A man mowing a lawn; light frames the figure.

Paul Graham: Moments of Cognition in the Everyday World

I’ve often wondered what it is about photographers that makes them so keen to work in series. Is it that they are a particularly obsessive bunch or that the medium they use is so well-suited to multiplicity? Most likely it’s a combination of these and other factors, and it has resulted in important groups of photographs appearing as early as the mid-1800s.

For my first exhibition at Carnegie Museum of Art, I thought it would be interesting to look for examples of seriality in the museum’s photography collection. With nearly 5,000 pictures there were plenty of candidates, so I focused my attention on things that were new or hadn’t been exhibited before. I was struck by Paul Graham’s Pittsburgh (man cutting grass) from the series shimmer of possibility, 2004. This was a new acquisition for the museum (we bought it in 2013) by an artist I’ve long admired.

Graham (b. 1956) is British, but has lived in the United States for years. Much of his work takes the form of multi-part photographs where a number of individual pictures are displayed as a single work of art. In the case of Pittsburgh, there are nine photographs combined into one piece. This fracturing hints at an editorial process in which, rather than selecting a single image, Graham chooses numerous photographs to better capture a sense of movement and passage of time. It feels particularly relevant today with our habitual clicking and swiping through digital imagery.

Pittsburgh was the initial stop on the first of many cross-country road trips Graham made starting in 2004. I wanted to know more about how he came to visit this city and the motivations behind his work. We spoke on the phone in early June, and some excerpts from our conversation are below.

All nine photographs from Paul Graham's series, “shimmer of possibility.”
Paul Graham, Pittsburgh (man cutting grass) from the series shimmer of possibility, 2004. Carnegie Museum of Art, Gruber Family Fund, © 2016 Paul Graham.

Dan Leers: I’m wondering if you can talk a bit about the importance of series and specifically groupings within your work.

Paul Graham: Well I mean there’s two questions within that, one concerns groupings like the shimmer Pittsburgh piece you’re showing, the sort of poetic flowing of images that each piece within shimmer contains. And then there is the other question which is the way photographers group photographs together to make a body of work, quite different than the way that artists working in other media do. There’s an argument that Robert Frank’s The Americans is a collective single work, that ultimately it isn’t an individual photograph. That the complete work is the original.

Two photographs, each slight alterations (details) on the same man mowing grass.
Paul Graham, Detail of Pittsburgh (man cutting grass), 2004. Carnegie Museum of Art, Gruber Family Fund, © 2016 Paul Graham.

DL: Let’s start first with the bigger idea of a series and the notion of multiple works coming together under some sort of a rubric or an idea. How do you decide when something is worthy of a series?

PG: For me, that organically arrives through the process of working. It’s not something, in my case at least, that I arrive at through analysis, trying to think up what might in theory be an interesting body of work and then just go out and illustrate that idea. The type of work I make is very much a dialogue with the world. Engaging directly with the world as it is, yet holding some sort of broad-brush framework through which you begin to work. But then you go out and the world slaps you in the chops and says, “No, that isn’t interesting. How dare you come out here with your pathetic little theories and ideas” and is quite deflating. But then, sometimes, I find that if you’ve been patient and keep at it, something far more interesting will reveal itself, will come forth, and that dialogue that darts between the artist and life begins to happen. For me this is the wonder of photography, the core of the medium. And that’s where I struggle to work, as you can see here.

Three side-by-side photographs, each a sligthly different angle of the same man mowing grass in the light.
Paul Graham, Detail of Pittsburgh (man cutting grass), 2004. Carnegie Museum of Art, Gruber Family Fund, © 2016 Paul Graham.

DL: Can you talk a little bit about how you came to be in Pittsburgh?

PG: Well, I moved to America and I was living in New York City alone, with no family, no regular relationship, no baggage as it were. And I realized that I was free to travel. If I wanted to take a rental car and drive off for weeks, I could do it. So in the case of my Pittsburgh work, I think I went to Newark airport to pick up a car because it’s much cheaper to rent there, and I started driving. After a day’s drive, I found myself in Pittsburgh. Actually that was I believe my first day, my first stop was that motel, was finding that work and it just shows how fortune can smile at one place in time.

DL: So Pittsburgh wasn’t necessarily a destination, it was just a stop along the way?

PG: I was roughly aiming for it. I thought, I’ll spend a night in Pittsburgh, it looked like about the right distance. I can’t remember how far it is now, a four-hour drive?

A man cuts grass in sprinkling rain against a lush Pittsburgh background.
Paul Graham, Detail of Pittsburgh (man cutting grass), 2004. Carnegie Museum of Art, Gruber Family Fund, © 2016 Paul Graham.

DL: It’s about six hours.

PG: Six hours, okay, well that was an easy day’s drive. Get up in the morning and start driving and it seemed a good place to stop. I have no idea why I was in that motel somewhere out; I think it’s near the airport?

