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:

Stephen Shore at SFMOMA…

I hope some ‘Club readers were able to get tickets to Shore’s talk at SFMOMA last week, for those that did not, luckily Stan Banos was in attendance and has written about the talk and Shore’s style over here. Also in attendance was Mark Wilson who, after enjoying Kurt Easterwood’s extended writing on ‘West Fifteenth and Pine…’ got the photograph below of Shore with said image. Big thanks to Stan and Mark!


If you haven’t checked out Kurt’s fantastic piece on this image, you can do so by reading the PDF below.
PDF – Kurt Easterwood on ‘West Fifteenth’

I should also point out that due to all the great contributions this year, we may run slightly into March with this book! Not even the added February day of the Gregorian calendar can help us here. (And as a heads-up, following the weekend, we will be looking at Sally Mann’s ‘Immediate Family’)

Stan Banos: Uncommon Places and New Wave Colour

Those who have followed the Photo Book Club from it’s early days will remember Stan Banos’ valuable contribution to our discussion of Eugene Richard’s ‘Cacaine True, Cocaine Blue’. Now, I thank Stan again for his comment on the effect Shore’s large format images had on the print galleries and collectors market:

Eggleston’s Guide along with Shore’s Uncommon Places were THE two sources most often studied, cited and emulated back in those heady days of “New Wave Color”. They were the bibles; both were a sea change on how we perceive and appreciate the medium to this present day. And while Guide launched color to the forefront of photography, Shore’s work reinforced the move to large format as the legal tender of the fine art photo world- a move which not only had far reaching effects in how we see and relate to photography in terms of composition, and in terms of size, but also in economic terms.

Photo galleries could now display art work that could rival the size of painting, and thus gain more handsome, desirable profits (I often wonder how those ’80s C-prints have survived). It helped “legitimize” photo galleries from the relative cult status of the art world’s poorer siblings, to the Upper East Side venues of the mainstream. Fine art photographers could now wield the more formidable tools of large format loaded with the new art market weaponry of color film. It was a potent combination that drove a stake through the then still beating heart of small format, B&W “art” photography- as well as through the aspirations of those who could not afford the expenses that large format entailed.

– Stan Banos

Haven’t seen ‘Uncommon Places’ yet? Take a look:

Stan Banos on ‘Invisible City’, a personal reflection

Thanks to Stan Banos for contributing this personal reflection on Ken Schles’ ‘Invisible City’. Stan’s ‘Reciprocity Failure’ is a must read and can be found over here.

Like Cafe Lehmitz, I’m glad someone not only made the effort- but actually succeeded in successfully capturing this part of town, this part of time that existed in all its brief wonder and tragedy. Loisaida was in constant motion in the late 70′s, early 80′s, evolving (or devolving) from a culturally heterogeneous, junkie laden, cheap rent district of promise, hope and energy into that of a gentrified homogeneity of yuppies, condos and crack. In a half dozen brief years, the place was transformed from a place fueled by the spirit and fire of punk, new wave and the very beginnings of rap, to a veritable laughing stock where practically every other neighborhood storefront and bodega was transformed overnight into fledgling art galleries by trust fund, wannabe gallerists. Their “galleries” lasted about as long as your average punk set at CB’s, but the blight upon the neighborhood was permanent. The Ramones had somehow mutated into Madonna.

I remember someone wrote a book called ‘It Was Gonna To Be Like Paris’. If only. Thanks for the memories Ken.


– Stan Banos


Technical proficiency in Cafe Lehmitz – Stan Banos

Thanks to Stans Banos of ‘Reciprocity Failure‘ who commented this week on the technical proficiency Petersen demonstrates with the 35mm images in Cafe Lehmitz.

Banos pointed to several other artists who have captured moments under available light in a similar fashion, the comments, and a selection of images are shown below.

