NEW YORK — When he was a child, photographer Paul Graham fell into a pile of dry cement and went temporarily blind. After three months (and a few run-ins with walls), his sight returned. “I remember running up the garden and finally seeing a patch of brightness,” says Graham. “I remember the joy of that vision returning.”
He would go on to use that split-second sensation of moving from dark to light in his work, exploring how we do — and don’t — see the world that surrounds us. His latest collection, “American Night,” goes on display Sunday at P.S. 1 in Long Island City and juxtaposes huge, bright-white images of poverty beside Crayola-color pictures of chillingly pristine suburban homes.
The 47-year-old British photographer traveled from Memphis to Detroit from 1998 to 2002 shooting landscapes of destitution and prosperity: men walking along deserted roads, expanses of rundown urban neighborhoods and squeaky clean SUVs parked by mowed suburban lawns and picket fences. But he chose not to give them the Walker Evans treatment. Instead of casting shadows on his subjects, he bathes them in light.
“In photography, it’s somehow become accepted that shadows and darkness are how you convey poverty and disenfranchisement,” says Graham, who similarly played with light in his 1999 portraits of European teens in nightclubs called “End of an Age.” He lit the first set of photographs with a flash “where you could see every eyelash, every pore.” Seconds later, he shot the same teens, drinks in hand, using only ambient light, for a blurry, drunken feeling.
“The viewer is really pulled in two different directions,” Graham explains of the technique. “You’re uplifted by the whiteness, but then you’re faced with this sober subject matter.”
The title of his latest exhibit is a reference to François Truffaut’s 1973 “La Nuit Americaine” and to a filmmaking technique used to re-create nighttime during the day. Again, Graham uses it to play with the viewer’s expectations. “There’s a disconnection between using the word night in the title and the images being very bright. It’s a contrast between the title and the work.”
Whether Graham’s examination of American values has anything to do with the current political climate, he won’t say. It’s what happened to interest him as he traveled across the country by plane. “I didn’t want to do the whole Kerouac road-trip thing.”
The series of images Graham shot last (which he calls “the dark images”) were done in New York, where he moved a year ago to Greenwich Village. Set at the exhibit’s entrance, they’re claustrophobic portraits of inner-city characters. Graham says the five boroughs provided just the contrast he was seeking for the shots. “New York’s great for the light in the canyons. You literally have a dark side of the street and a sunny side of the street.
“Right now we’re in a time of willful blindness,” he adds, acknowledging that there are parts of society we choose to see and others we ignore.
Graham can be just as guilty.
“Sometimes,” he says, “I have to go down the street and shut my eyes off to what’s going on around me.”