by David M. Roth
Henri Cartier-Bresson once boasted that he could make great photos standing in one place — just by spinning in a circle and tripping the shutter. True or not, the quality of his output made the claim credible. The same might be said of Ken Graves (1942-2016), a street photographer whose pictures stand with the best of Robert Frank, Garry Winograd and Lee Friedlander. Thirty-five of his images, taken from a book called The Home Front (2015), are on display in a show of the same name. They were made mostly between 1969 and the late-1970s, and are distinguished by the artist's Dadaist sensibility and the complicated questions they raise about what the photos represent.
Why, for example, does a young girl named Emily stand with her face to a wall holding a yardstick to her backside? Was it punishment? Why, in another image, do we see a man reclining, hands clasped behind his head, viewing a couple swinging from a trapeze? And why would a microphone on an 8-foot boom be employed to interview a pageant queen when a hand-held mic would have done just fine?
Then there's the shot of a man levitating above a stage, accompanied by an organist. Could this be modern-day spirit photography? The question goes unanswered. Another image that burns into memory on contact shows two girls performing backflips,their heads cropped out of the frame at the left. Nearby, an ambulance sits parked with back doors open, suggesting that the pair had only seconds earlier been ejected from those doors and thrust into the acrobatic scene pictured. The Home Front is a cavalcade of such carnivalesque moments.
Graves, you soon come to realize, is an absurdist of a very high order. He made these photos after a four-year stint in the U.S. Navy that ended in 1966, after which he attended SFAI on the G.I. bill. In San Francisco he found a city roiled by war, widespread protest and countercultural theatrics; yet instead of focusing on those events, Graves, who spent most of his career teaching in Pennsylvania, pictured everyday Americans engaged in mundane, everyday activities, ignoring the very things that captivated so many of his cohorts. He also during this period made collages that were deeply critical of America, its materialism and hollow promises. Yet in his photos, a good many of which were made in collaboration with his wife, Eva Lipman, he reveled in Americana, publishing books about ballroom dancing, tattoo culture and notions of manhood. The results, to put it mildly, were not of a documentary sort; in spirit they leaned closer to Raoul Hausmann and Hanna Höch than to Frank and Winogrand.
Those included in The Home Front bring a couple truisms to mind: 1) Life, closely observed, is almost always stranger than fiction, and 2) street photography, like street crime, is opportunistic. Graves seized such opportunities wherever they crossed his field of vision: at county fairs, city streets, zoos, parades, motel rooms, dog shows, colleges, family gatherings and supermarkets.
The images he made in these settings consistently engage. Other notable examples include a photo of the tail ends of two parked cars meeting as if in a kiss. In a drive-through zoo — only in America! — the truncated legs of a giraffe reflect in a side-view mirror. A slab of pork ribs slung over butcher’s shoulder makes a Francis Bacon-like “portrait.” There are also allusions to American military power, seen in a photo of a torpedo sharing space with what
might be a sunbathing woman, and in an image in which the nose cone of a missile nudges ever so slightly into a bare, clinical space – a library, perhaps, or a hospital waiting room. Only from the title do we learn that the photo was taken at an air show, a fact deftly obscured by the composition.
Much has been made of the way Graves’ photos both reference events and obliquely sidestep them. Sandra S. Philips, SFMOMA’s former curator of photography, in a forward to the book, traces the roots of Graves’ art to a project he and a friend, Mitchell Payne, undertook in which they went door-to-door collecting amateur photos. The resulting book, which they called American Snapshots, greatly influenced two other Art Institute students, Larry Sultan and Jim Goldberg. Later, Sultan and another photographer, Mike Mandel, would go on to employ a variant of that strategy in a masterpiece called Evidence, consisting of photos culled from corporate and government archives. These they presented without explanation. Viewers were left agog, wondering what the photos were originally meant to convey. Crime scenes? Lab experiments? Fluxus performances? It was impossible to tell.
Graves, by captioning his photos, made them only slightly less cryptic than those in Evidence. The main difference: Where Sultan and Mandel sought to sow doubt about the activities of bureaucracies, public and private, Graves was all about portraying the oddities of American experience with what Philips calls “kindness if not also dismay,” documenting “an uneasy time, rich in incident and humanity.”
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Ken Graves: “The Home Front” @ Anglim Gilbert/14 Geary St. through October 15, 2016.