Stan Banos
Something that rarely, if ever, gets mentioned is that one of the reasons that Cafe Lehmitz remains so powerful and poignant to this very day is that the technical proficiency of the work alone is simply incredible. Early on, it really set the bar for what “availble light” work could aspire to be at its very pinnacle with a simple 35mm camera- and it was rarely duplicated in the years since…

Matt Johnston
Stan, you are absolutely right, the technical proficiency Petersen shows in Lehmitz is something i must say i overlooked on my first looks through the book. I would be keen to hear some of the projects you think have come close to the Lehmitz standard? I would suggest Invisible City by Ken Schles (which we look at in Sept) is another groundbreaking ‘available light’ piece of work.

Stan Banos
Good question. First off, it’s much easier to get top quality available light (ie- just enough existing light to record a worthwhile image) work today with full frame digital sensors. And although I can’t think of any (film) projects offhand of that particular (technical) quality that involve the sole use of available light photography, I’m sure they must exist. Admittedly, I’m not a great fan of available light work since 35mm by its very nature is pushing the limits of technical quality under the best of circumstances. That said, Henry Wessel’s 35mm prints (although not “available light”) are some of the most technically amazing and pristine wonders that can compete with any format for sheer technical (and aesthetic) beauty. And you need not go further than Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue to sample top notch work that features a considerable amount of available light work.

The work by Ken Schles has a different, more dreamy like aesthetic than Cafe Lehmitz that more closely resembles the work by another exemplary available light photographer, Michael Ackerman.


Anders Petersen


Eugene Richards


Michael Ackerman


Ken Schles


We looked at Eugene Richards’ ‘Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue’ a couple of months back, the archive can be found here

And we will be looking at Ken Schles’s ‘Invisible City’ in September, so plenty of food for thought here!

– Matt Johnston



Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue: A Summary

Thanks to all who have contributed to the discussion on Eugen Richards’ ‘Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue’. We have compiled an archive of the posts below for future reference and will also be listed under the reading list page.

In June we will be looking at Larry Sultan’s ‘The Valley’

Stan Banos on ‘Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue’

Stan Banos of the fantastic Reciprocity Failure blog submitted the following piece on Richard’s ‘Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue’.

When published in 1994, Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue was perhaps the last great photographic shock documentary, and brought with it considerable controversy for depicting a certain segment of society in such a negative, nihilistic manner. My younger self very much believed in the power of those raw, stark, in your face images- believed they were exactly what was needed to expose the crack and heroin scourge that was consuming inner cities across the country, and ultimately help reform a national drug policy long bereft of any possible rehabilitative or positive consequence.

And, of course… nothing happened.


In the interim, photojournalism has struggled to redefine and reestablish itself in a declining market, and reinvent itself in a new medium, via new technology. And yet the problem remains- critics clamoring for a new visual paradigm in photographic story telling, particularly, a new vision of depicting tragedy, hardship and conflict in a way that can command and engage our attention with those we may not encounter in our everyday lives. No short order in these austere and somber economic times when so many of us are simply striving to survive- or escape.


Eugene Richards never struck me as the kind of man, or photographer, who was strictly out to shock. The images in Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue have an almost apocalyptic sense of urgency in their madness and desperation, and as only a master photographer can envision and present, many of those same images are also maddeningly beautiful, not unlike the “darker” masterpieces of the Renaissance. His photographs seemed hell bent on rattling you to the very core, so that even if you turned away, they would still unnerve you, haunt you, have at you until you finally removed yourself from your comfort zone and entered their twisted netherworld of existence- the very madness addiction demands.

Obviously, I can’t speak for him, but I don’t think it would be the kind of book Mr. Richards would do today. If anything, his current work is more reflective, more contemplative. The Blue Room  meticulously examines the domestic remains of those forced to abandon their points of origin, and his recent work with disabled vets, while containing many an unsettling and disturbing image, portrays subjects who could well be family members, neighbors, friends. We get to feel the main players out, get to know their stories, their lives- before, and after.


Although the characters get to speak out in Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue, their voices are lost within the insanity that overwhelms their lives and the numerous black and white enlargements that predominate the book itself. Powerful and significant as it was, perhaps that was the one key and vital ingredient that Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue so woefully lacked- we never connected with the individuals depicted, in fact, it was hard to even think of them as individuals! They were ghosts of former selves not even they would fully recognize, beings seemingly beyond redemption, beyond human connection, and well beyond our empathy…

– Stan Banos