Roundabout, Andersontown, Belfast, 1984, from the series Troubled Land. Image copyright Paul Graham, courtesy of Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London.
Paul Graham: Photographs 1981-2006 is the largest solo exhibition Graham has had in the UK - and one of the largest solo shows any photographer has had here. On show at Whitechapel Gallery until 19 June, the mid-career survey features work from all his main series, from Beyond Caring (shot in 1984-85) to a shimmer of a possibility (his most recent work). Graham was on hand to discuss his 30-year career to date at the opening of the show, with writer and academic David Campany. "It is strange to see the parallax of history move," Graham commented. "Pictures of unemployment offices that were contemporary are suddenly seen through like that lens effect in old movies – whooop, they suddenly disappear down the corridor of time and you see your work at the end as historical objects of an era, of mid-term Mrs Thatcher in 1980s England. That’s a very strange experience."
Graham added that he prefers to look forward than back over old work, joking that he couldn't wait to pack the prints in the Whitechapel show back up into crates and "not look at them again for ten years". "It is important not to repeat exactly the same idea again and again," he said. "Once something is proven to you as an artist you need to go out there and scare yourself afresh, to challenge yourself, to do something that might scare the bejeezus out of you because you’re trying to do something new." He later added: "At first people just think you’re randomly bashing around doing different ideas in different places, it takes a bit of time for a bigger picture to emerge."
Graham was considered radical by some in the early 1980s because he used colour photography, not the black-and-white then considered appropriate for documentary work. Inspired by the great American colour pioneers such as William Eggleston, Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld, he tried to combine colour with "the unique, innate sensibility you have here, the photography history going back to Bill Brandt and up through to Chris Killip, Graham Smith, Tony Ray-Jones", he said. Now he's interested to see that using colour for this kind of work has become a non-issue, with many of the visitors to his show unaware that it was once "a difficult transition". "People felt that Beyond Caring, the pictures in the unemployment offices, was a topic that should be done in black-and-white," he commented. "And Northern Ireland, it was “That’s a serious situation and one should treat it seriously with black-and-white film in the camera, not colour”. That was a sort of transgression of what were supposedly the unspoken rules of photography at the time."
Graham's more recent work, such as a shimmer of a possibility which was first published by Steidl in 2007, is less concerned with directly reporting on social issues, and has started to use sequences of images. He's less interested in "pictures being so obviously about something" now, he said, more in "the everyday ether of life running past" and in simulating "the experience of looking and noticing and time passing". "It’s that dance between the photographer and life – you might have some idea about what you’re going to do then life slaps you across the face and says “No, that’s not interesting, how about this?”," he said. "You can have this dialogue, this dance, with life and you can come back with something dramatically more interesting than you ever could dream up in your own little ideas."
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