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Engaging humans: Lonnie Graham’s incisive portraits

"A Conversation with the World" on view at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene features Graham's portraits and interviews with individuals from around the world.

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Installation view of “A Conversation with the World” at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art

The waning pandemic has stymied international travel for the past few years. For those feeling mired down at home, a current exhibition at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon brings the world to Eugene’s doorstep. A Conversation With The World presents seventeen portraits by Lonnie Graham, a photographer and professor at Pennsylvania State University. The portraits are framed 16 x 20 gelatin prints enlarged from Polaroid Type 55 Film and a recent gift to the museum from the artist selected from his four decade project spanning multiple countries, cultures, and images. 

A Conversation With The World has several moving parts, and the portraits are merely the most prominent component. Graham also conducted extensive interviews with his photo subjects. In collaboration with colleague James Wylie from Cooper Union, in 1985 he formulated eight basic questions about life, family, and tradition. Sample queries: What is your opinion of Western Culture, in terms of its spirituality? Does death, for you, have any connection with the concept of salvation? How does your culture interpret the origin of the universe?

Westphal, Harar, Ethiopia (caption as it appears in the exhibition)

Visitors can find the full list of questions and hundreds of sample answers tucked inside binders available inside the gallery. There is also an informative video of Graham discussing the project, with screen stills of photographs beyond the museum’s collection. This 7 1/2 minute presentation is looped on a monitor at the entrance to the show, and it’s probably the best place to begin the viewing experience. 

Graham is a calming presence on screen. He pauses often to find his muse, and articulate exact thoughts with nuance. Watching him expound against a snowy background, one gets a rough sense for his presence as a portraitist, and what it might be like to find yourself sitting opposite his gaze – probably enjoyable but intense.

In person, Graham is more animated. A talk at the JSMA February 8th found him prowling the lectern, body and hands vibrating. His slides must have been sequenced, but the commentary was sharply improvised. “I usually don’t read from prepared notes,” he explained before blazing through a thicket of anecdotes and memories. Now entering his golden years, he has a lifetime of experience to draw from. He has been involved with numerous arts projects over the years around the country as a photographer, organizer, curator, humanitarian, and sometimes all of these roles at once. A Conversation With The World has been quietly simmering in the background since 1985, steadily gaining momentum and new images. It’s just a small snippet of Graham’s world, itself represented by a snippet of prints at JSMA. Nevertheless, this snippet packs a punch.  

Graham’s portraits buzz with life. Ordinary humans look calmly back into his camera, seemingly curious about this American stranger, but not self-conscious. Ego—“the most profound hallucinogen,” in Graham’s view—is checked at the door.  If his subjects feel under the glare or objectified, it doesn’t show. It’s not clear how these seventeen were selected from thousands in the project, but perhaps diversity was one rubric? The prints cover a broad range of ages, genders, cultures, and nationalities. Locations range from Oakland to Pittsburg to Ethiopia, Peru, India, Tibet, Ghana, and Nepal. Names and years are omitted. Instead people are identified by societal role, e.g. “Taxi Driver,” “Devotee,” “Farmer,” “The Oracle of Shea,” and so on. These ordinary humans may have complicated lives bound over time into networks and jobs and communities. But in these photographs their dates and details fade as all are universalized before Graham’s lens. A Conversation With the World is intended as a portrait of humanity rather than portraits of individual humans.

The Oracle of Shae, Ladakh, India (caption as it appears in the exhibition)

Other photographers have taken a similar tack in the past. August Sander’s People Of The Twentieth Century attempted to craft a collective record of the German population in the first half of the 20th century. Edward Steichen’s 1955 MoMA show Family Of Man cast a humanitarian net over the world’s photographic oeuvre. Both were successful on some level, although mired in the cultural myopia of their times. 

Graham’s project bears some similarity, with plain descriptive labels to echo Sander’s. A typical Sander caption like Showman with Performing Bear in the Westerwald meets its counterpart in Graham’s title Resting Pilgrim, Ladakh, India. But Graham’s project carves its own territory well beyond Sander. For starters, his choice of Type 55 Polaroid has a distinctive look. There are good reasons it’s been popular with other portraitists, e.g. Dawoud Bey, Gus Van Sant, and Bobby Abrahamson. The film’s pocked border circles and development marks serve as processing signatures. The film’s monochrome is rich and creamy, a good fit for wide-ranging skin tones encountered by Graham. Loaded into a 4 x 5 camera, the film allowed him to shoot from a tripod with open apertures, which isolates the figures against blurred backgrounds. All facets are expertly captured and brought to bear in Graham’s analog prints on fiber paper.

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Perhaps most importantly, Type 55 film peels apart to produce a negative and positive image. The negative can be archived by the photographer for later use (e.g., to make exhibition prints), while the positive can be given to the subject.  The process is immediate and physical, a good match for Graham’s purposes. “It’s a wonderful moment when [the Polaroids] reveal themselves,” he explained in his talk. “I give them the image. Sometimes they like it, sometimes they don’t. But there’s a reciprocity.”

Man with Medallion, Westinghouse High School, Pittsburgh, PA (caption as it appears in the exhibition)

Perhaps it was during or after development that Graham presented his eight questions. The queries are deep, and must have taken some time to flesh out. In his artist statement Graham writes that he wanted to “delve beneath the superficial patina of cultural differences to explore the essential and fundamental motivations of human beings in order to clearly illustrate the bond that is inherently our humanity.” 

His questions have an eternal dimension, but unfortunately the same can’t be said for his process. Polaroid Type 55 film is no longer in production. Graham can still source the film on the secondary market, but it is expired, expensive, and unreliable. Unfortunately he could find none to bring along on his recent Eugene visit. A shift to a digital process will probably be required at some point in the project’s future, but the exact dynamics are uncertain. 

Installation view at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art

Meanwhile the prints in the show date back to previous decades. They represent a bit of a time capsule in terms of both content and materials. They are on view for several more weeks, and Oregon photo buffs are well advised to see them in person. For those who can’t visit the show, a version was published in 2017 as a hardcover monograph by Datz Books, and a smaller selection (easily sourced inexpensively online) was printed as an issue of Contact Sheet journal in 2004. Either can serve informally as an exhibition catalog. Those will get the conversation started, but a full conversation with Graham’s world deserves a visit. 

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Lonnie Graham: A Conversation With The World is at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art through April 2, 2023. The museum is located on the University of Oregon campus, 1430 Johnson Lane, Eugene and is open Wednesdays through Sundays.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, where he lives with his wife and teen sons near Spencer Butte. In addition to his own blog, B, an irreverent view of the photo world which he has maintained since 2007, he is a regular book reviewer for Collector Daily and PhotoEye, and the photography critic for Eugene Weekly. As a photographer he has been consistently engaged in one project or another since 1993, including Portland Grid Project, Eugene Grid Project, UP Photographers, and numerous shows internationally. But mostly he shoots for himself. He received a B.A. in Environmental Studies from Brown University in 1992, a discipline which comes in handy behind a camera.

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