Essay

by Colin Westerbeck

I feel as if my relationship with Donald Graham has in some way brought my career as a photo historian full circle. That career began 40 years ago in New York when I met the street photographer Joel Meyerowitz, who was a competition swimmer in his youth, like Graham, and who has also had a serious interest in Buddhism throughout his life. Though Graham is a portraitist, not a street photographer, the mix of swimming and Buddhism is an appropriate preparation for any career in photography. In all its forms and genres, photography requires the instant reflexes of an athlete tempered by the inner calmness of a Buddhist.

Graham went to the University of Texas on a swimming scholarship and coached swimming upon graduation. In 1983 he was coaching at the University of Southern California. His position as the USC assistant swimming coach led to the beginning of his photography career when Sports Illustrated, after seeing his photographs of swimmers, gave him an assignment to photograph diver Greg Louganis as he trained for the Olympic competition. When the Olympic Organizing Committee’s design firm offered Graham a contract to cover the swimming competition, he left coaching and took on a career as a professional photographer that he has pursued ever since.

The other facet not just of his career plans, but of how he wanted to live his life, was put in place when, in 1982, he spent four months in India and three months in a Zen Buddhist monastery where meditation and a vow of silence instilled in him an ability to look within for a spiritual life, not just look out for himself in the material world. He has been back to India five more times, a commitment that the photographs in this monograph reflect.

That photography was to be a personal mission in his life, as well as an enduring profession, was indicated by the first project he gave himself at the beginning of his career over 35 years ago. His self-assignment was to make the portrait of his mother (p.59). The image he created of her appears to be the key one from which all other photographs he has done have followed. The meditative internal life that he hoped to live was mirrored in his mother’s fate, for after suffering from multiple sclerosis for many years, the damage that that disease had done was compounded by a stroke. He wanted to make a complex photograph that showed her grace in the face of personal struggle. I can’t help feeling that in some way Graham’s own capacity to turn in on himself through his Buddhist discipline enabled him to reach spiritually-to identify with-the inner life of his mother and the challenge she faced with her afflictions.

What we see in his portrait is a woman Graham looks up to, literally. Her face, despite some lines of struggle around her mouth and chin, expresses a kind of serenity – indeed, contains an extraordinary beauty – that transcends the immobility her contorted hands betray. The photograph succeeds in conveying to us the human presence, the dignity and spirit, that Graham still cherished in his mother and wanted the rest of us to appreciate as well. The only dark shadow that falls across this study of a luminous figure is the one cast on the no-seam behind her. Graham was making this portrait outdoors, and by the time he got the image of his mother he was looking for the sun had moved down the sky to a point where it backlit the no-seam and drew upon it this sketch of a tree. Thus does the background become a commentary on the subject in front of it. Nature is reduced to a mere shadow of itself. The leaves on the tree are turned into a silhouetted mass bereft of color, volume or detail. It is a figure of the fate that, we understand, the subject in the foreground still manages to transcend somehow.

Paradox is the soul of art, which provides us with a way to appreciate how two contrary and irreconcilable things can be true at the same time. It allows us to see in Graham’s portrait of his mother how she can be at once both tragically compromised and heroically transcendent. He has also called attention to an inherent paradox here by giving a strictly generic and impersonal title to his portrait of this unique, indeed most personal subject he has ever photographed. All the other subjects in One of a Kind whom he knows personally are identified by their first or both their first and last names. The generic title “My Mother” holds at arm’s length the mix of powerful emotions he has to have dealt with in making this study. And yet, standing back from the result in this way is true to the process of making such a photograph because to capture anyone on film you have to objectify that person no matter how well you may know her or him.

I’ve dwelled on this portrait because it is, by Graham’s own account, the origin story of his entire career. It compelled him to wrestle with the paradox of the relationship between a subject’s outward appearance and his or her inner being. I wondered, though, whether a practical, work-a-day method came out of that experience. Did that first portrait give him an insight that has served him well when working with subjects he has only just met?. When I asked him about that, he replied, “The answer is yes. What I consistently ask people to do is to go inside of themselves . . . to close their eyes and go inside and focus. I’m asking them to be in their own world, because that is what I’m interested in in the photograph I’ll make when I ask them to open their eyes again.” 

In effect, he compels a moment of meditation as the gateway to the self-revelation he seeks in a portrait. The portrait of his mother also became the standard against which he measures the work he’s done since making it. “I hung her photograph in my darkroom,” he has explained, “and every day I when went in to print, I asked a simple question: Does the image I’m about to print today rise to the standard I have set with the photograph of my mother? If not, it was not worth printing.” 

