Foto8’s first encounter with David Gray was at a portfolio review in 2008. Without pomp or fanfare, he showed us his highly original, meticulously produced and strangely unclassifiable photo stories. We published the work as soon as possible – Vampire appeared in – and on the cover of – 8 Magazine, in the spring of 2009. Gray also self-published a slender purple limited edition book of the work, with words by his longterm collaborator Paul Summers, which would become the first volume in his series The Dream That Days Break. He went on to produce Surge in May 2009, and Thunderbolts Way in October the same year. Drift, the final volume, has just been released.
These stories, from, if indeed they are from anywhere, China, Romania, Australia and the United States, inhabit neither the territory of fact nor fiction, yet in traversing that frontier, convey a mood quickly identifiable, but just as quickly lost. It’s a kind of torpid dislocation, a sense of transience, of disquiet that builds subtly through glances half shared, landscapes never fully seen, through signs and symbols of a global society that’s lost its direction.
His achievement in two of the four works is in the way he contextualises a personal story, however ambiguous, within a wider political landscape, one that isn’t explicitly stated, but that pervades each work. From the nothing-works stasis of a post-communist regime in Romania in Vampire, to the prospering China of Surge, on the brink of embracing the so-called free market, there is a palpable sense of the exterior world. Vampire’s children are thin, angular, one dead. What haunts Romania, the photographs tell us, is not Count Dracula, but the legacy of grinding poverty. China, by contrast, is breaking free, flying high. But Gray doesn’t stray too far from the old regime in Surge. As Summers’ text also observes, it was too long in the making to quickly forget.
‘on people’s square
ghost horses stampede;
the clatter of hooves
like some percussive hymn.’
As well as the neon, the fairground rides, the internet cafes, he has captured the timeless spirit of the workers, and the Mah Jong games that punctuate daily life. His best pictures here are those that serve as metaphors for change: the small boy watching as the sand of a new football pitch is flattened in preparation for the advent of the world’s favourite sport ™ or the grace of the man bending forward, the better to paint an immaculate yellow line in a warehouse space.
The Australia of Thunderbolts Way is harder to read. Neither place nor people make their mark on this work. Instead, we get a sense of a character, conjured up perhaps first by Summers’ spare, eloquent text, a man whose wife has left him, a man who loses on the horses, but believes his dreams will lead him to glory someday. The photographs, too, offer up someone on the lookout for a wayout: a plane, a waiting room, an almost empty parking lot, every photograph could serve as a kind of antechamber before the big checkout in the sky. Perhaps of all the four volumes, it is only here that a couple of expected images occur. There’s a McDonalds sign by the side of a road, its letters a jumble. Irresistible to photograph, no doubt, but like the atmospheric lightning shot, possible to edit out. Unexpectedness characterises the other photographs. The only photograph of people in Thunderbolts is an on-high shot of tourists – the camera eye can double for the eye of this wifeless gambler – he watches the tourists watching the view, which can mean nothing to him now.
Drift is similar, perhaps too similar, in mood to Thunderbolts. Summers’ text – poetry fragments here – invites a reading of another gambling man sans femme. I’m drawn to a reading of American Presidents. There’s the car park – where Deep Throat sold Nixon down the river, a discarded dress in the back of a car for sale, a Lewinsky relic, I’d hope. Gray’s final image of the Yank Rope sign, invokes Presidents Bush, as the red Yank Rope – Yank moving seamlessly from verb to adjective – dangles, noose-like. Of course I’m just having fun with the reading of these images, but Gray’s clever sequencing, oblique angles and refusal to define or really even talk about these dreamlike works permit this.
What he does talk about, with a purist’s zeal, however, is the idea of self-publishing:
“Trawling over documents for a history exam from the French revolution I came across the ‘pamphleteers’ – writers and printers who operated outside of the law, printing secretly. The pamphlets were so plentiful they were unable to be controlled. This is true free speech and the idea that there were print machines in the back of cafés churning out these pamphlets does something for me, he says.”
In these ‘difficult times for publishing’ (repeat ad nauseum), Gray has created a remarkably successful enterprise. In effect, he has commissioned himself to do this work, and has been extremely disciplined in recouping the money for each project before he starts on the next (Vampire is all but sold out; Surge 75% sold). His concomitant career as a graphic designer stands him in good stead to turn out exquisite packages, wrapped in clear cellophane, each containing a limited edition print as well as the book.
The Dream that Days Break boxset
The Dream that Days Break, as well as being a neat title for his portfolio, sums up his philosophy in making these dream projects possible, and in the pervading mood of his photographs, reminding you of somewhere you know but have never been, or at least not under waking skies.
The Dream the Days Break series is available from the Foto8 online bookshop.