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Beyond the Decisive Moment
Temporality and Montage in Paul Graham's A Shimmer of Possibility
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IMAGE [&] NARRATIVE Vol. 16, No.3 (2015) 17
The paper discusses questions of temporality and narration in Paul
Graham's photobook A Shimmer of Possibility. Graham's use of
photographic sequences decidedly contests the single photograph. He
makes use of filmic methods such as temporality and montage that
foster narration. The medium of the photobook supports the methods
applied by creating a succession of pictures that can only be
perceived one after another and therefore in time. Discussed are
questions of stylistic methods, their relation to film, and the
specific mediality of the photobook.
The Single Image vs. the Image in Plural
The legacy of many photographers has derived from their ability to
suggest that they were at the right place at the right time, to
perceive life as it was unfolding, condensing it into the one
photograph that seemed to tell an entire story or to manifestly
produce the evidence and context of life itself. In producing the
concept of the "decisive moment," Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908–2004)
committed himself to the formal perfection of the single shot. "[…]
if the shutter was released at the decisive moment, you have
instinctively fixed a geometric pattern without which the photograph
would have been both formless and lifeless." (Cartier-Bresson, 1952:
n.p.) For Cartier-Bresson, formal aspects are essential to the
concept of the decisive moment; everything must be perfectly in
place. Many of his photographs, of course, instantiate this idea.
However, looking at contact sheetsi of generations of photographers
even before the invention of motor-driven or digital cameras, we now
know that the idea of the single photograph is often a myth created
by the second act of photography: in the process of selecting the
image that best conveys the photographer's ideas. Both photographing
and selecting the single photograph imbue it with meaning and convey
why the photographer who witnessed the moment did an excellent job in
The historical opposite of this paradigm is chronophotography. (Cf.
Frizot, 1998: 243ff.) In the experiments of Étienne-Jules Marey
(1830–1904) and Eadward Muybridge (1830–1904), beginning in the
1870s, movement was captured by recording animated subjects–animals
and humans–with multiple cameras that shot within a specific time
pattern. Thus the course of motion was captured in multiple
exposures, displaying the passing of time by freezing individual
poses. Chronophotography can be seen as a precursor of cinema. For
contemporary viewers it seemed necessary to animate the individual
photographs as, for example, with some of the horses' poses captured
in "ugly and ungainly" positions. (Mowll Mathews, 2005: 44) With the
invention of the zoopraxiscope, Muybridge solved this dilemma und
displayed the individual photographs in motion, thus creating a
realistic perception of movement.
The perception of an ungainly position in a single photograph of
Muybridge's horse sequence can be seen as the exact opposite of the
decisive moment. The pose seems to be unnatural and preposterous,
thus undermining the dignity and power of a galloping horse. However,
using more than one photograph of the same subject can provide a more
thorough view of the subject, adding context and depth to its
presentation. When looking at chronophotography not only as a
precursor of cinema but also as a sequential practice in photography,
it seems necessary to note that it uses stilled cameras to observe
motion and mostly follows a rigid pattern in the rhythm of exposure,
whereas sequential photography may move the camera and vary the
timing to create context.
Many photographers today use the opportunity to unfold their subject
in more than one picture, illuminating it from different angles and
thus gaining complexity. The combination of pictures brings forward
the medium of the photobook. It can contain a whole series in a
specific succession, enhancing the photographer's ideas of context,
cohesion, and narration. The "image in plural" (cf. Ganz/Thürlemann,
2010) forms a context in the form of a series, or sequences, or both.
According to Allan Sekula (1951–2013), "Sequential organization, and
the parallel construction of textual elements, allows a photographic
work to function as a novel or film might, with a higher and more
complex level of formal unity. However, the openness of the
sequential ensemble constitutes a crucial difference with cinema:
there is no unilinear dictatorship of the projector." (Sekula, 1998:
5-6) Sekula relates the function of the photographic sequence to the
specific mediality of film and literature, therefore introducing
aspects of time and narration.
