It might be a stretch of the imagination to correlate Pieter Bruegel the Elder's most famous paintings, The Seasons, with Paul Graham's large-scale photography series of the same name. A visit to Palo Alto's Pace Gallery, where Graham's work is on view until Oct. 16, will change your mind.
"I didn't start out thinking, 'Bruegel' but, as I started the work, I thought, "This reminds me of those wide landscapes with the multiple scenes going on. And, it's interesting because you are flipping 16th-century life in Northern Europe with 21st-century life in New York City — from farming to finance," Graham said.
Graham, who was born in rural England and is basically self-taught, became famous for three photography books created in the early 1980s. He traveled around his native country, taking pictures of people in unemployment offices and then went to Northern Ireland, where he turned his lens on the "Troubles." Both the subject matter and technique were shocking to the British art establishment, mainly because color photography was seen as trivial and certainly not an appropriate way to portray such serious topics.
After relocating to New York in 2002, Graham took a Robert Frank-like trip around the United States to see what makes us who we are. (The Swiss-born Frank's unflinchingly honest photographs assembled in the 1958 book "The Americans" are considered iconic in the medium.) Graham shared with me that he found most Americans to be kind and empathetic, but was surprised at the level of poverty to be found in rural areas of this country.
Graham decided to continue his observations of American life with a series that took place in the heart of our economy, the banking headquarters along New York City's Park Avenue. Standing in the median area ("a great place to avoid getting hit by cars"), he took hundreds of pictures of ordinary New Yorkers going about their day. In order to frame the series like Bruegel, he was there during each season of the year. He described his technique as follows: "Classic street photography: Good camera, good lens, but no tripod. Standing there and then- click!"
Graham, who says he has "no problem" with digital, still does everything in the darkroom himself. This series had to be large in scale (averaging 117 x 162 centimeters) and framed in dark black frames, as an homage to Bruegel. They are also hung low, at eye level, which gives the viewer a sense that you can walk right into the picture. And if you notice that a few are a bit crooked, that's fine, said the artist. "Some are wonky; I leave that in and embrace it."
In the past, renowned street photographers like Lee Friedlander, Helen Levitt, Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus all worked in black and white. Graham explained that his preference for color is because of, "The ability of high- quality photography to record every detail, every color, every skin tone, every hair — and I want people to see that."
A walk around the gallery reveals a chronology of a place in real time. The pedestrians are walking, some in groups but mostly alone. There are well-dressed executives, blue-collar workers, bicycle messengers and women with strollers. Depending on the time of year, their clothing reflects the season, just as in the Bruegel paintings. In fact, each photograph is titled like the paintings: "Early Summer: Harvesting" and "Spring: Return of the Herd."
When asked if the prints are intended to be an historical record of how we live today, Graham replied, "There are a lot of parallels of activity. It's fascinating to me how much has changed since I took these pictures (they were undertaken in 2018). Two of the buildings captured have been completely demolished. And of course, this was pre-pandemic, so no masks."
Along with The Seasons, Pace is showing a series Graham created in 2005 entitled Sightless. Once again, the subjects are ordinary New Yorkers emerging onto 42nd street during a busy work day. Graham shared that he went there specifically because he loves the soft light of the late afternoon. These prints, in contrast to The Seasons, are quite small. They consist of color portraits of people with their eyes closed. Yes, you read that correctly.
When I pointed out to Graham that, for most of us, these would be rejected and taken again, he laughed and said, "Yes, I love that." He admitted that he, at first, dismissed them and then realized, "This is more interesting. There is a notion of blindness or a trance-like moment."
Indeed, the subjects of these photographs look like they are caught in meditation or prayer, rather than just alighting from the subway and hurrying home. They are mesmerizing for their quiet simplicity and evoke questions like "are they happy, where are they going?" Graham explained that these are completely candid shots and that his presence was not at all noticed. And like The Seasons, they do reflect an earlier time period, with just one flip-phone in evidence.
Graham shared that his fascination for the idea of sightlessness stemmed from an early childhood accident, which left him blinded temporarily. He also said the series is about "people who are choosing not to see."
Both The Seasons and Sightless embrace the idea of candid street photography that captures the quotidian.
Graham pointed out that, while Bruegel's bucolic country scenes conveyed a "slightly romantic fantasy," his work focuses on real situations. And if viewers question why these ordinary, everyday people on the streets of a large city are interesting, Graham offers this suggestion,
"Be open, be curious, look around at the activities that are going on. I hope people will see the connection to Bruegel and how there is a timelessness to the activities of our life. After 500 years there is still a cycle of life. You may start to see your own life in it."
Pace Gallery is located at 229 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto. For more information, visit pacegallery.com.