Paul Graham’s ‘Free Pass’?

Shortly after I posted the first ‘Food for thought’ which gave an introduction to Paul Graham’s work, Stan Banos of Reciprocity Failure commented on the amount (or rather lack of) criticism his more recent projects have been subjected to. This doesn’t just apply to Paul Graham by any means and I think important points are raised here by Stan so have included his comments below: (Thanks Stan!)

– Matt

From the series 'Troubled Land' ©PAUL GRAHAM

Stan Banos:

FWIW, I think Troubled Land one of the greatest, most innovative documentary essays ever, and full well realize that Mr. Graham is close to a photographic demigod in many an art and documentary photo circle- and yes, who am I to say otherwise. Master photographer, innovator, educator- all well earned accolades. Nevertheless, all the above should not place anyone above criticism.

I’m not the greatest fan of his latter work, most of it searching for a new voice, a new vision he never quite achieves, but continues to deconstruct on his journey- and it most certainly is his prerogative not to repeat himself. But I continue to ask- who without his pedigree, without his name appeal would have been able to secure a publisher (other than Blurb) to publish a book of… grain? All without question or critique- no artist, politician, or god that should be given that much of a free pass.

From the series 'Films' ©PAUL GRAHAM

Matt Johnston:

I would tend to agree with you here. Troubled Land is the rare photobook that really can keep you coming back and finding new layers and new questions each and every time, for me the same is true of ‘A1′ and in a very different way ‘Beyond Caring’. His latter, more conceptual work certainly doesn’t have the same gravity as these early projects but in ‘A Shimmer of Possibility’ I still find something special (can’t really out my finger on what that is though).

The free pass is a very good question, and I think it can apply to a few photographers lately; I know it is photo-suicide to say anything against Mr R Frank but I was immensely disappointed with ‘Pangnirtung’ and suspect this 5-day documentation would not have been published by Steidl had Frank been a young and unknown author.

I think in these cases the discussion and critique or review of the projects/books should be more transparent, otherwise these authors continue to have an aura of invisibility around them; everyone says they are fantastic but no one want to say why! On top of this, so many reviews now simply take the letter of the publisher as law, and in turn the publisher points people to this ‘great new review’ and the circle of photobook love-in continues. (There are of course some fantastic reviewers and photobook commentators who do not fall into the category above – Stockdale, Colberg, Claxton etc)

Do you think Graham’s standing as an ‘Art’ photographer helps with this ‘free pass’?


From the series 'American Night' ©PAUL GRAHAM

Stan Banos:

I can only speculate, Matt. Some artists build up toward greatness in slow and steady increments then maintain a persistent level of quality throughout, others have a rather meteoric rise, and then milk it- others still, try as they might, just can’t grab the golden ring again. I don’t believe Mr. Graham a slacker by any means, he has continued to create in earnest- I just don’t think anything he’s done since his initial three books has come anywhere near that level of artistic quality, confidence and authenticity. His latter work is characterized mostly by a series of hits and misses, perusing perpetually changing waters- not unsimilar to most student work. In this respect, he very much follows the Stephen Shore mode- an initial brush with photographic immortality, followed by more “personal” explorations.

Again, as to why the dearth of criticism (constructive or otherwise)- it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why certain artists and personalities become irreproachable darlings of the art world. Maybe, just maybe, because he was once called on how not to do documentary (B&W only, please) and having proved them wrong (big time) critics are now somewhat reticent to step up- particularly since he’s quite articulate and can sling the vernacular as good as any other art shark, and beyond. I still remember hearing him wax prolific on the benefits of “meditation pages” between images.

Hell if I know- what I do find curious though is that even the immortals of cinema get called out whenever they lay a turkey- and it’s usually fast and furious….

See the comments for more discussion:

0 replies on “Paul Graham’s ‘Free Pass’?”

i would suggest that the difference between critical treatment of the ‘immortals’ of cinema v those of photography is that the former are spending opm (other people’s money)

You mentioned Frank, it seems his career post The Americans has been one of performance art- namely, how many different ways can one package and repackage said book in various bits and pieces and still get away with it. Eggleston to his credit has released a number of books with worthwhile material after Guide, in addition to a couple of bombs- one was a “book” that was nothing more than an “extended” DVD cover with a few frame shots from the enclosed (and questionable) video. And then, of course, there’s the incomparable Ms. Sherman, whom critics forever fight to fall over themselves in praise, whether she dons clown suits or costumes direct from the neighborhood Renaissance faire, it’s always some shade or manifestation of unforeseen genius. Only a churl would would proclaim otherwise.

The film grain book is very much a statement piece. Once you try and work out what that statement is then maybe you find it’s not that big a departure from his more traditional values. I do at least. Admittedly the content is not something that draws me immediately. What the work conveys i find admirable/poignant.

The Seesaw magazine interview linked to previously is great, in it Graham mentions his interest in “intelligent photography” i think he says, which i’d assumed meant work that is more conceptual/arty. I don’t think Graham is beyond criticism just that he himself is doing some of the most intelligent and interesting work, remaining faithful to photography practice, that there are few you can compare him to. Besides, who even does serious criticism these days? Grahams experiments or later work doesn’t abandon the early work/method etc, on the contrary one enhances the other. Literally too.

Whatever you think of Graham or other artists it’s a small number of galleries and publishers who decides what’s successful or not.

Martin, I wish I could disagree with your statement!
What I think is encouraging however is that I genuinely believe this is changing somewhat (not that it should change entirely as tastemakers and curators are still very important).
The other thing we can ask is what ‘success’ is – is it critical acclaim? Sales? Discussion? Or a combination of all of these – I would suggest the galleries and publishers can only control the first of these.

Matt, I agree.
What we consider success if of course individual, but usually it goes hand in hand. Attention, discussion, shows, publications, sales etc.
Just because the publisher or gallery think it’s good or pushes it, doesn’t mean it is, but it’s impossible to ignore the impact they have on others.

My thoughts on why film makers get called out when they dump a real turkey is due to the fact that there is no after market. One doesn’t buy a “print” of say RocketMan hoping to resell it for a profit years or months down the road. Since there is no investors market to speak of for old DVD or VHS copies there is really no vested interest in maintaining an artificially created high price for it.

On the other hand those that anoint artists as the latest and greatest have a vested interest in creating and maintaining a market for their products. Once deemed important an artist will most assuredly remain so. The reputations of those that make these determinations rest on it. The collectors rely on these people to insure their investments are looked after.

The art market is about as phony as the diamond market. Both artificial, well funded, and probably run by many of the same people.

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