Photographer captures America’s quirks in Pittsburgh exhibit

By Daniel Lovering

PITTSBURGH – An enormous painted shark covers the side of a building in Florida, its jaws gaping above garbage heaped in the foreground. Towering statues of women warriors loom over cars parked, like toys, along a California road.

The images, rich in color and incongruous objects, are among 35 that explore – and honor – aspects of Americana in an exhibition of work by the photographer David Graham at Pittsburgh’s Silver Eye Center for Photography.

“In Search of America: Photographs by David Graham” spans more than two decades of Graham’s career, with images that capture unlikely people and things – signs, sculptures, murals – in unlikely places, from outdoor expanses to costume-lined dressing rooms.

A seasoned magazine photographer, Graham, 55, has published a string of books, including two with Romanian writer Andrei Codrescu, and teaches at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

Many of his subjects may seem merely kitschy: a huge model cow mounted on a flatbed trailer with a similarly colored dog drinking from a nearby puddle; a painted rock on a barren landscape near the Grand Canyon bearing the message, “Bring the camera.” But Graham sees in them something more profound.

“The American cultural landscape is my subject, and within that is how people express themselves,” he said in a telephone interview. “They might enjoy their turquoise house for one reason. I might enjoy it for another.”

Graham said his work is “all about juxtaposition,” and that “one thing makes another thing speak.”

In one photo, taken in 1997, a hulking statue of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin appears in the parking lot of a Dallas hamburger stand. Traffic zooms by in the background. Telephone wires crowd the sky.

Another image, titled “Route 64 West of Route 89,” shows a sign reading, “Buy Now, Pay Later,” against a stark backdrop of empty land in Arizona.

An image taken at an Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia in 1983 shows camouflage-clad troops cradling rifles as they crawl amid players on a stadium field, their skin looking so pale and waxy they resemble dolls.

Other photographs focus on people: a clutch of bald men tipping their heads toward the camera at a suntan contest in New Jersey, a Civil War re-enactor in Pennsylvania dressed as Gen. Robert E. Lee, a dwarf sitting atop a stool in front of a stage setlike painting while holding torches in outstretched hands.

“I think what makes David unique is that he’s able to discover the humor in an American landscape,” said Silver Eye’s executive director, Linda Benedict-Jones, who also teaches a course on the history of photography at Carnegie Mellon University. But Graham stops short of making fun of his subjects, she added, citing Codrescu, who wrote an introduction to one of Graham’s books. “He’s enjoying the journey with them.”

“There are so many of these pictures where you feel like you can say, ‘Only in America,’ and in a way that’s both supportive and friendly and interesting,” Benedict-Jones said.

In some cases, she said, Graham establishes relationships among things that otherwise don’t really fit together.

She said the exhibition, which opened last week and runs through April 12, is fitting during an election year, when people are thinking about America and its vibrant population.

Graham, who lives in Bucks County, said he took many of the exhibited photos before and after magazine assignments. His work has been published in Details, Fortune, Time and Newsweek, among other magazines.