The single photograph produces visibility within its frame. The "off"
stays off because it is impossible to reintroduce anything that has
been left out of the frame back into the realm of visibility. (cf.
Metz, 1990: 160f.) The minute moment of exposure freezes everything
in place and produces stillness. Hence the metaphor of death has been
introduced into reflections on photography. (cf. Barthes, 2010: 79)
Contrasted with photography's stillness, film is linked to movement
and life. Both media share the time lapse between exposure and
viewing. However, it seems that photography is always associated with
history and memory, whereas the projection of film is said to produce
I wish to contend that the use of filmic means in a sequential
photographic practice produces a form of presence. The sequence
allows us to experience persons, objects, or locations in more than
one single photograph and therefore provides more information on the
subject. The use of multiple pictures of a place, a person, or an
event also rejects the idea that it is possible to reduce a situation
to a single photograph. It denies the individual picture the notion
of graphic and timely perfection. The photographic sequence implies
the idea that there may be ungainly poses included, as this may help
to form a context within the sequence. It is not necessarily the
individual picture that has to be perfect; rather it is set within a
context, which in combination with other images, conveys an idea or a
visual experience. The single photograph within a sequence appears
without symbolic meaning because the sequence as a whole creates
visibility and/or meaning. The sequence allows an unfolding of
visibility in a way that involves the viewer in a process of looking,
thinking, and making up her mind as to what is being shown.
A Shimmer of Possibility
Paul Graham photographed A Shimmer of Possibility from 2004 to 2006
in the United States. It was published in the form of a twelve-volume
book. (Graham, 2007) Not deliberately seeking a particular topic, he
seems to be interested in life itself, in its fleeting winks and its
unforeseeable twists and turns within everyday moments. The sequences
are about brief encounters, sometimes with and sometimes without the
knowledge of those photographed. They are mostly about city- and
landscapes and the people within. Atmosphere and lighting are
important. Sometimes a sequence is photographed in one location,
sometimes in different locations, interlacing and implementing more
The sequence Louisiana was photographed in 2005. It consists of
twelve photographs placed alone in one of the twelve volumes. The
sequence begins on the right-hand page with a horizontal long shot
showing a man and a red cat on a dirt track walking in the direction
of the camera. An elevated road overpass and an industrial zone can
be seen in the background. Untended greenery and blooming white
flowers, additionally, shape the surrounding. The sun is shining.
In the following pictures, views of the man and the cat alternate
from long-shot to close-up perspectives, always in the same setting
underneath the elevated road overpass in the midst of the greenery.
The photographs are various sizes and arranged on both pages. Only
the last picture implements a minor change in location. We see the
man from a distance in the back carrying the cat under his arm and
walking towards the parking lot of a motel where another man stands
facing him. At the bottom of the picture we view the end of the dirt
track and understand our direct spatial connection to the other
pictures: we are looking in the opposite direction.
The twelve pictures are all photographed in the same location. The
first picture serves as an establishing shot. It sets the tone and
introduces the protagonists and the location. (Fig. 1) In the first
two pictures–printed on the right-hand side, leaving the left page
blank–the sequence suggests movement and the passing of time: not
only because the man appears to walk towards us, becoming larger from
one picture to the next, but also because the camera moves towards
him, even though his position is frozen in the single frame. The
pictures are positioned on the double page in a way that suggests
that the movement is directed towards the book's gutter.
Movement abruptly halts with the third picture.
The horizontal format supporting the movement is substituted by a
vertical format, stalling the action and freezing the man in a pose.
The arrangement of the picture on the left page adds to this
impression of stopped time, and the right page is blank. After
turning the page, the viewer's gaze typically shifts to the right
page first. Thus its inkless-ness creates a break. Only after
perceiving the blank page does the gaze move to the left page to view
The perception of a sudden halt is heightened further by the next
picture, which–on first view–seems to be identical with the one
before. Same size, same position, same framing, same pose: even on
closer inspection, it is difficult to identify the moved cars in the
background in order to verify that this is not the same photograph.
