We were told that documentary photography often corresponds with ‘traditional photography’. Probably in art schools it is still taught this way. The majority of photographs we all remember are, at the end of the day, documentary photographs: fragments of time witnessing a remarkable event, resulting in an unforgettable picture. But it’s not only a matter of iconic images that go down in history: there is probably another way to conceive visual storytelling, a photographic approach that portrays the world as-it-is. Glimpses of everyday life framed in a defined portion of space. In-between moments frozen as raw memories in our mind.
This subtle sensitivity to the unfiltered nature of reality is what But Still, It Turns stems from. This book, curated and edited by British artist and photographer Paul Graham, represents a revitalising manifesto for photography. Conceived as a deposition for the future, the project features the work of nine artists who guide us through the randomness of life and “struggle with seeing through the fog of the present,” as Graham himself states in his introduction essay.
Without giving in to the temptation to the artifice of the studio or to the manipulation of images, these projects go beyond the traditional idea of documentary as we know it. They capture the nuances of a photographic form that originates from the attention to the knots and tangles of life. In fact, Paul Graham brought together a constellation of works creating a map useful to explore an underrated aspect of contemporary photography. Featured in But Still, It Turns, there is Gregory Halpern’s dreamy California of ZZYZX; Vanessa Winship’s empathic project she dances on Jackson; the intimate portraits of Curran Hatleberg’s Lost Coast; Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa’s rich and countless One Wall a Web; the mortality-tinged America of Richard Choi’s What Remains; RaMell Ross’ visionary documentary work South County; the collaborative project Index G by Emanuele Bruti & Piergiorgio Casotti; and Kristine Potter’s exploration of the American landscape and masculinity in Manifest.
Alongside the photographic works, in-depth essays by Paul Graham, Rebecca Bengal, RaMell Ross, and Ian Penman enrich the book, making it a fully-fledged research tool that takes stock of non-conventional ways of picturing the world.
Borrowing the words murmured by Galileo after being forced to withdraw his astronomical theories, Paul Graham suggests to us that the world we live in is the most precious source of inspiration we will ever find — and that, after all the difficulties we’re currently living through, this is still true. Only by observing life as-it-is we will understand what it is truly made of.
But Still, It Turns, published by MACK in January, also takes the shape of a masterfully installed exhibition at the International Center of Photography, New York, open until May 9, 2021.
We had the honor to talk with Paul Graham to learn more about the project and his vision as a curator.
But Still, It Turns is a sort of celebration of documentary photography in its purest form; one that is made of observations of the world as-it-is. What is the purpose of the project?
I would put it a little differently. This is not classic “documentary photography”, it’s simply photography that is made directly from the world. So: nothing from the studio, no big productions with actors and Hollywood lighting, nothing that is born in the computer – no Photoshop generated ‘magic’. Don’t misunderstand me – that can be good, but it is not what this exhibition is about. If you want to call that documentary… ok, you can – I don’t have a perfect new word for it – but it feels an inadequate description for all photography from life. The artists here certainly don’t fit into the classic documentary idiom – they’re not making a photo story; they don’t have a clear single editorial message they’re trying to present; the work is often open and ambiguous, it elides easy explanation. This is not a new problem – would you call William Eggleston’s work ‘documentary’? Or Diane Arbus, or Robert Frank’s The Americans? That does not seem right. I guess one purpose of But Still, It Turns is to map out this new territory, some new ways to creatively engage with the world through photography from life. We wanted to revitalize this and unequivocally state: this is valid, this is powerful; and it’s really the heart of the medium – its ability to dance with life.
Why did you feel the need of curating a book and an exhibition on this subject?
Well, going to the art galleries and museums, you see the natural oscillations of photographic trends moving this way or that. It seems for the last 10-15 years the pendulum had swung towards staged or performative work, like Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewdson… all of which is good work – I’m definitely not against them – but the pendulum had swung too much towards this, with other photography marginalised as ‘documentary’, less interesting, and pushed to the margins. So we just wanted to gently nudge the pendulum back towards the center. Funnily enough, I remember reading this interview with George Clooney, where he talked about how often when people first meet him, they lose themselves, and get confused and anxious, fumble their words, but he said if you talk with them gently, you can “navigate them back to being themselves”. I loved that phrase, and felt maybe photography needed a bit of that – of navigating back to being itself, to remind it how unique it is, of what it does so well, engaging with the world.
Different times coexist in this book – the past (thinking about the masters of the tradition of American photography), the present (the selected projects) and the future. I really like how, in your introduction, the book is described as an object to be enjoyed in the future, a sort of message left to posterity. Can you tell me more about it?
