interactions during the pandemic, while the magic found in unanticipated encounters, in the collision of lives became limited. The images in the exhibition are celebrate a time before social distancing, lockdowns and social bubbles – nothing is staged, nothing directed, only genuine freedom presented in all of its wild beauty. These photographs are a testament to humanity, an affirmation that life continues, even during the most ambiguous of times.

Featured is the work of Gregory Halpern who takes us on a westward journey to ZZYZX, Piergiorgio Casotti and Emanuele Brutti’s collaborative project Index G examines the city of St. Louis and residential segregation, and Richard Choi pairs video and photography to capture those split-second moments between action and memory – also presented are constellations of images by Curran Hatleberg, RaMell Ross, Kristine Potter, Vanessa Winship, and Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa. But Still, It Turns reminds us that we are all bound by time, by a union of inhales and exhales culminating in a wonderful crescendo of hope.

GALLERY

J.L. Sirisuk: What led to the conception of this project?
Paul Graham: The idea was born from discussions with a friend of mine. He’s retired now and he’s a photographer aficionado, we were discussing how the pendulum had swung against photography somewhat in the art world. If you went to the shows at MoMA, the Guggenheim or The Whitney, you saw a lot of conceptual work, a lot of Photoshop-based work. You saw a lot of heavily Hollywood-staged production work. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, there’s some wonderful work out there – Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall, that’s all great work but if you went to some of these exhibitions you’d believe that nobody took pictures out in the world of [real] life as it came at you anymore. Like that was somehow not a valid way or photographic art form, which of course is ridiculous because it’s the core of photographic artists to engage with the world as it is. So we wanted to nudge that back a little bit as a reminder that the artists who work this way are still out there, and they’re finding new voices and new photographic language, new ways of articulating the forces that move and shape our lives. 

JLS: I love the title, But Still, It Turns.
PG: It’s from Galileo. It’s Italian, so obviously it depends how you translate it. In the 1600s, reputedly he mumbled it under his breath as he was released from the Inquisition in Italy – the Catholic church forcing him to recant his observations. Which of course is very appropriate in photography, being that your observations are what mattered to him and our observations are what matter in this show. We use this as an appropriate title.

Vanessa Winship, ‘Untitled (Seth and John, after the Rodeo)’ Fort Worth, Texas, October 12, 2012

The title was already there, but it became dramatically more relevant and pertinent as the pandemic hit.”

JLS: You have such a special assemblage of photographers in the show – each with their own distinct view of the world. How did you decide who to include?
PG: We ended up with eight bodies of work, which is nine photographers because the two are a collaborative effort. The only parameter we set was that the work had to be made about the United States in this century, so the past twenty years. The photographers didn’t have to be American. You have Italians, you have Vanessa [Winship] who’s English, we have Stanley [Wolukau-Wanambwa] who’s Ugandan-British, and Americans, of course. If we’d stuck 25 or 30 photographers in a show, they’d have had three or five pictures each, which is ridiculous. You can’t do that. So we decided to keep ourselves to this premise. The other key thing is that everything was made out in the world, nothing was Photoshop created or computer-generated. Nothing was heavily staged, no great productions with crews or anything like that. The aim was to keep it very much at the very core of photography engaging with life as it comes at you.

JLS: That’s something I really love and appreciate. Having felt so isolated this past year, it was moving to witness these images from different pockets of America. I started to miss those chance encounters. A beautiful part of the exhibition is just seeing life again.
PG: It’s kind of life-affirming, isn’t it? An affirmation, an embrace of life. You see that amongst the people in the pictures, like the couples that Vanessa [Winship] photographed, or Curran Hatleberg’s gatherings of people in the Oregon coast – this intimacy and lack of social distancing, which is a reminder of how life should be and hopefully will be again. Also, the layer of trust to the photographer, to a complete stranger. It crosses over into us being embraced by these people and allowed to see and come close to their lives. That’s a wonderful gift, an act of generosity by the people in the pictures and the artists who made the pictures. We’re desperate for this. We need this.

JLS: In terms of planning the curation of the exhibition and the book, did most of this take place when the pandemic had already started?
PG: We started a full year and a half before. It was hard to find the right venue. We approached a number of museums and ICP came through in the end. ICP was transforming, it was changing premises, changing curatorial direction and redefining itself. There was an opening there and so they embraced the idea. The title was already there, but it became dramatically more relevant and pertinent as the pandemic hit. That made everything more difficult because ICP shut down and the book production was very difficult because we were working internationally. We worked right through the pandemic. I was worried it would be a bit dated, but actually I think it works in its favour as a marker of that time.

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa ‘Monteiro Street’ 2014

JLS: In the book you mention that you’re writing to the future. What was going through your mind while writing that?
PG: You’re writing a letter of hope to the future, a little time capsule, like, “Here’s how life was and here’s a hopeful note to the future.” This is how you will be able to look at what we valued and what these artists put together. It’s central to photographic art that you gather moments of time as you pass through them and you gift them, you select them carefully, edit them, refine them and put them there for the future – valuable moments however innocuous. They don’t have to be spectacular or award-winning front-page photographs. The word we haven’t mentioned yet is the difficult term ‘documentary’ and that comes into things as some people would say it’s ‘new documentary photography’, or ‘lyrical documentary’, or ‘poetic documentary’. It’s not a very satisfactory word ‘documentary’ – it’s become a way to silo off a whole vibrant area of photography that engages with life.

JLS: How did you feel when you walked through the exhibition in its completion?
PG: I actually went through again recently. A friend said they wanted to visit, so I went with them and it was lovely. It reminded me how beautiful the ICP is, how vibrant that area is. It was inspiring to see the work and the book, having the two together really meant a lot to me. I’m a photographer who works out in the world, so it’s been a tough pandemic. If you were a musician who is used to being on the road, you try to pivot to working in the studio or something like that, but it’s not what you’re meant to be doing.

It’s central to photographic art that you gather moments of time as you pass through them and you gift them…”

JLS: What do you hope to do as the world opens up more?
PG: Like everyone right now, I’m taking baby steps back out into the world, trying to meet people and see life. I got woken up last night at 3am by some neighbours having a party on the roof, and at first I was mad because I thought, “How dare they wake me up.” Then I thought, “This is what returning means, this is it. Be happy that people are on their rooftops talking too loud and too drunk at 3am without masks.” I’m sad that the show won’t travel, it might have had a traveling tour if this had been normal life. The book is even more important in light of that – it makes it more unique.

JLS: For those able to catch the show or get their hands on the book, what do you hope they take from it?
PG: I hope they see the value of photographing – photographers, artists, photographic artists engaging with life, finding new ways of articulating how we live, who we are, what moves and shapes our lives. I hope they see the powerful empathy of Vanessa’s work or Curran’s work, or RaMell’s, the intimacy of Richard Cho’s videos of people in their homes praying or playing with their cats or eating their lunch. I hope people will realise the power of photography as an art form, its unique dance with life. 

But Still, It Turns runs at the ICP until 29th August. The accompanying book is available now.

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