Time stands still. The moment seemingly stretches to an endless
extent. However, this stillness is interrupted by the viewer of the
book, who leafs back and forth in order to determine whether it is
really the same photograph or not. The confusion produced in
combination with the use of the book leads to movement–not in the
pictures but by the viewer–in breaking up the stillness.
The next three pictures feature the cat and again suggest stillness.
The implementation of different angles and perspectives, enhanced by
the varying sizes and positions of the photographs on the double page
format, leads to the impression that time has cautiously begun to
move again. However, the perception of time's passing is different
than in the beginning of the sequence, as movement cannot be seen.
The cat's laziness in the first picture is overtaken by its attentive
observation of the greenery in the next photographs. The stillness of
each pose contrasts with the invisible movement that has taken place
in between the pictures. This suggests a passing of time, the length
of which cannot be precisely specified. The act of moving is left out
of the photographs. Two layers of time are apparently established:
the man's time and the cat's time. Both are presented as autonomous
time frames. The setting of the book, however, makes them pass one
The pointing arm and hand form a special moment within the sequence,
as now three pictures are juxtaposed on a double-page spread.
The photographs form a sequence within the sequence. Three moments
create one gesture, beginning with a slightly limp arm in the top
left picture until a pose of pointing consolidates in the photograph
on the right. The limp pose is ungainly, thus demonstrating the
rejection of the perfect picture representing a decisive moment. The
differences between the pictures are greater than in the two
portraits of the man following each other because here both camera
and body move. The photographs visualize a small gesture. The three
pictures capture a fleeting moment that would most likely pass
unnoticed in daily life. The moment is not halted; rather, through
the array of the pictures on the double page, the moment becomes
comprehensible as a movement connected to fleeting time. Although the
gesture is stilled in the photographs, the movement continues in the
cycle of the three pictures. Once I have viewed the last one, I begin
anew with the top left picture because the finger points to it, and
this moment potentially repeats forever in a circular act of
Turning the page, we see again the cat peering into the green. It
seems as if the cat has been waiting alertly while the man points to
something unknown in the distance. The last picture once more
suggests movement and the active passing of time. The change of
perspective and resumed action propose that this earlier encounter,
staged underneath the elevated road overpass, is over. The man
disappears into the distance, with the cat returned to his
The sequence shows that there is no single decisive moment able to
represent this encounter under the overpass. When only the man is
present, we know that the cat is still there and vice versa. The
"off" of the scene is not a complete off because we are constantly
reminded of the other protagonist when turning to the next
photograph. Moreover the setting is presented from different angles,
thus producing a comprehensible, spatial overview of the situation. The camera's reverse angle in the last
photograph helps to better envision the entire setting. (Fig. 5)
Time moves, stops, and passes: some moments are halted and stretched,
others sped up. There is no continuous flow of time; rather stillness
and varying speeds are implemented in order to introduce a
fluctuating and elliptical rhythm. The subject of the photographs,
how it is presented, and the array of the pictures emphasize the
shifting handling of time. The sequence creates presence. In its
varying temporalities, the scene and protagonists are very much
present because we can experience them visually in different aspects
within the surrounding. Such a shifting temporality is already
implemented in the photographs and further enhanced in the selection
process, and the photobook format adds to the perception of the
When looking at photographs in a photobook, we never see all the
pictures at once. In order to grasp the entire sequence, we remember
pictures that came before while leafing through the pages, thus
creating a more holistic structure in our memory. "Because of the
persistence of memory and the retention of after-image, a previous
page can be incorporated into the imagery of the following page, or
even a succession of pages." (Smith, 1998: 42) Viewing, time, and
memory are intertwined in the perception of a photobook. The pages
and photographs are revealed in "the act of turning the page," as
bookmaker Keith A. Smith describes. (Smith, 1998: 231) Turning the
page is a form of movement. Thus time and movement go together in the
experience of the book.
"Any format that exists in time has the potential for pacing.
