Unreal Nature

October 28, 2015

The Shy, Tender Meeting of Strangers

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:56 am

… of photographic seeing not only as a form of noticing and pointing out but as the basis of a human connection, a form of empathy.

This is from the essay ‘Consciousness Breathing’ by David Chandler found in The Whiteness of the Whale: American Photographs 1998-2011 by Paul Graham (2015):

We are in The Present, turning and unfolding the pages of Paul Graham’s 2012 book of that name. The photographs we see are taken on the streets of New York, or rather they monitor those streets. For there’s something systematic in Graham’s tracking of people over short sequences of two or three images, the photographer’s focus following their movement or shifting among the crowd from person to person, from picture to picture. Street corner vantage points are taken up, and held, sight lines are drawn, and as people drift in and out of the frame the photographs appear to replicate Graham’s mind wandering, his attention varying …

PaulGraham_ThePresent02

… the sequences of photographs frame what Graham has called ‘a growing consciousness of the moment in the shy, tender meeting of strangers … the recognition of consciousness breathing.’

… the sequence of pictures firmly registers Graham’s presence, not only as an active observer but also as someone absorbing information and learning from what he is seeing. One of the many rewards of [Graham’s book] shimmer [a shimmer of possibility (2007)], as a viewer, a reader, is to be allowed inside this process, and, in a sense that is also gently instructive, to share in it.

This is a long way from the image of the photographer on the street that has flickered away in the photographic imagination since the advent of the Leica in the 1930s; the compulsive, almost frenzied figure, whose mythic striving for the exemplary picture conflates the intuitive and the instinctual with preternatural powers of anticipation, judgment and intelligence. So often these traits and the restless physical activity propelled by them have conjured predatory, even animalistic associations.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] Captivated by Robert Frank’s physical movement, Jack Kerouac described him as ‘prowling like a cat, or an angry bear,’ reiterating the now pervasive hunting metaphor in which the passive subject is the victim of a violent intrusion. More subtly perhaps, Joel Meyerowitz remembers first hand experience of Frank ‘sliding and weaving his way’ around his subjects and ‘through their lives.’ …

[line break added] … Truman Capote remembered once watching Henri Cartier-Bresson on a street in New Orleans, dancing along the pavement like an agitated dragonfly, three Leicas swinging from straps around his neck, a fourth hugged to his eye: click, click, click (the camera seems to be part of his own body) clicking away with a joyous intensity, a religious absorption.’ Similarly the writer John Malcolm Brinnin observed that ‘while he is focusing on one thing [Cartier-Bresson] quivers in the imminence of ten others … When there’s nothing in view, he’s mute, unapproachable, humming-bird tense.’

[ … ]

… There is nothing ‘decisive’ in these photographs [a sequence in Graham’s book The Present]; across each image visual information is incidental and fragmentary, and there may be other pictures taken between them in which we could track the time-bound events more closely. But what we glean from the three pictures included in the book is an impression of selective attention as it changes and the acuity of that attention from which we, the viewers, can begin to grasp the texture of things and imagine ourselves into the scene.

[line break added] Once again, the photographs suggest the photographer’s tangible, embodied presence on the street as an active observer; the matching of the camera’s precision with the gentle, equivocal nature of Graham’s deliberate repetition, enhancing that sense, too, of photographic seeing not only as a form of noticing and pointing out but as the basis of a human connection, a form of empathy.

PaulGraham_ThePresent

[ … ]

… The political undertones of visual inconsistency rumble on through the book — that feeling of an unspecified social malaise rooted in perceptual failings — but Graham also remains in thrall to those ‘kaleidoscopic sights’ and ‘visual complexes,’ and ‘the innumerable suggestions they offer’; the casting of the city’s spell that also creates him in the act of photographing.

-Julie

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