by W. M. Hunt

Published on 02/14/ 2014

For more than three decades, photographer David Graham has chronicled the zany colors of vernacular America. Produced in conjunction with Gallery 339’s retrospective of Graham’s work, this selection of his images is presented along with an interview with the photographer by W. M. Hunt.

— The Editors

Bring the camera.

David Graham is a great American photographer.

The “great” part of that declaration is a given. The “American” part may be superfluous, but it speaks of Graham’s gumption, initiative, and resourcefulness in zeroing in on the spectacular in the everyday on his extended road trip of more than 35 years.

Look at the titles of his classic books: Only in America (1991), Land of the Free (1999), American Beauty (1987), Taking Liberties (2001), and Declaring Independence (2004). Next up is certainly Purple Mountain Majesties. On the surface, it seems as if the whole oeuvre is a big fish story (see the cover of his book American Beauty, Aperture, 1987), except that Graham is a “road scholar,” reporting and not exaggerating. The heartbeat is full and pumping, energizing the journey. These works are, for the most part, short tales, postcards home from the road.

The entirety of Graham’s retrospective Thirty-Five Years / 35 Pictures (at Gallery 339 in Philadelphia) is heartfelt and smart storytelling. What seems like a quick glance out the car window is actually a slower, more plodding look under each rock as he goes—it’s a more intuitive inquiry done with an open eye and an appreciation of the unlikely and uncanny. The storytelling of a long, idyllic marriage on a lonely island in Alone Together, for instance, is as tender and sharp as a Chekhov tale.

Graham loves signs and murals: “Really really good,” “Bring the camera,” “Buy now pay later,” “Hand car wash,” “Almost paradise,” “Good luck.” These are messages left for him to read on the side of the road. Graham brings a wicked and hearty sense of humor to his practice. He sees funny. He sees the irony, the illogical, and the crazy balance. Grown Shriners in kiddie cars. A burger that ate L.A. Elvis. The images are decent and sweetly, surreally ludicrous.

You look and keep grinning.

He also sees in color. Not enough attention has been paid to Graham’s acute and musical appreciation of color. He finds the rainbow arpeggios at the “no tell” motels. It isn’t always the primary colors that beckon. Look at his flood-damaged homesites, his abandoned meals, his impersonators in their garish interiors.

I heart Dave.

W. M. Hunt: Thirty-Five / 35, huh? Congratulations. You are an American original. How was it to select a single picture from each year for the show?

David Graham: I think it worked out great. It was fun going through the work and finding the right picture for the right year. It also was rewarding to have a collaborator [Martin McNamara at Gallery 339] who was as in love with the work as I am. It was frustrating, however, to come upon a year that was awash in great pictures—1989, 2006, for instance—and only be able to choose one. Ultimately, that was OK.

WMH: Has the process allowed for some insights into yourself and into the idiosyncratic David Graham oeuvre?

DG: The payoff was seeing threads that run through the work from the beginning until now—i.e., Marge Gapp’s Studio [Philadelphia, 1979] has a wonderful pairing with Steve Tanis Studio [Arden, Delaware, 2009] or the 2013 picture that I would have loved to have taken any year, Route 130, NJ.

WMH: What did you recognize that you may not have seen before?

DG: The structural continuity of the pictures. What I mean is that the basic visual vocabulary or grammar, if you will, was established early, and I still use it today. A lot of that structure comes from looking at thousands of photographs at the suggestion of Emmet Gowin and Jim Dow. Emmet was and is my neighbor, and he would show me books and things and his own work in the ’70s. One year, Jim Dow, Emmet’s close friend, replaced Emmet at Princeton University while he was away on sabbatical; Jim brought his vast collection of slides of photography. I would borrow three carousels a day and look at them. Also, I saw a lot of Jim’s work. Jim printed for Walker Evans, and their work has many of the same characteristics. Oh yeah, and Walker Evans has been the number one influence.

WMH: Besides your incredible skill with color, two things that distinguish your work are your sense of humor and your curiosity. I have this mad vision of you literally turning over each rock, laughing to yourself and out loud about how fucked things are. You are the Inspector Clouseau of the banal.

DG: I do think that is a bit of a mad vision, but, as with you, I am always looking for the absurdity in any situation, photographic or otherwise. Photographically, when I started shooting the 8 x 10…, it was so slow and so expensive that I wanted to get the most out of it, so I loaded in detail, color, subject, historical references, and…humor. I wanted everything.

Graham photographs ‘with an open eye and an appreciation of the unlikely and uncanny’

WMH: What drives you to make pictures?