There is one other instance in which a Graham portrait implies an equally complex relationship between a parent and child, though we have no way to understand why this time. It’s titled “Tony Ward and Daughter, Los Angeles” (p. 26) and is a portrait made at Ward’s request during our lunch break on a day Graham was doing a magazine fashion editorial featuring Ward. Ward’s eyes were still closed, as per Graham’s instruction, when the exposure was made; and he lowered his head to make physical contact with his daughter. She lowered her gaze as well and stared vacantly into space, as if she were so wrapped up in some sadness of her own that she was oblivious to his touch. It’s a photograph that is, it seems, trying to tell us a story as complex as Graham’s own relationship with his mother. Yet it is a much sadder tale somehow. How or why that might be, we’ll never know because this is a photograph, not a movie. Being narratives with a beginning, a middle and an end, movies give us a way to resolve paradoxes, whereas the paradox in a photograph only grows deeper the longer we look at the image. 

The 102 portraits in One of a Kind contain such a diversity of races, cultures and body types that we cling to any continuity we can suss out of it. This may be why the photograph of this father and daughter stands out, because they are a reverse relationship – a mirror image, as it were – of the son and his mother with whom Graham’s career began and with which we got our bearings in his work. Such a connection provides a “kind” into which a “one” in his title One of a Kind might fit. There are another father and his daughter in this collection, too, and they stand out because the father is also the only subject who makes two separate appearances in the book. He is Robert Mirabel, whom we see first by himself (p. 29) and again with his daughter Kona (p.80), where she is as unsmiling, serious, maybe even a bit stand-offish, as her father seems in both pictures. 

Robert and Kona also belong to the largest single community from which subjects for One of a Kind were drawn: Taos, New Mexico. In part the attraction of Taos was its history as a haven for artists like Georgia O’Keeffe and Paul Strand in the pre-war era, when Mabel Dodge Luhan ran an artists’ colony there, to post-war artists ranging from Walker Evans to Agnes Martin.  More importantly for Graham, the attraction was that, as he puts it, “Taos has three separate cultures; you have an Anglo-American culture, a Spanish-American culture, and a Native American culture… I wanted to photograph all three cultures.” He built a rustic house in Taos that is “up in the mountains in a Ponderosa forest that has large windows facing south and west. It was designed to be a photo studio."  Over a period of 20 years, Graham made over 500 portraits of the local people, photographing them both inside and outside his studio against minimalist backgrounds.

Most important was that the culture of Taos also provided Graham with a very special chance for his photographs to be made in the service of a charitable cause. The man who designed his house had recently founded an organization called “Men Engaged in Non-Violence.” Along with counseling, guidance, mentoring and gang resistance for youth at risk, the organization offers domestic violence rehabilitation. The organizers put together a proposal to the Taos newspaper to do a weekly portrait of people from all walks of life with the theme, “We’re M.E.N. Join us.” The goal was to make “Taos a safer, non-violent community”. Over ten years, Graham photographed more than 500 local people, from gardeners to senators. The results seen here run the gamut from a melancholic artist whose condition Graham’s portrait telegraphs by throwing his body out of focus (p.37), to the grin that has broken out on the lined, lived-in face of a portrait captioned simply, “Nonviolence Works, Taos, NM” (p.39).

The only culture in which Graham has photographed more and to which he feels closer, even though it is much further away, is India. One of a Kind contains a dozen photographs of Indian subjects ranging in mood from a man who winks at us mischievously (p.62) to another with a tear in his eye (p.21). A third of these Indian subjects Graham photographed are sadhus.  These are solitary, ascetic, holy men. Sadhu is an ancient Sanskrit word that originally meant leading straight to a goal, hitting the mark. Today, there are many kinds of sadhus, including naga sadhus who don’t wear clothes (naga means naked) due to their absolute renunciation of all material possessions. Sadhus aren’t monks because they’re not part of an order and often live alone in the mountains or forests. 

Graham made all four of the portraits of sadhus seen here in 2001 at a spiritual convocation called the Maha Kumbh Mela, which is held every 12 years on the Ganges River at Allahabad, India. To this event that dates back 2,000 years, many other pilgrims come in order to be blessed by the sadhu and gain wisdom from them. Graham tells me that according to “the holy text Vishnu Purana . . . to bathe in the Ganges during the Kumbh Mela washes away a person’s sins.” This purification in water is an aspect of the Kumbh Mela that must have a special appeal to the inveterate swimmer Graham. At the 2001 observance of the Kumbh Mela where Graham made these portraits, he reports, “70 million people came to bathe. It was the largest peaceful gathering of people in history.”

Graham also mentioned that the sadhu “infamously smoke hash.” This at first surprising revelation links them to another favorite subject of his represented in this collection of his work. I’m referring to the Rastafarians of Jamaica. They are present, like the sadhus, in only four portraits, the first one being of a “Rastafarian Smoking a Joint,” which is one of Graham’s most famous photographs and has been, he tells me, the subject of more than 100 articles. The Rastafarians seen here might also bear comparison to the sadhus by virtue of the beards some of them sport and the seeming nakedness of all but one of them. 

