Paul Graham, Pittsburgh (detail), 2004 nine ink-jet prints, this one 30 x 40". From the series “A Shimmer Possibility,” 2004–2006.

Paul Graham, Pittsburgh (detail), 2004 nine ink-jet prints, this one 30 x 40". From the series “A Shimmer Possibility,” 2004–2006.

Paul Graham

High Museum of Art

Paul Graham, Pittsburgh (detail), 2004 nine ink-jet prints, this one 30 x 40". From the series “A Shimmer Possibility,” 2004–2006.

Paul Graham’s photography practice has long been driven by an insatiable wanderlust: He’s documented travels to Japan, throughout Europe, around his native Britain, and across the vast expanse of America. The exhibition “The Whiteness of the Whale” at the High Museum of Art homed in on Graham’s portrayals of the last. Consisting of more than forty works from Graham’s three major stateside projects—“American Night,” 1998–2002; “A Shimmer Possibility,” 2004–2006; and “The Present,” 2009–11—this show made a case for the photograph’s capacity to encourage active looking, incite empathy, and awaken political consciousness, if in sometimes heavy-handed and theatrical terms.

Across the three bodies of work Graham repeats the same visual metaphor about our inability to truly “see.” “The Present” is populated by white canes for the blind and figures squinting or wearing eye patches; “A Shimmer Possibility” shows gaps of time between sequences of photographs, forcing us to grapple with rifts in temporal continuity; and “American Night” negates the image through intense overexposure, its pictures overlaid with a translucent veil of white light. Graham’s use of formal techniques here resonates with the subject matter of his images, which often foreground marginal spaces and figures. The exhibition’s introductory work was a diptych from “The Present,” 8th Ave & 42nd Street, 17th August 2010, 11.23.03 am, 2010, which at first glance reads as two shots taken in quick succession of a uniformed man of color exiting a nondescript New York building and advancing unaware toward Graham’s camera. Upon further inspection, one was able to discern that the two figures are in fact separate individuals: Although the men are placed nearly identically in the frames and are similarly posed, variations in their uniforms (one appears to be a security guard’s, the other a postman’s), the lengths of the shadows on the pavement (signifying that these photos were taken at slightly different points in the afternoon), and the shifting figures around them reveal their unique identities—exemplifying how Graham skillfully draws our attention to the specificities of the quotidian, or to people and moments normally hidden in plain sight.

As the viewer progressed through the exhibition, she was met by depictions of neglected working-class neighborhoods and communities of people of color, which were juxtaposed with images from white-collar suburbia, underscoring the racial and socioeconomic inequalities that lie at the heart of the American experience. To dramatize these rifts, the artist again employs specific formal techniques: In the diurnal scenes from “The Present,” for instance, the high contrast between areas of light and shadow delineates distinct zones within which passersby go about their business, emphasizing their alienation from one another, while in the “American Night” series, portraits of exorbitant wealth—such as the monumentally scaled House with Red Volkswagen, California, 2001, in which the titular car is parked in front of the unpopulated driveway and manicured yard of a massive yellow house—are set in startling opposition to images of individuals excluded from the impossible fantasy of the American dream. Whereas Graham blasts the commodity objects and private environments of prosperity with crisp brightness, he muddies the photos of destitute folk wandering cities and towns either with that ubiquitous layer of white or with ominous shadows—teasing out these individuals’ extreme conditions of life under an unjust economic system. Later, in a suite of nine photos from “A Shimmer Possibility” titled Pittsburgh, 2004, we see the kind of laborer who would have tended to the lawn in House with Red Volkswagen (and who is markedly absent from that picture): a black man mowing a patch of grass in light rain. The figure’s everyday task, hunched body, focused expression, and blue sweat towel transform into an allegory for hard work and scarcity of resources, while the man’s surroundings—a verdant hill that overlooks a highway, empty parking lot, and lone gas station—transmit a sense of social isolation. But Graham’s employment of a set of extreme pictorial strategies—in the case of Pittsburgh, a hazy color palette and a shallow depth of field—results in a highly produced documentary style that seems to place beauty and sentimentality before critical concern, oversimplifying its subjects even as it strives to elevate them to the sublime. 

Jordan Amirkhani