Photographing Life as It’s Seen, Not Staged

According to legend, when the Roman Catholic Church forced Galileo to recant his astronomical proof that the earth revolves around the sun, he muttered, “But still, it turns.” For a group show at the International Center of Photography until May 9, the photographer Paul Graham, who organized the exhibition and also edited the handsome accompanying book, thought that would make an apt title. “He meant, ‘My observations of the world still matter,’” Graham explained.

In recent years, documentary photography has fallen out of fashion. The critical arbiters in museums and galleries favor pictures that are constructed in a studio, lifted off a computer screen, generated through digital manipulation, assembled from prior photos — anything other than directly shot outside the photographer’s door. This self-involvement is akin to the turning away from realism by novelists that Tom Wolfe, in a much-discussed 1989 essay in Harper’s, bemoaned as an abdication of both responsibility and power. With photography, the solipsism is even more dispiriting, because, as Graham says, “The world matters — this is the core of photography, engaging with life.”

Although all the photographs in the show were taken before the pandemic, they are being seen together about a year after lockdowns began. “The name of the show took a different layer of meaning after Covid,” Graham said. “The world goes on. When you look back at these pictures made pre-Covid, you realize, I had it so good, the freedom to roam around and touch strangers, the ability to go into people’s houses. It makes you realize, as photography can, the effortless beauty or unspoken flow that life has.”

Formalism is a foxhole that too many photographers have burrowed into, perhaps in an effort to demonstrate that their work qualifies as art. If that is their reasoning, they are re-enacting an old war, and it is an odd thing to be doing now, when photography has by and large been elevated to equal status with the other arts. A more intriguing explanation for photography’s disengagement from the real world is the ascendance of the virtual, particularly as it streams on our phones in an inundation of pictures. One can begin to believe in the primacy of simulacra and come to think that the proper subject of an image is another image.

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