A reminder of what it means to photograph the tumult of everyday life

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This article was printed in the Then & Now issue of British Journal of Photography magazine, available for purchase through the BJP Shop or delivered direct to you with an 1854 Subscription.

But Still, It Turns explores new forms of documentary photography, framing the chaotic world that surrounds us

“We spend our lives inventing stories, but the story actually doesn’t exist. We exist, and our apprehension of a story is how we explain the kind of meanderings that we take,” observes the Scottish film director Bill Forsyth, in one of several quotes printed in But Still, It Turns, published by Mack. The quote, accompanying a powerful introductory essay by Paul Graham, seems to encapsulate the book’s thesis, which examines what Graham refers to as ‘post-documentary’. In the wake of magazines and newspapers declining, the internet disseminating images for free, and mobile phone photography rocking the industry, post-documentary emerges as a new photographic genre. It is free from the “restrictive briefs and reductive narrative within which places and people are all too conveniently shuffled,” writes Graham. “Talented artists know when to leave the poetry of the world alone. No editorialising, no words to illustrate.” 

In recent years, Graham has observed that “the pendulum has swung against” photography that engages with real life. And in its place, constructed, conceptualised and staged imagery has taken centre stage: “artworks where the artist crafted something in their mind, or the studio or in the computer, or staged it in the world, according to the strengths or weakness of their imagination,” as Graham articulates it. But Still, It Turns attempts to nudge the pendulum back a little, and to provide a gentle reminder that framing life is what “photography does best and the reason many people fall in love with it in the first place”

Several artists are featured in the publication, which also exists as an exhibition, currently on show at the International Center of Photography, New York: Emanuele Brutti & Piergiorgio Casotti, Richard Choi, Gregory Halpern, Curran Hatleberg, Kristine Potter, RaMell Ross, Vanessa Winship, and Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa. Each artist’s work is distinct, observing the world in varying ways. However, their refusal to impose one narrative or angle onto their photographs unites them. In ZZYZX, for instance, Gregory Halpern presents a surreal and disjointed reflection of the American West. The poetic series absorbs his surroundings, the people and places, expressing an atmosphere and feeling rather than a clear-cut story, or, as Graham puts it, “That there is no singular story is the story”. Indeed, this observation sits at the heart of post-documentary practice. 

The book takes its name from a phrase Galileo purportedly muttered under his breath after the Roman Catholic Church forced him to recant his assertion that the earth is not at the centre of the universe, but rather that it revolves around the sun. The phrase expresses Galileo’s belief in his observations of the world despite the Church’s censorship. And it finds new significance in the context of Graham’s exhibition and book: a reassurance that photographs of the world still matter. The advent of Covid-19 also imbued the project’s subject matter and its title with new layers of meaning. Indeed, how important it seems, and how privileged we were, to be able to document the world around us, now we can barely interact with it at all. 

But Still, It Turns is published by Mack, and is on show at the International Center of Photography, New York, until 09 May 2021. 

Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.