DL: It looks like it. You don’t remember the motel or anything about that specific place?

Man, wearing a striped shirt, mows a grassy hill next to a parking lot
Paul Graham, Detail of Pittsburgh (man cutting grass), 2004. Carnegie Museum of Art, Gruber Family Fund, © 2016 Paul Graham.

PG: No, I could possibly do a Google search and find it but I couldn’t tell you much about it. I remember it was the first night. I tend to head more for the periphery. I didn’t want to be downtown with the expensive business hotels. I didn’t have much money and so I just stayed in the cheaper hotels and motels, out around the other periphery commuter roads. I think I stayed there and thought that’s enough driving, parked the car and then, you know, from my motel room there was this guy cutting this, it isn’t that apparent, but this huge field in front of the motel. He was just using this regular push mower, going back and forth as the sun was going down. And I thought, Oh well, I’ll take a picture or two. It was quietly haunting. I also noticed that his shirt was a riff on the American flag, sort of stars and stripes-y thing, and the field was way too big for that little domestic push mower, the Sisyphean task was there to behold, really.

DL: So, this was literally the very first night of your cross-country road trip?

PG: Yup, I believe it was. The first night of the first trip. I made many other trips after that. But of course I had no idea that this was going to be a group of pictures. I just was taking a whole bunch of pictures like every photographer does with the hope that maybe one of these is interesting.

What had changed is that nowadays, or them-adays, you still shot film, but it was digitized and you viewed it on a monitor, on your computer screen. So you would tap a key to move through the pictures. You’d go next, next, next, keystroke, keystroke, keystroke. And you end up with this stuttering kind of animation: flick, flick, flick. Which one’s good? And at that point during the editing process, you realize, wait a minute, this is interesting in itself, I don’t want to choose just one picture over another. There’s something here that reflects not only on the process that the man was doing—this huge task of cutting this giant field of grass at dusk—but it also reflects on the process of looking, of awareness. It unspools the way we see and recognize life appearing before us.

A brown van sits a parking lot's corner spot; trees and lush hills behind.
Paul Graham, Detail of Pittsburgh (man cutting grass), 2004. Carnegie Museum of Art, Gruber Family Fund, © 2016 Paul Graham.

DL: The title of this series speaks to the notion that there is a shimmer of possibility, a shimmer of hope for lower-income people in this country. As a Brit, now that you’ve lived here for a while and now that we’re something like 10 years after this series was completed, do you still see a shimmer?

PG: I’m glad that you picked up that there is a hint of positivity in the title or a possibility. The intimation that life isn’t all dark, that there is hope even in the most commonplace of life’s circumstances. I hope this doesn’t sound too magic-crystal mystical, but there is hope and affirmation in our everyday existence. No matter the material wealth or circumstances, it does exist, it can be found. And yes, that is the hint of the title.

A view of the lawnmowing-man's back, showing a motel in a vast green field underneath a cloudy sky.
Paul Graham, Detail of Pittsburgh (man cutting grass), 2004. Carnegie Museum of Art, Gruber Family Fund, © 2016 Paul Graham.

DL: Maybe we can get back to that notion of the multi-part or the group format within a single work now. And you mentioned a little bit about how in a way it’s a part of the editing process, or at least the viewing process as you experienced it. But I think maybe time is a part of that as well. Can you talk about the importance of time in this work?

PG: Recognizing that a subject of the work was time itself, I was building these series with multiple pieces of time. Photography has traditionally been about freezing time. It’s one moment of time—a slice of a thousandth or a hundred-twenty-fifth of a second—striving to be a perfectly formed little crystalline moment. I realized it doesn’t have to be that way. Our experience of life isn’t necessarily like that. We don’t live our lives in perfect little crystalline 24×36 millimeter rectangles. It flows, arrives, and departs, it’s malleable. My struggle was  finding some way of addressing that within the work, recognizing its validity during the editing process of creating these stuttering filmic haikus.

It’s like you’re taking someone’s hand and saying “Hey! Come with me through these nine images and let’s go through the process of seeing. I’ll show you how I noticed this moment. I’ll show you I saw this guy cutting grass and then he went that way and then oh look! There’s the trees behind him and then he came back again and look the sun came out. And oh my goodness it started to rain at the same time and the raindrops were illuminated and then it goes away and he wipes his face, and here look over to the right is the minivan he brought the mower in, illuminated in the low sunlight. And look back again, for there he still is, still cutting the grass.” And you’re sort of taking someone through a moment of cognition, of life arriving and flowing around you. So there it has worked a kind of magic, containing a certain integrity and beauty, a secret from the world delicately held within.

Strength in Numbers: Photography in Groups is on view in Gallery One at Carnegie Museum of Art from July 23, 2016 to February 6, 2017. Image (top): Paul Graham, Detail of Pittsburgh (man cutting grass), 2004. Carnegie Museum of Art, Gruber Family Fund.