by Jonathan Blaustein
My wife loves to watch “House Hunters International” on television. The premise is rather straightforward: strangers shop for houses or apartments around the world. The camera follows, showing the details of each prospective home. You root for your favorite choice, like a satellite-beamed horse race. (House porn and travel porn in one tidy package.)
I admit, I watch it sometimes too. It’s oddly addictive, like greek yogurt. Writing about it makes me feel silly, but no more so than watching. Often, as the images flicker on screen, I wonder, “Why am I looking at someone’s kitchen in Bulgaria? I could just skip a step and stare at my own microwave.” Why this obsession with the the talking box, rather than the light fixtures, or the electrical outlets, or the mountains out the window?
Our lives are complicated. In the 21st Century, the barrage of responsibility is more daunting than Paul Ryan’s ego. Insurance, mortgages, rent, taxes, bills, keeping the car full of gas, taking the kids to school and activities, checking in on social media, making photographs, chatting with friends and family, holding the door for strangers, doing your job. The list could go on.
Art, literature, and other such things ultimately function as a distraction. Look here, bestow your attention, and I’ll take your mind off your problems for a little while. That is the basis of the transaction. Idealistically, we hope what we peruse will replace our thoughts with new ones, grand and eloquent, but really, how often does that happen?
As photographers, we’ve all been seduced by the present. The camera serves as shaman, shocking us into appreciation for that which we see before us. Photography morphs the present into its own form of entertainment, offering a respite from the norm. The time we spend shooting grounds us in the now. Makes it thrilling. As it should be.
Normally, when I review a book, I look it over thoroughly, think for a few minutes, go for a walk, and then sit down to write. Exercise gets the blood flowing, and creates a 30 minute window of increased creativity. It’s been proven. This week, though, I eschewed the routine.
I first picked up Paul Graham’s “The Present” a few weeks ago. Another of the fantastic MACK publications, this book got inside my head and demanded further contemplation. The artist’s vision wormed itself into my brain, a bit further each day, like that nasty earwig from the first Star Trek movie.
It took some time to appreciate what was going on here. Nominally, the book is about New York City. As I’ve written about that subject many times before, (and likely will again,) I was a bit apprehensive about reviewing this one. Really, how much can I say about the Big Apple that hasn’t been said?
But, inch by inch, I realized that the book’s locale is strictly allegorical. It could have been London, or Barcelona, or San Francisco, or almost any city on Earth. The title of the book is not “NYC,” it’s “The Present.” Mr. Graham is asking us to take him at his word, and look beyond the obvious.
The book is basically a series of images broken down into diptychs and triptychs. Sometimes, they occupy the same page, in a vertical orientation. More often, the images are consecutive, or separated by a page. You turn, you fold, you refold, you try not to mess things up. (It will have little re-sale value if you bend or crinkle.) The book, therefore, demands a patient and experiential approach, setting the tone for the images themselves.
Each set of photographs focuses, literally, on a moment or place in time. Mr. Graham finds a location, a little patch of momentary drama, and then shoots, often shifting the depth of field from one character to another. It heightens one’s awareness of the nature of the photographic medium, highlighting the manner in which technique impacts the way we absorb information. Or, less often, he creates a connection between the two random people who occupy the same space.
The photographs luxuriate in the perfection and absurdity of a vast herd of humans, tromping back and forth across concrete and asphalt. Every moment of every day, people, with their attendant worries and woes, are walking, talking, pushing strollers, crying, laughing, ad nauseum. The urban experience is one great mega-drama. Here we see bits, there we see pieces.
The story opens, as a good film would, with an establishment shot. A Heineken truck blocks an intersection, with a policeman standing, his back turned. Next, truck gone, we see a view uptown towards the Empire State Building. Our entire experience of space shifts; closed to open. The following spread features a young Asian girl wearing an I heart NYC T-shirt. (In case anyone missed the initial cue.) In its companion, the focus has shifted to another young Asian girl in the background. The first girl moves along; an afterthought.
Onward weaves the narrative. We see someone who looks interesting, and then we forget. There are a few relationships that raise a quirky hand and say, hey, viewer, there are patterns out there if you choose to look. An African-American man, dressed for a corporate job, crosses an intersection. Part 2, and it’s a stooped over African-American homeless dude. Elsewhere, a man walks down the street with a yarmulke on his head, or was it another in a turban?
The one piece of high drama, a woman walking, and then she’s collapsed, is done tactfully. No blood, no vomit, no explanation. The real meat here is how the artist, and the camera, with its mastery of voyeurism, make us crave what we so often choose to ignore. Here, we escape to that which we normally flee: the present.
As far as books go, I can’t imagine many people not liking this one. If you look to me for recommendations, this one comes wholehearted. The pictures below, whether you like them or not, do not tell the story here. The experience of the book is fluid, more video than still. But, so often, this column is about more than just book reviews. So, for once, I’ll end elsewhere.
Life is short. Tragically, absurdly short. We will be gone for far longer than we were here. (Infinity.) We, lovers of the photographic medium, know the thrill of seeing something before our eyes that raises the blood pressure, drops the adrenaline. The rush of discovery. The joy of now. Let’s all endeavor to wean off of the most powerful drug, Entertainment, and spend more time with plain old reality. Myself included.
Bottom Line: A fantastic project from a major artist, in his prime
To purchase “The Present” visit Photo-Eye
Full Disclosure: Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.
Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.