Paul Graham: The Whiteness of the Whale

Situated along San Francisco’s Embarcadero, directly beneath the Bay Bridge, is an unassuming white building that’s easy to overlook as just another old warehouse or abandoned pier if you didn’t know any better. In reality, the pier houses a 28,000 square foot exhibition space known as Pier 24 Photography, where British photographer Paul Graham’s exhibition The Whiteness of the Whale is currently on display through the end of the month.

Built in the early 1900s as a warehouse facility for several steamship companies, Pier 24 reopened to the public in 2010 after several years of remodels as a dedicated, expansive space for viewing art. In addition to art exhibitions, Pier 24 Photography produces publications, has a visiting artist program and is home to the permanent photography collection of the Pilara Foundation.

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Born in the United Kingdom but now residing and working in New York City, Paul Graham has made his mark as a photographer making social commentary through his photographs of everyday people and places. His work has been featured in both group and solo exhibitions worldwide and can be found in public and private collections including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Tate Gallery in London and Musee de la Photographie in Belgium.

The Whiteness of the Whale, Pier 24 Photography’s very first solo exhibition, brings together three separate series by Graham, produced over 13 years: American Night (1998-2002), a shimmer of possibility (2004-2006) and The Present (2009-2011). A collection of over 60 images, The Whiteness of the Whale has been called Graham’s unofficial “American trilogy,” spanning landscapes across the U.S., from New York City and Los Angeles to New Orleans and Montana. In its entirety, the exhibition addresses issues of social and racial inequality, the nature of seeing and the language of photography itself.

American Night is the first series you encounter when entering the gallery and is comprised of large, deliberately overexposed photographs of impoverished areas in the U.S. juxtaposed against full-color images of suburban middle-class homes. It’s a dramatic contrast; the overexposed images are so white that the image is nearly indecipherable, reflecting “the invisibility of the poor and the dispossessed in the United States; how they’ve been edited out of our seeing, in a way,” explains Graham. Graham is making a clear statement on the division of class in America and, by compelling the viewer to, as Graham puts it, “overcome one’s initial reaction that there is nothing there” and look deeper into the photograph, he’s encouraging her to confront these issues, as well.

 

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While American Night sheds light on class disparity in America, a shimmer of possibility is the result of Graham’s journeys throughout the country documenting fleeting, commonplace encounters with strangers and locations. Multiple images of varying size are placed side-by-side and tell a story, capturing what Graham calls “stuttering sequences of innocuous, everyday moments.” These photographs reflect life in its actuality versus a dramatized or idealized reality, and sometimes multiple “stories” are placed alongside one another. According to Graham, a shimmer of possibility is an “attempt to get closer to the act of seeing and noticing in the world… so what appears to be a patchwork is, in fact, a slowing down of the process of recognition and consciousness of a shared moment.”

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Finally, The Present embodies the frantic and vigorous energy that is New York City street photography. Graham’s photographs in this collection are shown in diptychs and triptychs with most installed low to the floor, making it seem as if the streets and sidewalks of NYC flow right into the gallery. The Present deals with “life as it comes at you, unbidden, unstaged,” explains Graham. “Photography is capable of…giving us something we can look at in the distant future and see much clearer what the present amounted to at that point.”

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Next: Artist Interview: Sharon Kyle Kuhn