Two photobooks: ‘The Present’ and ‘She dances on Jackson’

Of those photobooks I acquired in 2013, Paul Graham’s The Present and Vanessa Winship’s She Dances on Jackson captured my attention the most. The former presents images in colour and the latter in black and white. Both books share exceptional print and design quality and the images themselves have enormous appeal. Both photographers are mature artists, having exhibited and published for some time.

As I have stated in earlier posts, I share a belief with them that everything I need to make an image can be found ‘out there’. Graham himself has stated on occasion that the art world has ignored to an important degree this kind of photography in favour of the conceptual and staged; that is, motifs derived from within the artist as opposed to finding motifs from the world itself. I speak now of questions of degree after all since the inspiration for art inevitably is a mix of the two, and style is a question perhaps of which of the two an artist tends to use more often. What is interesting is when one approach is applied to the other. And for this Graham’s work, in my view, through the formal means of diptychs and triptychs as an expression of time, I think combines the conceptual with the discovered. I have returned to Graham’s book frequently and my pleasure in doing so has only deepened.

Graham uses the diptych to explore an action or gesture that a camera in the hands of a Winogrand or Cartier-Bresson would capture in one image only. In Graham’s world, small differences yield significant changes in meaning. By playing with a motif he uses a diptych to show changes in a scene: the left panel where the primary motif is on one event that changes (sometimes altogether as a result of a happy accident – a tribute to the photographer’s mantra ‘f/8 and be there’) in the second panel. Through selective focus, a scene where a motif was dominant recedes and is replaced by another. Barthes in La Chambre Claire has explored the idea of photographs as memory and death in that what is photographed has already disappeared the moment the shutter closes. There is an extraordinary wistfulness about the images in The Present and while they are rich with colour and sharpness, one has the sense that we leave no trace behind, but for the recording of an instant by a photographer with his camera. So the conceptual foreground I feel is that of the temporary and accidental, much like most of life itself. This is a theme that is of great interest to me in my own work.

When I first was exposed to the work of Eadweard Muybridge and David Hockney, both of whom considered time as the primary element in their photography, one from the point of view of documenting sequences of motion and the other through collage as a viewer spends time traversing an image, I came to appreciate the diptych (and its logical descendant, the collage) as the kind of photography that spoke most to me. Artists of course have explored the story-telling potential of multiple images going back to wall paintings, 30,000 years ago. Diptychs and polyptychs were the mainstay of religious and Northern European art in the early Renaissance, the study of which merely re-affirmed for me the beauty of this art form.

Unlike Graham’s work which uses the abundant street life of New York City sidewalks, Winship’s world is solitary and contemplative, even if it too is of the street. Her photographs of people are direct and in which the subject is quite aware of the photographer and her camera. (In my view, there is a sameness to a kind of street portraiture that arises from the natural inhibition of one stranger to be photographed by another. I would argue that there is a whole sub-genre of street photography that consists of the same look you get when someone with a camera asks a stranger to pose. This look was formalized initially by Thomas Ruff in the 1980s as one of the students of Bernd and Hilla Becher in what is now known as the Dusseldorf School.)

In Winship’s hands however, I get the feeling of an important psychological distance expressed in the eyes and face in spite of the physically short distance between subject and camera. Winship’s portraits deal explicitly with the obviousness of the exchange between strangers. I find these portraits disquieting. Juxtaposed with land- and cityscapes, the book gives off airiness and claustrophobia, the same feeling I get from the novels of Thomas Hardy.
The beautifully crafted black and white images speak of freedom circumscribed. The foreground then is of isolation and solitariness and as a whole the book is poetic in its impact. Aided by exquisite reproductions, high quality paper, sewn binding and linen covers one is left with the impression of stateliness and quiet, colour would simply not have worked here.

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