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Exploring the Mystical Drama of Life Through Photography

Exploring the Mystical Drama of Life Through Photography

A new exhibition at International Center of Photography in New York and a new book mediate on the role of documentary photography in our ever-changing world, offering a slice of life that is poetic in form.
Image from Lost Coast, in But Still, It Turns (MACK, 2021) © Curran Hatleberg. Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

After four years of living in a world filled with notions of “post truth,” we have witnessed shared objective standards crumble before our very eyes, resulting in a highly factionalized society. Invariably, this extension of the postmodern project would expand beyond discourse and into art with “post documentary” becoming a new way of thinking about photography, one which curator Paul Graham embraces in the new ICP exhibition and MACK bookBut Still, It Turns: Recent Photography From the World.

For Graham, who first fell in love with what he describes as “serious photography” in the mid-1970s, the medium offered a semblance of order in an otherwise chaotic world. Documentary photography could ground us in place and time, offering guidance, insight, compassion, and understanding — helping us make sense of that which might otherwise be unfathomable. But what it wasn’t, and could never be, was fashionable.

Image from South County, AL (a Hale County), in But Still, It Turns (MACK, 2021). © RaMell Ross. Courtesy of the artist and
Image from ZZYZX, in But Still, It Turns (MACK, 2021). © Gregory Halpern. Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

Graham laments the art world’s marginalization of the documentary form without bringing to bear the political underpinnings such a position holds. Rather he focuses on the fact that, “It is difficult to make really meaningful work from life.” But nothing of value comes easy; for documentary photographers, the challenge of presence, intimacy, trust, mutuality, and awareness are heightened by a profound lack of control over their subjects. 

The Poetry of Daily Life

Image from she dances on Jackson, in But Still, It Turns (MACK, 2021). © Vanessa Winship. Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

“There is no didactic story here, no theme or artifice. None is asked, none is given,” Graham writes of the works of Vanessa Winship, Curran Hatleberg, Richard Choi, RaMell Ross, Gregory Halpern, Piergiorgio Casotti and Emanuele Brutti, Kristina Potter, and Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa featured in But Still, It Turns

Their approach, which Graham describes as “post-documentary,” eschews the formal approach of the American documentary tradition established by Gordon Parks, Dorothea Lange, and Walker Evans, who used photography as a tool to investigate, explore, and expose inequality and injustice from coast to coast. The photographers featured here draw more from the work Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, and Lee Friedlander who were observers, rather than activists, using the camera as a tool of exposure rather than agitation. 

Untitled, 2016. © Gregory Halpern
Image from ZZYZX, in But Still, It Turns (MACK, 2021). © Gregory Halpern. Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

‘Talented artists know when to leave the poetry of the world alone,” Graham asserts. “No editorializing, no words to illustrate: that there is no singular story is the story. These photographers tell us that all is in play, that everything matters. Here is a freedom, hard-won, sometimes confusing, but nonetheless genuine: a consciousness of life, and its song.”

These series, produced before the COVID-19 pandemic, taken on even greater resonance in light of massive shifts to our daily lives that we could have never otherwise imagined. Underlying each of the photographers’ works is the sense of meditation on an ever-changing world in search for a glimpse of the eternal. Here landscapes and portraits made across the United States reveal a profound sense of continuity in an increasingly politically, economically, and socially stratified nation. 

Image from South County, AL (a Hale County), in But Still, It Turns (MACK, 2021). © RaMell Ross. Courtesy of the artist and MACK

Liberated from the confines of storytelling, these photographers convey a mood, a sense of feeling and being that is more about capturing the spirit of a people and a place than explaining what we are looking at. By resisting the narrative arcs and decisive moments of traditional documentary work, these photographers search for new ways to explore the deeper, more complex mysteries of life.

By Miss Rosen

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.

But Still, It Turns: Recent Photography from the World
On view through August 15, 2021
International Center of Photography, 79 Essex Street, New York, NY 10002, USA

MACK Books
£50.00, $60.00

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