In his last play, Oedipus at Colonus, written shortly before he died at the age of 90, Sophocles describes the blind, exiled Oedipus as “wrapped in such rags—appalling— / the filth of years clings to his old withered body, / wasting away the skin.... And all of a piece with this, I’m afraid, the scraps / he packs to fill his shriveled belly.” Yet the play, set by a sacred grove, is as full of grace and transcendence (given the ancient Greeks’ dispassionate view of existence) as any work of art I know.
Which brings me to a shimmer of possibility, Paul Graham’s new multivolume collection of photographs. This set of 12 discrete books—identical in trim size, each volume bound in a distinct rainbow color—includes work that Graham has made in America over the past several years. The design of the books, however, more or less ignores chronology and location as organizing principles in favor of a series of sometimes brief, often glancing, picture groupings that vary from a single image (which also comprises, entirely, one of the books) to fuller sequences that more nearly resemble wordless narratives or, as Graham has called them, “filmic haikus.” Common to virtually all of these abbreviated tales, though, is the uncanny conjunction of dispossession and blessedness I recognize in Oedipus at Colonus. As in his previous book, American Night, Graham’s driving concern here seems to be that a grievous national crime has been committed, and continues to be enacted, against our poor, preponderantly African American communities. But by often moving in closer to his subjects, and honoring so attentively such simple acts as sitting in the sun, mowing a lawn, or eating “scraps,” Graham establishes in this new work a ground and frame for his own photographic version of a sacred grove, one that embraces the gentle expansiveness of his picture-narratives without violating the immanent sense of the holy that I, at least, repeatedly identify in these books. “Acceptance,” Oedipus propounds at the opening of Sophocles’s play, “is the great lesson suffering teaches.” Along with his editor Michael Mack (whose knowing touch can be felt everywhere in this project) and the publisher/printer, Gerhard Steidl, Paul Graham illuminates that lesson in picture after picture, sequence after sequence, book after book.
—Tod Papageorge’s new book—American Sports, 1970, or How We Spent the War in Vietnam—was recently published by Aperture.
a shimmer of possibility was published by Steidl in Spring 2008.