Specific patterns of pacing can be incorporated by turning pages. The
viewer can recognize the slowing down and speeding up of turning
pages intended by the bookmaker. But this is rarely the case." (142)
Smith defines pacing as "1. The modulation of time in a book. 2.
Cadence." (229) The pacing is something that the bookmaker implements
within the book. The
viewer/reader may follow suit or, alternatively, use her own timing
for a personal viewing experience. Yet there is a third aspect within
the photobook: the timing of the photographs. Therefore time and
movement in the photobook are threefold: there is the photographs'
time, the pacing provided in the arrangement of the photographs, and
the viewer's time.
According to Smith the pacing may be achieved through cinematographic
characteristics. (132) The second term used for pacing is cadence, a
term known from music. Music and cinema are media perceived in time.
Additionally, British photography critic Gerry Badger thinks of music
when talking about the arrangement of photographs in a book:
[…] it is useful to think of musical qualities like point and
counterpoint, harmony and contrast, exposition and repeat. There
should be an ebb and flow to a photobook narrative, it should get
"softer" here, "louder" there, "quicken up" in visual terms, or slow
down, and it should build naturally, if not to a climax, at least to
a resolution. (Badger, 2013: 19)
The Louisiana sequence clearly demonstrates the three elements of
temporality in the photobook. The photographs show movement or
standstill. The arrangement makes the viewer turn the pages in a
specific way, and each viewer will find her own timing in the
perception of the book.
In the Louisiana sequence, the photographs seem to form a linear
narration. However, even though there is a beginning and an end, the
sequence does not tell a story in the most basic sense. If we think
of the last picture as a form of arrival, then there may be a
resolution in the aforementioned sense. Badger prefers to think of
the narration in photobooks as "mood pieces, visual poems if you
like, where any narrative line is contingent, fluid, and often highly
elliptical. Indeed, elliptical narrative might almost be considered
the quintessential characteristic of the photobook." (Badger, 2013:
18) Graham takes up this idea of visual poems, describing A Shimmer
of Possibility as "filmic haikus." (Rosenberg, 2009) The essential
elements of haiku, a Japanese form of poetry, are "concreteness and
the reference to the present." [my translation] (Deutsche
Haiku-Gesellschaft, n.d.) This analogy seems suitable for A Shimmer
of Possibility. The presence created and the atmosphere displayed can
be experienced in correlation to the passing, stretching, and cycling
of time and its fluidity.
With the rejection of the single photograph, the photographer also
seems to reject the notion of representation, or the charging of
pictures with symbolic qualities. What is the sequence about? It does
not present meaning in a way that can be easily grasped. The
protagonist's appearance and the setting suggest that he is not rich.
However, the sequence is no document about human poverty either. The
man as a person is shown in dignity, but we learn nothing about him
except from the fact that he walks around with a cat in the
neighborhood of a motel that is situated on an elevated road
overpass. The sequence asks questions that the photographs do not
answer. Why is the man there, why is he taking a walk with a cat?
This remains just as open as the nondescript setting, situated
vaguely somewhere in Louisiana, as the title suggests.
The eighteen photographs assembled in this volume were taken in
different locations at different times. However, the sequencing in
the book allows one to conclude that the author wishes them to be
seen as interrelated. The book begins with a large,
horizontal close-up photograph of a man's chest, belly, and hands
holding a styrofoam cup.
It is impossible to see if the cup is filled. Therefore it remains
unknown if the cup is used for coffee or for begged coins. The
picture is placed on the left page stretching over the fold, showing
the figure in semi-profile facing the gutter of the book. This first
page spread is followed by an interleaf. Turning the page again, the
viewer is confronted with a photograph showing the wall of a fast
food restaurant, where a figure crouches in the shadow on the
On the following pages, the scene with the crouching man is
juxtaposed with a second location, where a girl plays with toys on
the sidewalk. The two scenes are shown in various arrays on the
double page: they switch positions on the pages itself but also from
left to right and vice versa. Thus on some pages the two protagonists
seem to face each other, whereas in others they appear back-to-back.
