2.18 / Review

From London: Paul Graham: Photographs 1981–2006

By Tess Thackara May 30, 2011

When viewed separately, Paul Graham’s photos are often unexceptional, but together, they can be breathtaking. Paul Graham: Photographs 1981–2006, the British photographer’s retrospective currently on view at Whitechapel Gallery in London, reflects the artist’s mastery of image sequencing and narrative, sampling photos from his series over the years. Graham is a storyteller: as in any good story, his characters are taken from reality and framed according to the artist’s imagination. Graham carefully brings these characters into focus or obscures them, utilizing the inherent subjectivity of the camera lens to explore different narrative points of view.

Taken between 1981 and 1982, the collection entitled A1: The Great North Road transplants American road-trip-style photography onto Britain’s A1, the 410-mile-long artery that connects London to Edinburgh. The result is surprisingly cinematic; the photographs are not as big or as glamorous (and certainly not as sun-drenched) as some of William Eggleston’s roadside prints, but atmospheric and poetic in their bleakness. Empty diners, crumbling graffiti-scrawled walls, and ominous gray skies all feature heavily. In Little Chef in Rain, the ubiquitous roadside restaurant chain shines its red and white lights onto a glassy, wet nighttime road. The words “Safe Journey,” which are printed on the ground, offer drivers scant comfort against the dreary and desolate-looking backdrop. Perhaps the most powerful image in the series is the Ruscha-esque Burning Fields, in which a dilapidated sign reads “HOTEL” against a burning lot, the building apparently having been razed to the ground. A rectangle of flames marks the perimeter where walls would once have stood. Through this focus on destruction, the image is a stark picture of a recession-hit country.

Viewed together, the images present a perspective of Thatcherite Britain. It’s clear who Graham’s heroes are: a truck driver, his face handsome and worn with a lifetime of toil, gazing off into the distance; a cheerful and charming old café employee smiling into the camera. These men are among those who make up the backbone of Britain as the country’s working class, many of whom were blighted under the more brutal policies of the Thatcher years. Graham perhaps hints at the source of the problem with Young Executives (1981), in which two city boys in suits—possibly bankers—stand in the street grinning as they read a document. Viewers might imagine the document to be a bulging paycheck, or something that attests to the wealth accumulated by the business sector in contrast with the deprivation suffered by many in Britain’s North. Graham’s treatment of the two executives renders them anonymous and less human than their working class counterparts. While the truck driver and café worker are given central position, the executives can be seen toward the back of a busy sidewalk, their faces cast downward.

Bus Converted to Cafe, Lay-by, West Yorkshire, November 1982, from the series A1-The Great North Road, 1982; vintage color coupler print; approx. 8 x 10 in. (20 x 25 cm). Courtesy of Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London. © Paul Graham.

Untitled #2 from the series End of an Age, 1997; pigment ink print; approx. 70 x 53.5 in. (178 x 136 cm). Courtesy of Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London. © Paul Graham.

Graham’s controlled authoring of his work comes to the fore in A Shimmer of Possibility (2004-2006), a series in which short image sequences form cohesive stories. This is not to say that all of Graham’s photographs are without impact when viewed singularly. One image in the Pittsburgh 2004 (2004) series, for example, is striking in itself, depicting a man mowing a roadside lawn, with muffled sunlight filtering through clouds and droplets of rain visible in the hazy light. Graham conveys the intimacy of this simple act. But in combination with other images in this collection—the man is pictured at different stages of his work amid the surrounding scenery—the series becomes a vignette, contextualized by the background views of the man’s life. An image of a copper-colored van parked in an empty suburban lot punctuates the photographs; bottles of barbecue sauce atop a supermarket shelf appear in another. It’s a truism to talk of the rhythm and poetry in mundane scenes of the everyday, but Graham is masterful at capturing just that and investing it with momentum and vitality. 

End of an Age (1996–1998)—a series of large-scale portraits of twenty-somethings in undisclosed locations—showcases Graham's elegant sequencing. The images are sometimes color saturated, sometimes blurry, sometimes shot with an unforgiving flash, and all appear to be taken at night—in bars and at parties. Many of the subjects smoke cigarettes, and some seem to be enjoying substance-induced highs. Not one looks into the camera lens. The images are positioned on the gallery walls so as to propel viewers around the room. Hence the subjects begin with their backs to the camera, gradually turning left toward the camera, then to the right. There is a certain headiness to this sweeping, 360-degree motion that reflects the languorous haze of the environments in which some of the photos were taken. Each anonymous individual seems caught between emotions, their expressions indicating private moments of uncertainty or escapism. The images convey a generation on the cusp of adulthood, unsure of themselves and of their place in the world.

The final room in the exhibition features a cabinet full of books created by Graham; the exhibition’s curatorial content stresses the importance of this medium for the artist, and one can see why. Readers are encouraged to find meaning in the combined force of the photographs when viewed between the covers of a book. Graham acknowledges the short stories of Chekhov as a strong influence, but there is also something of the cut-up technique in his work—he brings images together in seemingly random juxtapositions, asking viewers to draw connections. Taken collectively, Paul Graham Photographs 1981–2006 is a vision of the past twenty-five years that is both an anthology of extremely personal stories and a powerful work of social commentary. 




Paul Graham: Photographs 1981–2006 is on view at Whitechapel Gallery in London through June 19, 2011.

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