One tip-off that such comparison must be mistaken, though, is that the Rastafarians are all beautifully muscled, while the Sadhus are mostly skin and bone because of their abstemious ways. The sadhus smoke marijuana as a sacrament in honor of Shiva, who viewed marijuana as a medicine. Marijuana has been used in India for thousands of years. (The sanction for smoking marijuana must also help to assuage the pain with which malnutrition afflicts the sadhu.) Graham’s adventures among the Rastafarians turned out to be as frightening as those among Buddhists were inspiring. “I went into the hill country with drug dealers,” Graham told me. There was one man in particular who “was very suspicious. He asked me five different ways, ‘Are you CIA?’” Another dealer, who isn’t depicted in this book for obvious reasons, “pulled out a knife and put it to my throat, saying ‘There are good Rasta, and there are bad Rasta. I a bad Rasta.’ But then he goes, ‘More photographs.’” 

In addition to all the above – and besides the portraits in this collection made in Tibet, Senegal, Mali, and Morocco – when Graham was home again in the good, ol’ U S of A, and (with the exception of Taos already discussed) was going from New York to LA and back, with stops in Brooklyn, Southampton, Hampton Bays, Memphis, Georgia, Little Rock, Seattle, Sundance, Telluride, Jackson Hole, and Nebraska . . . in all of these comings and goings, he found as rich a mixed bag of personalities as he did in the rest of the whole, wide world. Nor is he so much a stranger in his own land that he couldn’t handle the extraordinary range of people he encountered, ranging from children he found on his own to VIPs that magazines gave him commissions to photograph. 

Let me end with some discussion of just two of these American subjects. First, it must be said that “Boy with Bible, Little Rock, Arkansas” is one of Graham’s most poignant subjects. As Graham himself sees, “This is a nine or ten-year-old boy, and yet we see in him and old-man sensibility. If you look at his eyes, they are the eyes of a man who is in his 40s or 50s.” Various details revealed by the photograph endow this boy with uncanny age - the necktie that seems to celebrate the age of 40, for instance, and the Bible, stuffed with Post-Its, that has been opened so many times the binding is beginning to separate from the cover. But Graham is right to single out the boy’s eyes as the most telling detail. Some diffused bounce-light illuminating him from below betrays the lines under his eyes and gives us the profound impression old age. “I want people to look into the person and not even think about the lighting,” Graham says. “For that reason, this entire body of work uses . . . diffused, open-shade lighting.” As Miami Herald columnist Casey Woods put it when writing about this portrait, Graham’s photographs search out “the stunning variety embedded in the commonality of our human experience.”

The American subjects Graham has photographed range from this common man/boy over the entire spectrum – or perhaps, spectacle – of our society. Among the less common citizens in this collection of portraits we find performers Aidan Quinn, Snoop Dogg and Lenny Kravitz, photographer Gordon Parks, writer James Elroy and, from the George W. Bush presidency, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice-President Dan Quayle. When I asked about Quayle (p.10), Graham said, “He had about six handlers with him, so I had my assistant start a stop watch. . . . All public figures who have been photographed a fair amount have an image in their mind of a photograph of themselves, and they want to duplicate that. Quayle was posing, basically, the way he wants to be portrayed . . . smiling, looking confident.” 

Graham had the stop watch running because he was aware that, like all self-important public figures, Quayle was going to want to get the portrait session over with in 10 or 15 minutes. As it turned out, Graham had an hour with Quayle. Still, he wasn’t getting past the “pre-packaged, canned images” Quayle was offering. Finally, Graham moved away from the camera and clapped his hands saying, “Dan! Do you mind if I call you Dan? Listen Dan, if I were running for president, I’d have something that I’d want to do just for myself. . . . Dan, what would that be for you?” Finally, Graham was finding a way to set his own agenda for this portrait. 

Quayle replied, “What I would want is for the office of the President of the United States to once again be respected.” All Graham could think was that at that moment in history, “Here was a man whose misspelling of the word potato was fresh in everybody’s mind. As president he could have wanted to end hunger, reduce poverty. . . . I wondered what the quality of the decisions would be made by a man [for whom] respect is hugely important when, in fact, he was famous for not being respected.” Nonetheless, as the clock was running out, Graham was actually getting a reaction from Quayle, rather than a canned attitude, for the first time.  As his eyes narrowed and his lips parted, Quayle let slip the sort of look that might have crossed his face were he ever to be confronted with the real challenges that real Presidents have to confront and deal with every day.

The 15 minutes to which important personages usually want to limit a portrait session is the period for which Andy Warhol said everyone would be famous in the future. Aside from a few people in this category that Graham has included on this collection of his work, his emphasis here is on people he just happens to have known across the years or across the floor of his studio. The way in which they’re each ‘one of a kind’ to him is what he feels his portrait has expressed. Among of his heroes in the field is Irving Penn, who also photographed every-day people as well as famous ones. Like Penn, Graham finds the camera to be a great leveling device, one that reveals the singularity of ordinary people and betrays the common humanity of the famous.

 

Colin Westerbeck