David Graham: Declaring Independence

at Catherine Edelman, through July 3

Paho Mann

at Flatfile, through July 3

The automobile’s profound influence on the American landscape is revealed in David Graham’s 18 color photos at Catherine Edelman, most from his latest book, Declaring Independence. Never condescending, these often humorous images document roadside attractions and other outdoor scenes with a care that presents them as more beautiful than kitschy. Still, Graham articulates the disconnectedness that travel by car creates: viewing the land at high speeds from a ribbon of concrete, we’re struck not by continuities or relationships but by momentary attention getters. A pumpkin field in Near Watsonville, California needs the giant fake pumpkin in the middle to announce what it is. In an introduction to one of Graham’s books, postmodern architect Robert Venturi (who three decades ago praised a restaurant shaped like a giant duck) suggests that Graham’s work celebrates “vitality within vulgarity” and “the everyday American experience involving ranges of mess.”

In Solly Brothers Farm, Richboro, Pennsylvania [Bedroom], furniture and home decorations sit outdoors: a bed and dresser against some fake walls hung with pictures, a mirror, and a crucifix. Graham told me this surreal scene is part of the setup for a “haunted hayride” in which “a figure leaps out of bed at people as they ride by.” His explanation didn’t make the scene any less strange. Rather it’s an apt metaphor for the ostentatiously fake theater that dots our roadsides. That theater can be mobile too. In Jesus Saves, Grants, New Mexico a truck whose side is painted Jesus Saves in bright red serves as a backdrop for a portable altar with rows of benches facing it, all presumably just unloaded from the truck. Beyond the truck is a suitably random representation of our transformed landscape: a shed and some parked semitrailers. As Jane and Michael Stern, who’ve written about odd tourist sites, said in an introduction to another of Graham’s books, he portrays American civilization as “a loopy spectacle of passions and advertising promises, where everyone wants to be noticed and everything has been created to look as big and important as possible.”

In high school in Philadelphia in the 60s, Graham was a drag racer who had little interest in art until his senior year, when a friend showed him a notebook of photos and drawings. Graham thought, “I can do that.” In college he studied photography with Ray Metzker, and while working toward an MFA at the Tyler School of Art he became friends with another influence, Emmet Gowin, and with Gowin’s friend Jim Dow, who’d been an assistant to Walker Evans.

Graham’s work has many antecedents–the Sterns mention Robert Frank and Diane Arbus, among other photographers. But what distinguishes Graham is the way he presents landscape as a kind of architecture, haunted by show-off advertising and the scars on the land generated by automobile travel. Yosemite National Park, California [Handstand] shows two men cavorting in a shallow body of water while some children play behind them. In the far distance rise Yosemite’s famous waterfall-laced cliffs, first made famous by 19th-century photographers. Graham had been working on a magazine assignment about overcrowding in national parks when a man, noticing him preparing to shoot, told him, “I can stand on my hands for a really long time.” Graham asked if he could do that in the water, and further composed the shot by asking another man to move in closer on his inner tube. By juxtaposing the handstander with these cliffs known for their beauty, Graham illustrates how our interest has shifted away from nature and toward ourselves–he says his photos are “about the priorities of our country, in a way.”

In Royal Gorge, CO Graham juxtaposes another spectacular setting with advertising: a restaurant deck overhangs the gorge while a huge suspension bridge, paralleling the form of the platform’s wooden fence, crosses it. Both of these man-made structures cut into the open space, but some small Coors banners flying above the deck are oddly almost as weighted as the bridge, a compositional device Graham says was intentional.

The quietest image in the show was the one I liked best. Westley, CA shows what Graham calls a “happenstance intersection of objects”: a nondescript rural crossroads with a water tower in the background and some posts, a pay phone, and a fire hydrant in the foreground. Just behind the phone is a rather tawdry sign that reads Rocket Muffler Repair, with a white top coming to a triangular peak in a weak hint at a rocket. The squat sign juts into a gorgeous sky nearing sunset–a suggestion, perhaps, that advertising isn’t always the attention getter it’s meant to be.

Paho Mann’s 15 photos at Flatfile, arranged in a grid, all show former Circle K convenience stores, built in the late 60s and early 70s in Albuquerque, now occupied by diverse enterprises from a Chinese restaurant to a computer store. All are framed head-on, with their parking lots in front of the facades and the overhanging roofs providing shelter between car and store.

Mann says in his statement that what interested him is the way these once standardized buildings show “the emergence of individuality…through new signs, paint, and other client attracting ornamentation.”

The building in Old Circle K/Pet Shop has sculptures of a “pet” dinosaur and scorpion on the roof, and the auto shop in Old Circle K/Dent Express has added large security gates with bright signs advertising window tinting, among other things. Mann’s series reminded me of Levittown, New York, a cookie-cutter post-World War II suburb famous for its home modifications, which often obliterated the originals. The changes to Mann’s stores are much more modest, so what command attention are the parking lots.

Mann was born in Snowflake, Arizona, in 1978 and grew up there and in Albuquerque. He says he was influenced by Bernd and Hilla Becher, photographers known for their typological grids of industrial structures such as water towers–an influence evident in his taxonomic approach and grid arrangement. But where the Bechers’ water towers are often spectacular, with notable differences between them, Mann’s stores are almost pathetically unimpressive and unvaried. Indeed it seems a feature of American mass culture that the “differences” between products can be meaningless.

The signage and colors of Mann’s stores may have changed, but the core structure remains the same: the front of the building features an attention-getting sign meant to invite people in from the parking lot or street. The buildings themselves are advertisements–“the building as sign,” as Venturi called it in analyzing the Las Vegas strip–meant to attract people through the windows of their cars.