- Kristen Stipanov
When considering the size of Pier 24, a photography space on San Francisco’s Embarcadero, a single-artist exhibition is no small task. But Paul Graham’s current exhibition in the space, called The Whiteness of the Whale, stretches through every wall in the gallery. Similar themes span the entire space, creating a kind of thesis statement about the exhibition. At the same time, new subtleties in thought or approach occur at every new turn of the gallery. Read below to discover this intriguing exhibit.
Paul Graham’s work continually explores the gaze. Many of his photographs fall into the genre of street photography, often depicting figures that remain unaware of his camera. Moreover, his giant hyper-detailed prints invite a viewer to stare. A viewer could study any of his photographs for an extended period of time, and continue to discover more small details because of the intense clarity of the prints. And because these photographs often depict homeless people, individuals in crowds, or garbage on the street, this clarity falls onto details of life that an everyday passerby could easily overlook.
One richly detailed photograph is Graham’s ‘New Orleans: Cherries.’ In this photograph, maraschino cherries lie discarded on a sidewalk, and many have been partly crushed or have leaked their juice onto the pavement. Graham’s lens has captured each and every detail of this strange sidewalk texture, and the result is a kind of hyperreality, seemingly more real than reality itself. The smallest details of this sidewalk are rendered in very crisp focus.
When this level of detail is applied to the subjects of Paul Graham’s exhibitions, the result is an intensified awareness of the human situation. All of a sudden, Graham gives the viewer a crisp, clear view of those people and situations that can become invisible in a city setting. His work extends beyond the confines of the city, reaching throughout the entire United States. One series depicts a North Dakota gas station. Some of his photographs from ‘American Night’ depict houses of the California suburbs. The seeming disparate content of the exhibition actually adds another collective layer of meaning to the overall display. As these disparate moments are continually juxtaposed, it seems that they are all happening simultaneously.
For example, one display explores two seemingly unrelated moments, one of a North Dakota sunset and one of a mysterious man in New York City. A series of eight photographs depicting different angles and moments of the same sunset runs horizontally above. Below, and in the same type of arrangement, runs a series of seven photographs depicting a man continually holding his head, disturbed-looking, as he walks down a New York City sidewalk. Graham creates these New York City photographs from behind his subject, adding a sense of slow pursuit to the image that feels off-putting. The sunset photographs above seem jubilant, and form on their own a beautiful natural landscape scene. But the series below seems disturbing.
Whatever the motivation behind this particular juxtaposition, a viewer may recognize that the two separate moments explored through this display seem to embody likely moments to happen in North Dakota and New York, respectively. On an empty North Dakota highway, a driver might encounter a beautiful sunset. In New York City, a pedestrian might encounter an individual, perhaps mentally ill, who seems confused and forgotten by society. This series also explores the dynamic of a viewer’s expectations. While the sunset seems comfortable, like an expected addition to the gallery, a kind of close photographic pursuit of a mentally ill person in a city feels uncomfortable and unexpected. The viewer becomes aware of the types of subjects towards which he expects that art exhibitions, or society generally, will direct his gaze.
Paul Graham explores the dynamics of the viewer’s gaze, and he hints at this motif in the subjects of his photography. For example, more than a few of Paul Graham’s subjects wear eye patches, implying a lack of vision. And one of the focal points of the exhibition, a set of images titled ‘American Night,’ is mostly filled with over-exposed images, which a viewer must look closely at before discovering a single small figure in the center of each. Perfectly exposed, vibrant images of suburban homes in the Californian desert are interspersed within the over-exposed images of near-invisible figures. Paul Graham seems to explore the visibilities and invisibilities of American life.
Is Pier 24’s space meant to explore photography thematically, through the lenses of many individuals? Or will it continue to give ownership of the space to individual artists, to understand the subtleties of their messages? Overall, the exhibition explores common themes again and again throughout the gallery, of direction of the gaze towards unexpected or otherwise ‘invisible’ themes. As a result, a viewer may better understand Paul Graham, and may also feel overwhelmed by the amount of space allocated to his repeated and heavy themes. Paul Graham created The Whiteness of the Whale over thirteen years, and its different facets and approaches indeed come together with unity in Pier 24’s beautiful space.
By Kristen Stipanov
Kristen Stipanov is a young photographer and writer based in Stanford University where she studies art history and English. Aside from art galleries and the library, Kristen is often spotted on bay area hikes, brewing beer for friends or surfing the waves of Pacifica. She grew up in San Diego, has since lived briefly in Yosemite Valley and Monterey, and will gladly admit she’s head-over-heels in love with California.