Thursday, November 4, 2010

Photographer David Graham's Eccentric America: An Interview

David Graham’s photography exposes an invisible tension in our culture. Simultaneously, his work depicts the America of commercially nourished mythology, while also representing the America that actually exists. Yet, Graham continually reveals the unpolished, authentic America finding sustenance in these repurposed pop culture figures and historical fairy tales.

above, left: "Camille Terry as Marilyn Monroe, Palisades Park, NJ"

A series of Graham’s photographs, on display at Pittsburgh’s Silver Eye Photography Center in 2008, revealed the persistence of eccentricity in spite of (and sometimes because of) America’s relentlessly homogenizing and gentrifying forces. Many of these striking oddities, like the gold-tone statue of Lenin that greets customers like Ronald McDonald in the parking lot a Dallas burger joint, have trickled down from popular consciousness to become pristine examples of local kitsch.

Graham’s human subjects likewise appear passionately consumed by their interests, even if these inclinations tend towards the surreal. There are, for example, Graham’s photographs of Liberace impersonators dressed in suit jackets made of tinsel garland. And there are his many early 1990s portraits, like Randy Allen as Betty Davis, Philadelphia, PA and Bud Burkhart as William Penn, Levittown, PA. These photographs reveal the pop culture reservoir that Americans draw from in their search for personal expression.

In an interview conducted via telephone, David Graham explained his enduring notion of America, his thoughts on icons, his undying interest in photographing Americana, and his conceptual and technical evolution as a photographer.

SSG: What’s your definition of America? Or what is the America you attempt to capture in your photographs?

DG: America is a chunk of land, but it’s also a bunch of people. The land doesn’t know it’s named America. It’s the people, who are very friendly, expressive and, I find, enthusiastic. And the part that I’m interested in is the outward, 3-D manifestation of what they do. I’m interested in what somebody does to their car, if they paint it a funny way or if their front yard is full of things or if they’ve built some odd shed behind their house — anything that goes beyond simply going inside and watching TV. Really, how they express themselves.

SSG: The inside worlds that come out.

DG: Yes, that’s right.

SSG: So how often are you on the road each year, exploring America?

DG: It all depends. The way I generally get on the road is that I either have a project of my own — something I want to do or a place I want to go — or preferably, I get a free plane ticket from a magazine. And that’s what gets me where I’m going. I go a little early or I stay a little late and shoot whatever is in the area. I’m not like a National Geographic guy who’s out there for months at a time, but I probably do eight to ten small trips every year.

SSG: Do you actually take pins and randomly stick them into maps as a method of finding where you’ll go next?

DG: Yes, I have actually done that. For one project in particular, I had a big map and pins all over the place, and when I’d get a bunch of pins in one area, I would go there.

SSG: With the exception of Ay, Cuba!, nine of your ten books focus on American subject matter and still lives. What keeps you photographing America and not another country?

DG: Cuba was amazingly photogenic. It was the most photogenic place I have ever been. But I find that whenever I go somewhere else, I don’t have as much insight into the culture. You can drop some people into, say, a country in Africa, and they see everything that’s unique and new. I get dropped into some place new, and I see what’s superficial. I grew up in this country, and I just know it better.

SSG: You often photograph impersonators, from Ben Franklin to Marilyn Monroe. What is your view of icons and what role do they play in your photography?

DG: What I’m always looking for is an iconic photograph. I want every picture to be that, to be straightforward and to have an inevitability. In terms of the impersonators, I would go back to the idea of how Americans express themselves. Those are people who use their own bodies to express an inner passion, interest, or love — whatever it happens to be. And once you start photographing people who do those sorts of things, you hit on powerful icons such as Marilyn Monroe or Elvis Presley. Actually, the ones I think are more peculiar and funny are the ones that are esoteric, for instance Midge Mattel, Barbie’s best friend. Or there’s a guy around here [Buck’s County, Pennsylvania], who does the Quaker naïve painter Edward Hicks. Nevertheless, going to an Elvis impersonator’s convention is always good fun. I’ve been to a number of these. It’s a way of meeting the people, and it’s just a riot to see ten different flavors of Marilyn Monroe, a Philippino Elvis, or a black leather Elvis.

SSG: Do you feel your photographs tap into or dispel an American mystique?

DG: I think they tap into it. A big problem for me is that there is a real ‘blanding’ of the American culture. As everything becomes more homogeneous, it becomes a lot less interesting and a lot harder to find things that are more personal. For instance, when you’re on the road, it’s interesting to see some Mom & Pop restaurant that’s sitting by the road side. Say they’ve had a great idea for a sign, and they got the local sign maker to build it. But increasingly, there’s a Red Robin or a Cracker Barrel in their place. So many of these pre-fab franchises use the spirit of archetypal American restaurants, but they make it into a formula. And I find all that very difficult.

SSG: Your newest work deals with Post-Katrina Louisiana and Mississippi. What did you go down there to look for?

