If photography is often about alerting our vision to something we may have overlooked, then Paul Graham has mastered his form.
In his haunting images featured in “The Whiteness of the Whale” at the High Museum of Art, the British-born, New York-based photographer shows us something we often turn away from. Graham’s deeply empathetic photographs capture the poor, the homeless, the elderly, the handicapped, the forlorn and forgotten. Graham has cottoned to an ugly truth about our country that it sometimes takes an outsider to see: We act like poverty is a contagion and to contemplate it risks contamination. Graham’s work is a challenge to willful ignorance and an appeal that we instead open our eyes to the world around us in order to be fully human.
Is it possible to be ennobled and changed by such contemplation of what we’d rather not see? Graham’s photographs suggest as much. Like poems or potent short stories, Graham’s photographs are enriching because they remind us of the full measure of humanity, not some curated, censored, media rendition. In his unique way of presenting his photographs, Graham arranges an array of images of varying sizes in close proximity, salon-style. The images are modest and intimate like what you might see hanging on a family’s living room wall. But here the family photos are of the human race.
The images are often juxtapositions of the defiantly closed and the painfully open. On the one hand are the haves; Graham photographs suburban houses so sealed up tight, windows closed, doors locked, not a person in sight, you wonder why this would be a sought-after reality. On the other end of the economic spectrum are the people who would undoubtedly love the security and safety of such homes but who have no choice but to live their lives out in the open, on the streets where they eat or sleep or wander like the man in “Blinded Man, New York,” whose eye is swaddled in a bandage.
In “Pittsburgh,” Graham captures the typically overlooked effort of a man mowing the grass on a steep hillside at a generic highway exit of cheap motels and gas stations. It’s the kind of place you don’t think of as being tended and a depiction of labor so menial it barely registers. And yet there it is: a middle-aged man toiling in the hot sun, pulling out a rag to mop his sweaty brow. The world is made up of infinite amounts of human labor and effort and difficulty we just don’t see, Graham’s photographs attest.
Things aren’t always so grim. In one of the most gorgeous, heart-heaving vignettes in the exhibition, Graham shoots a teenage girl and older man shooting hoops in a working-class neighborhood as the sun sets, a blazing orange sinking into the horizon and transforming this hardscrabble place into something beautiful.
Alongside his more modest-sized photo tableaux, Graham presents nearly billboard-sized photographs, often blindingly overexposed. It takes some effort to pick out the people in the images who disappear into that scorching white light like the man dwarfed by the parking lot where he stands, lost in his solitude. It’s a way of privileging individuals, highlighting the poetic importance of each life. It’s what Graham does: ascribing value and meaning by looking. It’s a radical act in an age when we so often diminish and vilify others.
One of my favorite exhibitions this year so far, “The Whiteness of the Whale” is a painful but emotionally enlarging experience. Graham has a sincere interest in showing us what poverty looks like, but also suggestively, what it feels like, the loneliness and the day-to-day struggle. His camera is the great equalizer, imploring us to care.
“Paul Graham: The Whiteness of the Whale”
Through Oct. 22. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays and Saturdays; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays; noon-5 p.m. Sundays. (It is closed Tuesday, July 4.) $14.50, ages 6 and above; free for children 5 and younger and members. High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-4444, www.high.org.
Bottom line: A must-see photographic exploration of the enormous divide between the haves and the have-nots from British photographer Paul Graham.
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