(Fig. 7) After a picture of the girl's toys, positioned on the left
page, an interleaf follows. On the next double page we view a scene
change; now we observe a little boy standing on a lawn. (Fig. 8)
The next double pages show more of the setting: a concrete path used
by skaters, a family having lunch close to a gas station, people
sitting on the lawn.
The last picture from this setting shows a lonely, newly planted
tree. The family pictures are of snapshot quality, cutting through
people's heads and bodies and partly concealing other people present
in the scene. After another interleaf, we are surprised with a
reversed photograph of the man holding a styrofoam cup, positioned on
the left page in
the same size as the photograph in the beginning. Most of
the man's body now lies in the shadow. The sun arrives from the
right, slightly illuminating the man's shirt.
In this sequence we are confronted with varying scenes. It is not
necessarily the timing that has the strongest impact on the viewer
but rather the montage. The man with the styrofoam cup remains
completely anonymous; the image does not even hint at a setting. But
his photographs visually frame the entire sequence. The second part
of the sequence, in turn, interlaces two quite different locations.
Since both protagonists sit on sidewalks in front of walls in a
twilight situation, there seems to be a formal connection between the
scenes. While the photographer observes the crouching man from more
or less the same position, he moves toward the girl with changing
camera positions. The passing of time is made visible through the
different positions that the protagonists assume in the photographs.
They appear stilled in the single shots, their degree of motion
remaining rather minimal. As the photographer approaches the girl, we
can interpret a passage of time in order to bridge the distance. She
has noticed his presence but does not care. The crouching man seems
to be straightening up in slow motion, as the camera does not really
move. He has not noticed the photographer. The interlacing of the two
scenes introduces varying time layers. The movement of the camera
enhances the perception of time's passing, whereas the almost stilled
camera slows down the passing of time.
The third part of the sequence completely differs from the others. It
seems to show a middle-class, Sunday outing in a tourist spot. The
protagonists can be clearly seen in the bright sunlight. Whereas
Graham closely observes the settings before, here the photographs
seem to visualize a fleeting glance: a family having fast food lunch,
the skaters coming and going, people sitting on the grass. We do not
even know if the family and the skaters are photographed in the same
location. The grass and the surrounding landscape suggest a spatial
identity, but this might result from the montage and the similarity
of some aspects of the photographs. The perception of time's passing
is enhanced by activity in the pictures: the children seem to be
constantly moving, the skaters are active, and the gas station in the
background features two cars, both visible in the two pictures
respectively, and sharing space in one of the photographs. Only the
child (seemingly posing for the picture), the people sitting on the
lawn in the distance, and the small tree in the center of the last
photograph suggest stillness. The beginning and the end of this
setting allow for a pause, whereas the other pictures display a high
level of activity and motion, enhancing the perception of fleeting
glances and time's quick passage.
In the end, temporality in the California sequence is not as
graspable as in the Louisiana sequence. Here an aspect of montage
becomes much more pronounced. The bracketing sets a frame around
varying social and spatial scenes. While the scenes with the girl and
the crouching man seem to be rather self-contained, the last scene
opens the view onto a distance and allows for more freedom of
activity and viewing.
Graham's practice of briefly turning his attention to someone present
in a certain location or setting – or in other words, the
juxtaposition of scenes that deviate from each other to a large
degree – can be understood as a practice of dérive, coined by the
Situationist International. The dérive is "[a] mode of experimental
behavior linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of
rapid passage through varied ambiances." (Situationist International,
1958) The dérive is about perception and experience, about the
practical knowledge of ambiance and real life, including aspects of
randomness. Its un-intentionality conflicts with the coherence of a
story's narrative. Thus the dérive does not necessarily focus on
creating meaning but rather concentrates on making ruptures and
David Chandler (b. 1933) describes Paul Graham's photographic
practice like this:
He continued driving, to and from places, visiting and not visiting;
the locations, towns and cities becoming less and less relevant and
more and more representative. He would drive, and stop, and walk,
sometimes for a few minutes, at other times for hours, maintaining an
unstructured and intuitive itinerary, and photographing all the
while, keeping restraint in mind, never dwelling too long on any one
subject or being drawn too far beyond that initial point of
fascination. (Chandler, n.d.)