DG: Initially, I wasn’t going to go down to Katrina because, although I had photographed a number of floods before, this one was a real disaster. With the others, water came in, people lost their water heaters and their cars, but nobody got hurt. Katrina was completely different. A student of mine went down there and brought back pictures that showed two things: one was the way that emergency workers would put ‘Xs’ on the sides of houses and used numbers to denote different things, like when they were there, how many bodies they found. This had an amazing gestural quality and finality to it. A friend of mine later told me about a particular Wal-Mart, where the entire contents were blown into a forest behind where the building had stood. And I thought, “Wow, that sounds amazing — the juxtaposition of strollers, beach balls, and whatever in the trees.” So, that’s what got me interested in going down there. In addition, I thought, that will be my way to help. If I took a lot of pictures and was able to get them out there — as a means to reinforcing the need for people to be helping — then that would be a great thing.
at right, above: "St. Bernard's Parish, Louisiana"

Then, once you actually have your subject matter in front of you, you forget about the subject itself, and you become interested in the visual forms. You’ve got to construct a rectangle, a square or an oblong shape in an intelligent way.

But for me, the most astonishing image was driving along I-10 at 70 mph at night, knowing that you’re driving through a city, but it’s pitch black and empty. There were just miles and miles of empty houses — even during the day they looked like nothing in particular happened to them when you were going at that speed. It’s when you drove down the streets that you realized that you soak a house in water for months, it’s worthless.

In the end, I went down twice. The second time, I went down with my daughter, who’s 21, and she took pictures and helped people rebuild in a Native American area that’s 45 minutes south of New Orleans. When we came back, she organized a symposium at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where five of us presented what we had seen and experienced and passed along information about where people could volunteer and donate money. So I figured that was better than me, who can hardly pound a nail into a 2 –by-4, trying to rip out drywall for five days.
SSG: Critics have characterized you as a humorist because of your photographs’ dry wit and attention to incongruous detail. Has the Katrina experience changed your definition of America at all?

DG: It was kind of weird that there were many of the same elements, but the humor was not there. Part of humor, when it works really well, is its surreal quality — you often jump from one idea to another unexpected idea. With Katrina, the same mechanism was at work, but it just wasn’t funny. My new work is trying to use the Katrina photographs that have a more surreal feel — as opposed to the sense of outright disaster — and weave them in with some of my other pictures. So you’ll see what you would normally think of as The United States, plus a slightly darker side — because, in fact, that was what was revealed.

SSG: Are you working on a new book then?

DG: I am. It’s called Almost Paradise.

SSG: I like the title.

DG: Thank you. I’m really terrible on titles, but I like Taking Liberties, too. Someone reviewed a book of mine, and they used that as the article title. I thought, “Oh that’s great! I’m stealing that for my next book.” But the editor at Aperture, Michael Smith, came up with the title for Land of the Free.

SSG: Speaking of that, you seem to have found a kindred spirit in writer Andrei Codrescu. How did you find each other, and was it your photographs that resonated with him or his writing that resonated with you?

DG: We had one of those six degrees of separation deals. My friend’s college roommate’s wife, knew this guy, who was making a film with him. And he said, “You know, David Graham has photos you’d be interested in.” So, we were hooked up through these mutual acquaintances, and when we were doing Road Scholar back in 1992, we did some traveling around together. It is really fun to travel with him because, if you’re familiar with his NPR commentary, it’s just one--stop commentary after another. That’s what he does. We got along great and had a lot of fun, so he suggested we do the Cuba book [Ay! Cuba] together. Later, he did the introduction to the Land of the Free. We’re actually now republishing Road Scholar in Romania, where he’s from. And we’ve been talking about working on another project, but he’s just so busy. He’s the busiest poet I know.

SSG: Let’s turn to technical issues now. Did you begin with black and white film because that was, traditionally speaking, the accepted choice for fine art photography?

DG: Yes. The joke is, Ansel Adams said: “Black and white are the colors of photography.” When I first started shooting in the early to mid-seventies, there was hardly anyone doing color. I learned in school to do color, but everything was black and white until the later seventies.

SSG: Did you gravitate towards color because it seemed to happen organically, as a result of your interests or because it seemed to better define the places you visited?

DG: Actually, it was because I started shooting with an 8"x10" view camera, which makes an 8"x10" negative. I was shooting black and white, and I was taking boring, old-fashioned pictures. And really, it was such an ordeal to take a photograph that way instead of walking around with a 35 mm camera, so I figured I wanted to get more bang for my buck, more information. I thought if I shot in color, it would give me another layer of information. I wasn’t enlarging them at the time. They were infinitely sharp. So using color was just a way of putting another set of concerns into the picture. One thing led to another and that’s how it happened.

SSG: Do you work with digital formats?

DG: I do. It’s inevitable. When I do freelance work, for a publication or a landscape architect, it’s usually digital. But I still shoot film for myself. I’ve been doing it forever.

SSG: Do you develop your own film as well?

DG: I don’t do that. A lab does that for me, but I do make the prints from the negatives. I have a color dark room. It’s very…20th century.

SSG: How do you select your commercial projects? I’ve seen a correlation between the creative and contract works on your web site. Are they often serendipitous matches between what you’ve photographed and what is needed?

DG: A web site is always a little misleading. You don’t put the boring work on there. You just put the ones on that look great. (laughs) Those are the ones where it really worked out, but I get tons of projects where I take pictures of guys in offices. I mean, you gotta pay the rent. A lot of times they are exciting and interesting, even if the pictures themselves aren’t. For example, I just photographed Kelly McGillis recently. They just wound up being simple pictures of her walking her dog, but it was a great way to spend a day. I photographed some banker in East Stroudsburg [Pennsylvania] a couple of weeks ago, and he turned out to be a really fascinating guy.

SSG: So really, you’ve lead us right back to your concept of America — you show us what America is by photographing the types of people that comprise it.

DG: Yes. You’ve got it.

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