Photographs 1981-2006, Paul Graham — Whitechapel Gallery 20th April – 19th June 2011
Review by Mark Durden
Paul Graham as a photographer is very interested in the picture and the problems of picture making. While his photography is taken from the world, it is nevertheless concerned with aesthetic and formal issues integral to the way a view of the world is transformed through the photograph – one could go through the ten projects on show, spanning a quarter-century of his photography, identifying the different formal techniques that have been experimented with. It would start with A1 – The Great North Road, 1981-1982 and Beyond Caring, 1984-1985, his early politically inflected responses to American New Colour photography, in which the aesthetic effects of colour were combined with a subject matter more readily associated with a black and white documentary tradition. And it would end with the reflections on time and the moment through sequenced pictures, fascinated with the lyricism and beauty of observed everyday micro-events from streets in the US, A Shimmer of Possibility, 2004-2006, an evanescent unravelling of street photography’s preoccupation with the decisive moment.
Graham does not work with the single picture, but in series; one picture is not enough, pictures are paired or relate to one another. His photography is project-determined, shifting from one theme or subject to the next. He is also an important photography book artist – an identity highlighted with the exhibition’s end room display of his books, a display that also serves as a reminder that much of the work we see on the walls is edited from more expansive series and sequences in book form.
The first works on show are Television Portraits, dating from 1986, pictures of people, young and old, upright or lolling on sofas, all watching the TV and with the object of their fascination and distraction remaining always out of frame. This gesture of looking elsewhere or away is integral to the approach in his work: the distant and long view of Ireland in Troubled Land, 1984-1986, that makes landscapes from war zones, or the surreptitious looking that characterises his portrayal of the people in DHSS offices, from Beyond Caring, in which figures have their back to camera or remain caught up in their own thoughts or worries. Looking itself becomes the subject of Man Reading Newspaper, Bloomsbury DHSS, Central London, 1985, with the picture revealing the detail of the newspaper’s topless girl that one man and his neighbour seem to be both looking at.
It seems relevant that we should begin the show with Television Portraits because they fit with Michael Fried’s Modernist account of the anti-theatrical absorptive pictorial tradition. For Fried, pictures showing figures distracted in other activities, not looking at or addressing the spectator, confirm the picture’s autonomy, as well as offering a corollary of the attentiveness and intensity involved in the making of the artwork. Such an art historical framework seems appropriate in light of the post documentary ambitions of Graham’s practice. Recourse to colour was always a means to go beyond the restrictive form of documentary and the message-bound photojournalist image. Ceasefire, 6-8 April, 1994, showing nothing but pictures of the April skies over places in Ireland associated with its troubled history, and all set rather high up on the gallery wall in accordance with their subject matter, exemplifies this turn against the photographic document and his preference for ellipsis and the poetics of metaphor and symbol in relation to big political and social issues.
A series of absorptive pictures begin the upstairs gallery – portraits of individual young people, partying at night clubs, End of an Age, 1996-1998. There is a clear formal fascination and exploitation of the colour casts effected by lighting here, as well as the interplay between shifts in focus and clarity set up between those who are bathed in coloured lights, and those who are sharply and harshly lit by flash light. The portraits present individual figures at different angles in relation to the camera, so in sequence they appear to undertake a 360-degree turn around us. Only those facing the camera never return its look, everyone remains out of it, in various states of self-immersion, distraction and intoxication. In his earlier series, New Europe, 1988-1992, a dismantling of a vision of Europe united through consumerism, Graham had already cued this state of absorption in the striking picture of a woman caught inhaling a cigarette in Belfast, her fix of nicotine a release and escape from everything around her.
American Night’s big pictures, from 1998-2002, offer a multi-layered pictorial response to the social and racial division that characterizes America. Exposure is keyed into the apartheid – white over-exposed landscapes on the peripheries of various US cities have at their centre isolated individuals, whose partial visibility in the picture one is invited to assume is in accordance with their outsider and marginal status. A dark New York street picture showing a black male with an eye patch (identified as ‘blinded man’ in the title), set against shuttering and a graffiti-strewn wall, continues the insistence on looking and sight in this series. Blue-skied pictures of the homes and cars of the well-monied serve as a real estate mirage or dream, while the portrait of a black woman looking up from the gutter and back to camera punctures such luxury. She does not look very happy and the photograph is charged with the indignity of her representation and her circumstances. A shadow cuts a diagonal in the picture, as well as the line of the curb on which she sits, as if both are augmenting the imaginary line of sight from the woman back to the photographer. Woman Sitting on a Sidewalk is significant in that it hones in on and isolates the contested gaze, an element not given much attention in Grahams’ work. The look in this picture cuts against and dismantles the humanist documentary model with its faith in a benign and empathic relation existing between photographer and subject.