The seemingly random combination of different people, settings, and
scenes in the California sequence leaves viewers with a vague
impression rather than a clear understanding of events. The contrasts
between twilight and sunlight, poor and affluent, ambiguity and
clarity, all highlight different aspects of society in California.
However, the complex visuality of the sequence expands beyond a
simple verbal explanation.
Paul Graham's use of photographic sequences in A Shimmer of
Possibility bears a strong resemblance to film. Filmic techniques
help to create presence, emphasizing timing and montage to convey a
setting and to enable viewers to experience situations while looking
at the photographs. The narrative structure, however, differs
profoundly from a filmic one. In a documentary way, action is shown
as unintentional and random. Thus Graham's narrative remains close to
life itself: his photographs do not charge the scenes or activity
observed with meaning, as a filmic or a literary narrative might do.
The overall presentation in the photobook puts forth the idea of a
narrative without a storyline, without a particular beginning and
ending, or a tangible plot. It is quite apt that Paul Graham
associates his work with the short stories of Russian writer Anton
Chekhov (1860–1904). Chandler writes about Chekhov's short stories
that they "achieve the greatest atmosphere from ordinary situations,
the most vivid sense of time, place and character, with the most
minimal of means, and with plain words beautifully arranged often in
long lilting sentences." (Chandler, n.d.)
The rejection of a decisive moment leads to a complex presentation of
an immersive atmosphere for the viewer. The combination of
photographs, their succession and arrangement on the book's pages, as
well as their timing and montage, all account for the remarkable
quality of the work. Taking into account the photographs' temporality
as well as their arrangement, and choosing her own pace of advancing
or moving back-and-forth through the pages, the viewer becomes
involved as a director.
Gerry Badger, "It's All Fiction–Narrative and the Photobook," in
Imprint: Visual Narratives and Beyond, eds Gunilla Knape, et al.
(Stockholm: Art and Theory, 2013), 15-47.
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (New York:
Hill and Wang, 1981/2010).
Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment (New York: Simon &
David Chandler, "Sliding Sight, Setting Suns,"
http://www.paulgrahamarchive.com/writings.html (accessed September 5,
Deutsche Haiku Gesellschaft e.V., "Grundbegriffe" (n.d.),
(accessed September 5, 2014).
Michel Frizot, "Geschwindigkeit in der Fotografie. Bewegung und
Dauer," in Neue Geschichte der Fotografie, ed. Michel Frizot
(Cologne: Könemann, 1998), 243-257.
David Ganz and Felix Thürlemann (eds), Das Bild im Plural.
Mehrteilige Bildformen zwischen Mittelalter und Gegenwart (Berlin:
Paul Graham, A Shimmer of Possibility (Göttingen: Steidl, 2007).
Christan Metz, "Photography and Fetish," in The Critical Image:
Essays on Contemporary Photography, ed. Carol Squiers (London: Bay
Press, 1990), 155-164.
Nancy Mowll Mathews, "Early Film and American Artistic Traditions,"
in Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film, 1880-1910, ed. Nancy
Mowll Mathews (Manchester, Vermont: Hudson Hills Press, 2005), 39-54.
Karen Rosenberg, "Roadside Reflections on Your Land, My Land," in The
New York Times (February 5, 2009),
(accessed September 5, 2014).
Allan Sekula, "Dismal Science," an interview with Allan Sekula by
Frits Gierstberg, in Allan Sekula, Dead Letter Office (Rotterdam:
Nederlands Fotoinstituut, 1998), 5-6.
Situationist International, "Definitions," first published in:
Internationale Situationniste #1 (June 1958), trans. Ken Knabb,
September 5, 2014).
Keith A. Smith, Structure of the Visual Book, third edition,
(Rochester: keith a smith BOOKS, 1984/1998).