Man Reading Paper, Bloomsbury DHSS, Central London, 1985, Bristol from the series Beyond Caring. Image © Paul Graham, courtesy Anthony Reynolds Gallery.
I have long considered the Whitechapel Gallery, with its series of well-proportioned, different-sized rooms, ideal for showing photography – especially gallery-orientated contemporary photography. But if these spaces grace photography, they in turn are currently being graced by a mid-career retrospective by Paul Graham, one of our most important British photographers. Graham is now resident in the US, but this is a timely showing here for him, fresh off the back of what many feel is his most successful and potentially far-reaching project, the 10-volume book, A Shimmer of Possibility. The reverberations of that work are still echoing around the photographic world, so it’s a good moment to look at the project and consider what led up to it.
Graham is a bookmaker – each body of work he makes ends up in print – but that doesn’t mean he neglects presentation in a gallery context. This is an impeccably installed show, from the new pigment prints to the framing and the size allocated to each image, and in this environment he is an exemplary photographer, equally at home with either book or gallery.
The result is a handsome installation that seamlessly traces Graham’s journey from “young British colour” photographer in the early 1980s to internationally respected photographic artist, and is as delightful to the eye as it is challenging to the mind. Without trying to label him too much, Graham is clearly a postmodern photographer, one of the most thoughtful and complex around. And yet, thankfully, he doesn’t give you imagistic theory on the walls or in his books. He gives you picture-making with a great deal of intelligence behind it.
One result of this intelligence is the way he works. He never repeats himself, never stands still and, while he has certain concerns revolving broadly around the nature of the photographic document (although he rightly hates the “D” word, as he calls it), treats each new project as a beginning, approaching the medium each time from first principles. That is an extremely ambitious, high-risk, high-reward way of working. As a result, the difference between a thoroughly realised project and one not-so-completely realised is greater than with less ambitious photographers, but the level of success is also so much greater.
Woman at Bus Stop, Mill Hill, North London, November 1982, from the series A1 - The Great North Road. Image © Paul Graham, courtesy Anthony Reynolds Gallery.
I have said that Graham eschews the “D” word. But it was the most documentary-like projects that brought him so much attention in the UK in the 1980s – A1, Beyond Caring and Troubled Land. It’s hard to believe now that they attracted so much controversy for being in colour, but the prevailing wisdom at the time was that proper documentary photography should be black-and-white. Such griping merely indicated a misunderstanding by the critics, because these were never documentary projects per se. Graham isn’t a formalist, but through the language of documentary photography he was exploring the medium’s nature and its language – and that, in part, is a formalist project.
Beyond Caring didn’t simply document the humiliating process of attending dole offices. Because Graham was forced to work on the sly, it examines how we are controlled, often unknowingly, by surveillance, and presciently so in light of the proliferation of CCTV and a Big Brother society. Using surreptitious techniques Graham brilliantly demonstrated how photography, like “official” data, is part of the knowledge-gathering process, amassing the kind of insight that gives one segment of society power over another.
Unionist Posters on Tree, County Tyrone, 1985, from the series Troubled Land. Image © Paul Graham, courtesy Anthony Reynolds Gallery.
Graham often questions a photographic genre or process, and how that can engender (often false) expectations, but he usually does so on the sly. In Troubled Land, he explored landscape photography in tandem with photojournalism. By searching for small yet significant signs of sectarian partisanship in the Northern Ireland landscape, such as painted kerbstones, he confounded preconceptions about the way political strife should be depicted and how the land itself is shaped and politicised by events.
Troubled Land represented a move towards a more elliptical approach, a tendency that has been amplified in later projects. His early 1990s project, New Europe [4-5], for example, developed this trait considerably. Representing a move on Graham’s part towards a more international perspective, it perfectly exemplifies a moment towards the end of the 1980s when British photography began to look more outside itself. Graham spent time in Berlin hanging out with German photographers such as Volker Heinze and Michael Schmidt, and met various photographers internationally, all of whom fed into New Europe. I feel it represents a new confidence and maturity in Graham, and a pivotal point in his development.
Untitled, Belfast, 1988 (woman smoking cigarette), from the series New Europe. Image © Paul Graham, courtesy Anthony Reynolds Gallery.
New Europe utilises metaphor and symbolism in simple and complex ways to review Europe’s troubled past and sow doubts about the future of the great European enterprise, which Graham partly sees as a product of globalisation. If I have a criticism of the show, it is that more could have been made of New Europe, which I believe is central to Graham’s oeuvre as well as exemplifying the development of late 20th-century European photography – the best subject for many contemporary European photographers has been the development of the “new” Europe.
The hollow promise of globalisation is a theme Graham also explored in Empty Heaven, as he continued to move literally and artistically. Made in Japan, this project shows the beginnings of an interest in seriality, which Graham developed further after his decision to live and work in the US. His first major project from there, American Night, doesn’t quite work for me, although I will admit that it looks better on the wall than in the book of the same name. For once I think Graham got just a bit too clever, using whited-out, overexposed images to suggest the invisibility of the poor and ethnic minorities in American society.
American Night shares the Whitechapel Gallery’s large upstairs with A Shimmer of Possibility, which brings the exhibition to a fitting climax. Shimmer comprises a series of short, sweet and poetic photographic sequences made in America, which Graham calls “cinematic haiku” and in which nothing much happens. A man mows a lawn; a man drags on a cigarette. This lack of action is compounded by the restrained rhetoric of the imagery – distinctly unflashy and yet, as John Gossage has noted, always including a “stopper” picture, often printed larger than the others, which makes each series “more complex, not just a group of sequences”.
They seem exemplary photographs for the digital age, in which a photographer is able to make many frames and more or less anyone apparently will do. There is no feeling of “decisive moment” here, and each frame has the kind of cinematic quality you can see for yourself when you flip through the sequence on the digital back.
David Campany’s recent show in Paris, Anonymes, proposed a dialectic of American photography in which anonymity was the keynote – anonymous people seen anonymously by a photographer hiding his or her rhetorical hand. Graham would have fitted perfectly into the group of photographers shown. In both American Nights and Shimmer he has photographed people invisible to, or ignored by, most Americans – those from the “other side of the tracks” – but he draws attention to them in a brilliant yet unflashy way. His object is not to wow with photographic bravura, but to make us think.
New Orleans, 2005 (Cajun Corner), from the series A Shimmer of Possibility. Image © Paul Graham, courtesy Anthony Reynolds Gallery.
A Shimmer of Possibility is a vision for the digital age and, like the images in Campany’s exhibition, it is political – a fanfare for the common man without fanfare, but with a quiet insistence that resonates in the mind. Graham never forgets the meaning of the world while examining the meaning of a picture, or vice versa.
I could say a lot more about this masterly exhibition, but perhaps one more, wider point needs to be made. Whitechapel Gallery is one of our more interesting public spaces and this is one of the best exhibitions held there for a while, along with John Stezaker’s superb photomontages earlier this year. Stezaker doesn’t make a big deal of it but he is an artist using photography; Graham makes a big deal about being a photographer. He shows that photography – the kind where you “just” walk around clicking a shutter, using your eyes with a keen brain attached – can yield a more grown-up kind of art than those who try to prove their artistic credentials by resorting to a latter-day pictorialism, be it modelmaking, complicated photoshopping or film-directing manqué.
Paul Graham: Photographs 1981-2006 is on show at Whitechapel Gallery until 19 June. Visit www.whitechapelgallery.org.
Untitled, 1989 (shoppers), from the series New Europe. Image © Paul Graham, courtesy Anthony Reynolds Gallery.
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