Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Few Questions for Graham Miller

Rhonda + Chantelle © Graham Miller
Last May I was in Berlin and my visit happened to coincide with an exhibition of photographs from Hijacked Volume One, Australia and America. It was there that I first discovered the beautifully poetic photographs of Graham Miller. Each image seemed to preserve a quiet moment of personal reflection that suggested an anguished past and pointed to an uncertain future. The subjects in his photographs hinted at hope, but their hope seemed a desperate act born from a series of quiet defeats.

Since then Graham and I have corresponded quite a bit and his work has garnered a good deal of attention. When I read about Graham's selection as one of the six finalists for the Critical Mass Book Award I asked him if he would be up for a quick interview. I was very happy when he agreed.

AMY STEIN: You've stated that your images are imagined and constructed in ways that are very similar to literary fiction and you have cited Raymond Carver as a primary influence on your work. Carver was famous for his portrayal of the quiet desperation of the working class, but he was also famous for his brevity. Beyond the content of your photography, do you feel a strong connection to his laconic intensity? Are you trying to tell the whole story with as few "words" as possible?

GRAHAM MILLER: My partner is a writer and she introduced me to Carver's work about 13 years ago. What struck me about his writing then (and now) was how he conveys so much emotional weight by sketching out the bare outlines of a story with telling details and simple dialogue. He lets the reader's imagination embellish the rest. His stories are lean but powerful, taking fragments from the lives of regular people and putting a magnifying glass on them for a brief period of time. They are stories of loss, broken relationships and struggle, told in a way that pulls at your gut. His work led me to read other short story writers, like Tobias Wolff and Richard Ford. There's something deceptively uncomplicated in their fiction that I particularly like.

Carver's stories are often unresolved, leaving you hanging to try and make sense of what has just taken place or what was about to happen. I do try to include some of these aspects in my own work, but I don’t profess to be able to convey the complexities or the progression of narrative that is possible in the written short story within the single still image. What I try to evoke is some of the "feeling" I get when I read his work. It doesn't necessarily translate in every picture, but more as an overarching sense for the series of pictures.

Joe © Graham Miller
AS: Sometimes people are downright angry when they learn my Domesticated photos are staged. Do you feel any push back from people when they discover your images are constructed? Why do you think people have such a hard time allowing for the personal vision and imagination of a photographer compared to a painter, musician or writer?

GM: I've not got the downright angry reaction...more like a kind of knowing, dismissive sigh. I guess the reason people have such a hard time with the constructed image is that for them it somehow feels like cheating. They still believe that because the photograph so closely resembles reality that somehow it must also be "true". For me photography is much like writing- in the sense that you can approach writing about a subject or photographing it as fiction or non-fiction. Both are equally valid, and both are able to speak of the human experience in a moving and profound way. It does puzzle me when people go on about it. It just doesn't feel the right approach for me to work in a traditional photojournalistic sense.

I came across an edition of Carver short stories last year that included an introduction that I hadn't seen before. In it Carver quotes V.S. Pritchett’s description of the short story as “something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing. First the glimpse, the glimpse given life, turned into something that will illuminate the moment and just maybe lock it indelibly into the reader’s consciousness." This is pretty much how the images come about for me. It's often the setting that I see first - the red interior of a friend's car, the morning light falling on the bed, or the pool of light from a streetlamp for instance- and then later I imagine what characters could be inserted into this scene, to create the emotion that I’m looking for and revisit it when I've worked it out.

Frank © Graham Miller
AS: I sense a strong connection to Philip-Lorca diCorcia in your work. Did his photographs influence you in any way?

GM: Yes, I'm familiar with diCorcia's pictures and I think his work is great. I came across the yellow covered book of his some years ago and liked his cinematic use of light and the way he was able to subvert the documentary tradition and instill a kind of theatricality and artifice to his subject matter. He is one of the people who I identified with that was able to challenge the idea of photographic truth in a way that was still visually interesting. His work is one of many influences on me. You absorb bits and pieces and try to form your own way. I also think about Diane Arbus, Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Edward Hopper and filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson and Ray Lawrence who made the wonderful Australian film Lantana. I don't know why, but it's the work that has a melancholy feel about it that I'm drawn to. If I think about the films that have impressed me the most they are predominantly sad, but impressive movies. There aren't many comedies in there.

Alice © Graham Miller
AS: You are Australian, but your Suburban Splendor images feel American to me. I don't know what that means exactly, but there is an expansiveness to the frame and an underlying sense of hope in the subjects that I associate with the American experience. Are you recreating an American identity you have experienced through film and literature or are you imagining a more universal suburban identity?

GM: I think you're right; there is something "American" about the images. Perhaps it's in the style, I don't know. Its not something that I consciously seek out to do, but I suppose its inevitable when so many of my influences are American- whether it's film, photographic or literary.

I was born in Hong Kong and didn't come to live in Australia till I was ten years old. In Hong Kong my brother and I lived on a staple diet of American films and television. We used to like to watch all those cop shows like Kojak, The Night Stalker, Colombo, Starsky and Hutch, and Baretta. And cheesy comedies like The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family. We'd go and see B-grade car chase movies at the cinema like Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry and Vanishing Point. There was a lot of British TV also, but for me it was the American shows that I liked the best. So in my youth a lot of imagery from the screen that I identified with was American. That attraction has stayed with me. Having said that there are a lot of similarities between Australian suburbia and American suburbia. I guess in the end it's some kind of a blend.
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