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Book Review: The Whiteness of the Whale


Book Review The Whiteness of the Whale By Paul Graham Reviewed by Colin Pantall In 2000, Jens Liebchen published his book dl 07: Stereotypes of War. It’s a modest book with only a handful of photographs, but the picture they create is clear. Open it up and you see dirty, grainy images of a soldier holding a machine gun at the top of a concrete stairway.
The Whiteness of the Whale. By Paul Graham.
Mack and Pier 24 Photography, 2015.
 
The Whiteness of the Whale
Reviewed by Colin Pantall

The Whiteness of the Whale
Photographs by Paul Graham. Texts by David Chandler, Herman Melville and Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa.
Mack and Pier 24 Photography, London/San Francisco, 2015. 240 pp., hardback book with embossed with tipped in image, housed in a printed mailing box, 9½x12".


In 2000, Jens Liebchen published his book dl 07: Stereotypes of War. It’s a modest book with only a handful of photographs, but the picture they create is clear. Open it up and you see dirty, grainy images of a soldier holding a machine gun at the top of a concrete stairway. There’s a shot of a desolate building photographed through a broken window pane; a detritus lined street shot from above, two civilians rushing past the wreckage and dereliction. Another shows a helicopter looming ominously overhead, its rotors all blurred and menacing.

The pictures in Stereotypes of War look like they were made in a war zone. But they’re not from a war zone. They’re from Tirana in Albania, a place at peace. But because Liebchen made pictures that look like pictures made in a war zone, that’s how we read them. It’s revealing both of how sophisticated we are at reading images, but also how adept we are at projecting a generic story onto generic pictures.

The Whiteness of the Whale. By Paul Graham. Mack and Pier 24 Photography, 2015.

Stereotypes of War is a supremely smart book, but it doesn’t just talk about how we see pictures, it talks about how we make pictures. You still see conflict stories illustrated by pictures that look like Liebchen’s. They’re generic and they all look the same. They’re war pictures that look like war pictures, but they could be anywhere.

But the making of generic pictures spreads across all photography; it’s in documentary, art, landscape and street photography. It’s in photography that looks how it is supposed to look, that slots neatly into one pre-formed slot.

There are photographers who realize this, and understand that one of the great challenges of making interesting work is to keep moving, to keep making new work that is different. If you’re not Daido Moriyama, don’t make work that looks like Moriyama’s. If you’re not Lucas Blalock, why bother copying him? And if you’re not Garry Winogrand, maybe keep your Leica in your pants for now. Because if you don’t, there is the danger you might end up becoming a caricature of yourself, a human Xerox machine chugging out pictures that become ever-fainter shadows of the originals. There are too many pictures made that look like other people’s pictures.

The Whiteness of the Whale. By Paul Graham. Mack and Pier 24 Photography, 2015.

Paul Graham understands this. Throughout his 30-year career, he has continued to make work that looks different and feels different yet still manages to attach itself to the great photographic themes. He doesn’t want to make pictures that look like Paul Graham pictures. His most ambitious expression of this search for originality is his American trilogy; American Night, A Shimmer of Possibility and The Present. Shot over thirteen years, these projects have now been gathered into one book, The Whiteness of the Whale, which accompanies a solo exhibition of the same name.

The Whiteness of the Whale. By Paul Graham. Mack and Pier 24 Photography, 2015.

The Whiteness of the Whale starts with American Night, a project where the role of African Americans in wealthy neighborhoods is made plain through a very deliberate manipulation of the images. Graham whitens the image and the black people who appear in these neighborhoods fade into the streets on which they walk. And then they meld into the urban neighborhoods in which Graham photographs them. These faded pictures are contrasted with full color pictures of new-build houses and cars, and pictures of black urban life; people in wheelchairs, sitting on sidewalks, being very visibly poor. Black and white, and wealth and poverty overlap or don’t, as though there are places where people belong and places they don’t, places where they should be seen and places they shouldn’t.

The Whiteness of the Whale. By Paul Graham. Mack and Pier 24 Photography, 2015.

The Shimmer of Possibility section comes next. This is Graham’s Chekhovian meditation on the quiet stories of everyday life. “As a photographer, I’ve always been attracted to the less spectacular side of life,” he told me in an interview upon publication of the original book. “I’ve never been an ambulance chaser. I want to capture the tiny little eddies, the rivulets of everyday life.”

In the original, these sequences were divided into chapters, all of which were published in a beautiful 12-volume set. It was a book of documentary that didn’t look like documentary but that was massively influential. In 2011 it was voted the most significant photobook of the last 15 years and it still packs a punch with its little vignettes of grass-cutting, soda-drinking and corner sitting.

The Whiteness of the Whale. By Paul Graham. Mack and Pier 24 Photography, 2015.

The final part of the book is The Present. This section is about New York. It’s street photography. But it’s a New York that doesn’t look like New York, full of street photographs that don’t look the way street photographs are supposed to. But it hits all the same spots, capturing the quiet moments before and after the decisive moments that others have photographed before him. Graham doesn’t do that. He gets the cinematic indecisive moment and nails it to backdrops that are unkempt and unclean.

In a very obvious way, The Whiteness of the Whale is a condensed version of Graham’s American Trilogy, but at the same time it adds something. Seeing the projects all together, one after the other, it becomes something harsh and unforgiving, relentlessly pessimistic and lacking in beauty, a mirror to the soul of contemporary America, and the perfect summary of what Graham’s American photographs were always intended to be.—COLIN PANTALL

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COLIN PANTALL is a UK-based writer and photographer. He is a contributing writer for the British Journal of Photography and a Senior Lecturer in Photography at the University of Wales, Newport. http://colinpantall.blogspot.com

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