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photo-eye Book Reviews: The Present

The Present. By Paul Graham.
Published by Mack, 2012.
The Present
Reviewed by Colin Pantall
The Present
Photographs by Paul Graham
Mack, 2012. Hardcover. 114 pp., 13 gatefolds, illustrated throughout, 9-3/4x12".

The first thing you notice about Paul Graham’s new book, The Present, is the cover. It’s silk; if the light shines one way it’s brown, it shines the other way and it’s golden. Two views in one.

Flip open the book, and the cover is replicated over 114 pages set out in a series of diptychs and triptychs, all shot on the streets of Manhattan. So you open the book and see a picture. Flip a page or open a gatefold and another image appears, remarkably similar to the first. So you look back at the first and start to notice the differences. Then you go on to the next picture and repeat the process. Looking at the book, turning the pages, opening the gatefolds builds up a rhythm. Turn, look, fold, look back and then repeat. Give the book to somebody else and most of the time you get the same rhythm. You can hear people looking at the book, taking in what Graham wants us to see.

And what he wants us to see is the antithesis of the decisive moment and the spectacle of the urban experience. Instead we get a very contemporary contingency, a street with moments so decisively indecisive that we don’t really know what we are looking at or looking for.

The Present, by Paul Graham. Published by Mack, 2012.
Everything is shot in middle-distance Graham-vision and together the pictures form an awkward shifting narrative that is photographic in intent and execution. Maybe this is a homage to Friedlander, Frank and Winogrand, but it’s with the proviso that Graham is doing something completely different. He is not so much showing us something as posing a question; what do we look at when we look at a photograph? So if we look at the first diptych, in one picture we see the Heineken truck in the foreground, flip the gatefold open and the truck has gone and we get the Manhattan skyline. In another pair we see an elderly couple walking across busy road, time moves on, the focus changes and we get a girl in a red and white vest standing on a manhole cover. In another diptych, a man with a cane walks across the middle of the frame. A few seconds later, two policemen stand in his place, one looking directly at the camera. A few steps change who and what we look at.

The Present, by Paul Graham. Published by Mack, 2012.
There are a fair few hostile glances in The Present, and a fair bit of blindness, disability, poverty and wealth. We can see what other people would do with the pictures, the characters that Winogrand or Evans or Gilden or diCorcia would pick out, deliberately or otherwise.

The Present, by Paul Graham. Published by Mack, 2012.
But Graham doesn’t isolate and iconicize his subjects, instead he remakes them in his own image. And that is what makes the book more than just an interesting footnote; the fact that the pictures don’t look like anyone else’s. Graham’s New York is a bit crappy for a start, an anti-nostalgic place that is run-down and anonymous. It looks pretty much like any other run down place. The people are the same. They’re not glamorous or striking or eccentric, but rather they’re harried, harassed and distant; no relationships were struck in the making of this book. These people could be anywhere; they stride purposefully along streets that hold no attractions to jobs that hold no attractions, their faces set into grimaces of urban stress. They walk along cold and uninviting sidewalks, past tired, functional shops and facades. There is a poverty of experience and environment here, an existence that appears deprived environmentally, emotionally and culturally. That’s the narrative; it’s a miserable life. Welcome to the Present.—COLIN PANTALL

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COLIN PANTALL is a UK-based writer, photographer and teacher - he is currently a visiting lecturer in Documentary Photography at the University of Wales. His work has been exhibited in London, Amsterdam, Manchester and Rome and his Sofa Portraits will be published as a handmade book early next year. Further thoughts of Colin Pantall can be found on his blog, which was listed as one of’s favourites earlier this year.