DG: It became an addiction. I remember when I first started using the 8 x 10 in 1979 (the first of the 35 years), I slowed down and took photos much less frequently. This was because it was so expensive and I was living on such modest means, so I would only make an exposure if I knew it was going to yield a great picture. The downside of this [frugality] was that it drove me crazy to be shooting so little, even though I was getting great pictures. My solution was to get a medium-format camera and shoot events, such as parades, county fairs, etc.—someplace that was a target-rich environment. I still have to compensate now; about a year ago, I got a small digital camera that I could have with me all the time, so I could take pictures frequently. The picture from 2012 was from the first week of having that camera on me.

He sees funny.

WMH: Are you attempting to solve some karmic riddle?

DG: I don’t know if it’s karmic, but I do feel like I am solving a riddle every time I take a picture—figuring out the forms, shapes, colors, subject, and references that I either find in the picture or squeeze into it somehow.

WMH: Do people remark about the melancholy in your work? It is so evident in your Alone Together images, you are that valentine to long love. Meet Me in the Bandstand (not in the show—grrr) is so delicately heartfelt. Those images are your Chekhov story in photographs. But I think that sensibility weaves through all of your work.

DG: You are right about that; I try and have elements of joy and melancholy in all the pictures. I did shoot those pictures for Alone Together the same as I always do, but the melancholy was a bit more forward. I just looked at the bandstand picture—I am going to swap out the 1996 photo of the mummer with the saxophone and put that in.

WMH: You’re also a “road photographer,” aren’t you?

DG: Yes, but when I am shooting locally, I use the same sensibility, and I consider the local or family pictures to be part of the 35-year journey.

WMH: What have you been looking for, and have you found it?

DG: A pat statement in response to that would be, in each picture I have been looking for a complex weave of image, symbol, and reality. In another way, I would say that I am always looking for a picture that fully describes, in an almost narrative way, a scene that tells you about people and how they express themselves and what they love.

WMH: Direct me to what’s new or possibly overlooked here in the 35. There is some great recent stuff, like Pittsboro, NC, 2012. Classic Graham.

DG: Yes, yes, yes—I love that Pittsboro picture. No, I think you’ve got a good fix on things and you are asking the right questions. Please feel free to ask some more. I do like answering in writing; it gives me time to think about everything.

WMH: You really do have a car fetish: Atlantic City, NJ, 1980; Burlington, NJ, 1983; St. Petersburg, FL, 1994; Kingman, AZ, 2000; Buick, 2012; and Route 130, NJ, and Vega, NJ, both 2013, represent a pretty wide cross section of the work, and it is evident that you did not get to these places on a train.

DG: Yes!!! I have been hugely in love with cars since I was about 12 or 13. My brother was a street racer (he was 12 years older than me) and always had fast, cool cars, of which I was very envious. I had a subscription to Road & Track forever—looking forward to it every month and reading it from cover to cover as soon as it arrived. Just this past summer, I put together a Blurb book…of my car pictures from the ’70s until now. I think Route 130 was the most recent.

WMH: What was your first car?

DG: A 1969 GTO with a four-speed manual transmission, limited slip differential. It was freakishly fast. I was never beaten in a drag race.

WMH: You seem to have had a unique GPS before anyone else, a kind of homing device for weird signs and roadside attractions. Only you would find a billboard declaring a rattlesnake den (Mason, TX, 1994).

DG: Yes, I do feel very lucky sometimes. I was told that [Edward] Steichen said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” I’m not sure the source is right, but I agree with the sentiment.

These works are, for the most part, short tales, postcards home from the road.

WMH: You do like people, though.

DG: Yes, that’s true. Andrei Codrescu [star of the documentary Road Scholar and author of a book by the same name, for which Graham shot the photos] wrote, amusingly, that I like people, he tolerates them.

WMH: You are refreshingly nonjudgmental.

DG: Regardless of what people may say, through misinterpretation, I am not judging people. I am joining in their enthusiasm and joy—though possibly being joyful because the red ’57 Chevy in front of the blue house is going to make a great photo, while the owner is joyful because he loves his ’57 Chevy.

WMH: The bathing beauties of Nan and Vy, Rome, ME, 1982, are relaxed and good-looking.

DG: I was and am very happy with that photograph. It really caught the moment of summer vacation, friendship, and love. The bathing beauty on the left is my mother-in-law, and the one on the right is her friend Vy.

WMH: I suppose that the American Revolutionary reenactor in Todd Gerding as a Hessian Soldier, Richboro, PA, 1991, looks ridiculous.

DG: Maybe, but I love the way the door frame makes that part of the picture look like a painting from the early 1800s.

WHM: When the end comes, you will undoubtedly be laid to rest in full Elvis drag in the front seat of a cherry-red ’50s Chevy Impala convertible. But who will be there to chronicle it? Bring the camera.

DG: Yes! And I will look up out of the casket and make sure that everyone is there!