I’m glad you picked up on that – the intimation that the book, and the work, is a gift to the future. We were making this in the depths of the pandemic and of the worst events: our printer was in Italy, I was in New York, the publisher in London; where we were all isolated and quarantined through terrible situations. I loved making that connection with photographers taking pictures of life as it was – be it Vanessa Winship travelling around America, or Curran Hatleberg in Oregon, or Gregory Halpern in California, or RaMell Ross in Alabama, how they made their pictures of life in that moment, as it was then, in the hope that in the future these images would be valued, as moments worth sharing. So these artists were making something in their present, as a gift for us in the future, where we are now. In my book text, I wanted to make a parallel between the production of the exhibition, and the endeavour of the artists; of gifting forward to the future, of measuring and folding time, and pushing it forward for us, here, now. What an amazing creative act thing that is!
And what about the future of ‘documentary photography’? How is your selection connected to the direction that this is taking?
Well, a part of the intention of the show is to present this artistic landscape – to say ‘here is this new territory’ for artist-photographers to work in. We’re not stuck in the land of the past; there is fresh creative territory which has opened up. Now, I don’t want to squeeze all of the 8 different artworks into one unifying theme – they’re all independent, with their own ideas, and their own independent practice, but when taken together we can recognise they suggest fresh territory, new ways that photography can engage with life. That is a liberating thing artists can do – to offer new territory for other artists, other photographers, to work in.
One thing that maybe all these projects have in common is that they are all located in the United States. I’m curious if this was intentional, and also if it can be read as a political or social statement behind the book. Can But Still, It Turns be viewed as a portrait of contemporary American society?
You are correct, yes, we had to put some parameters on it, so we simply decided that all the projects had to be realized in America, this century. The photographers didn’t have to be American; for instance, the Italian collaboration of Index G by Emanuele Bruti and Piergiorgio Casotti, plus there’s Vanessa Winship and Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa, from the UK, so it’s international in its scope, but all the works are focussed on the United States, these past 20 years. Whether the whole thing builds into a statement about contemporary American society, that’s for you and others to say, but again, there is no desire to force these artists into some overarching statement of ‘the condition of America now’ or whatever. We have to respect that every artist is different with unique approaches, strategies, and positions, and we should embrace that.
I would like to ask you about the essays and the written contributions in the book. Why did you make the choice to include so many texts and how was it translated into the exhibition layout?
The exhibition is the exhibition, and… the book is the book! Books on photography are very important – it is the book that will travel the world, it will be in shops in Italy, Japan, England, America – everywhere! The exhibition will not. If you’re lucky, and you happen to be in New York within the show’s timeframe, you can see it, and I really hope people do as it’s a lovely exhibition, but the book has to do the ‘heavy lifting’ of presenting the work to the world – so we put in text that discusses the work: there’s my introduction on past and future coalescing; there’s Rebecca Bengal who wrote a fabulous text discussing each artists work; there’s Ian Penman, who’s a great writer on music and art, who created this lovely structural text with blocks of thought floating around, like images floating through the world; and then there’s RaMell Ross at the end with “Renew the Encounter” – a manifesto about the paradigm in which we operate as photographers, interacting with people out in the world. And at the very end, we include a section of other artists’ books, which is very important because we wanted to acknowledge that although we could only select eight bodies of work for the book, they are not the only ones worthy of being known, to give examples of other people out there making fantastic work in the world.
In regards to your essay, you wrote that ‘art’s deepest role is not to entertain’ — which I definitely think is right, but I want to ask you: what is the purpose of art in your opinion?
It’s not necessarily to entertain, if it does then that is wonderful. When I watch a film by Tarkovsky, I am not looking to be ‘entertained’ – that’s not the primary reason he made it. He didn’t intend it as some Hollywood distraction. He made it to say profound things about the forces that shape who we are, what we struggle to understand about being alive, what our small time in this world might amount to. I love seeing a good musical, or theatre as much as the next person, I love being entertained, but it isn’t all that art can do. Ok, an alternate answer: I guess I was trying to separate this kind of photography from the kind of photography that does seek to entertain you – prize winning photographs of some amazing moment in nature or an incredible view or capture dramatic action, these do seek to specifically surprise and impress you, to ‘wow’ you. This work is quieter, more subtle, and has different priorities from that.
How did your career as a photographer and artist influence your practice as a curator on this occasion? How was it to be on the other side?
There’s a funny saying in English; “You don’t want to know how the sausage is made”. Which means: you might like eating sausages, but once you see how they’re made then you won’t enjoy them so much! It was fun to see what it’s like to be on the other side of creating an exhibition… It’s been great, especially in the pandemic, to have this big endeavor, to create something for the future. But now… I want to go back to enjoying sausages!