Research notes – Paul Graham

The following notes have been made after looking at the book Paul Graham (1) containing a selection of his pictures taken between 1981 and 2006, organised by series and in chronological order.

The book starts with Graham’s pictures from the series A1 – The Great North Road, which I presume were taken alongside the A1 from its start in Central London until its end in Edinburgh. The pictures are all in colour and were presented in the original book (a thumbnail facsimile reproduction of which is added at the end of the book consulted (2)) with one picture per two page spread, with the image on the right hand side page, and captions on the left hand side page.

The pictures are a mixture of portraits, candid shots, landscapes and empty interiors shots. All the pictures have an aura of outsiderness to them, like if they were a mere recording of all the people and places one can possibly find on a road trip. Some of the portraits feel warm (like that of Tony, Tower Cafe, Caldecote, Bedfordshire, May 1982 – link), but this is more the exception than the rule. Many of the lay-by cafes depicted in this series tend to be visited on a one-off basis and they generally have an unfriendly atmosphere to them, which I think was successfully captured by Graham. Some of his pictures are particularly stylish and manage to catch the eye very well, which helps to maintain the attention of the viewer, even though the subject may be mundane (see for instance Bible, Driver’s bedroom, Interior, Blyth Services link and Burning Fields, Melmerby link). In addition to the successful composition, colour here also helps to grab the attention (particularly in the Bible and Burning Fields pictures). I felt that as a whole, the series felt quite detached and strange, with the photographer choosing to focus on places on the side of the road, rather than on the cities and towns through which the A1 passes through. The strangeness, however, is something that is attractive and I can relate to in connection with my own practice, which recently has tended to focus on mundane objects found around me.

The second series in the book was Beyond Caring, which includes various interior photographs of the old Department of Health and Social Security (“DHSS”) offices and waiting rooms in the early 1980’s. The format used in the original book is the same as in the previous one, with one colour picture on the right hand side page and the caption printed on the left hand side page. A thumbnail facsimile reproduction of the book was also included at the back of the book consulted (3)

The images in here, also in full colour, are all shot in the interior of offices. They portray people waiting in DHSS offices, presumably for unemployment pay or job seeking advice. These pictures feel slightly closer than the A1 series, with the angle of the camera sometimes trying to put the viewer at the centre of the action, or rather lack of it, as the pictures depict endless stillness while waiting, (see for instance Waiting Room, Poplar DHSS, East London link), but it transmits the same feeling of melancholy as some of the A1 images, both of which included interior short of slightly run-down, dirty and cold places. They continue to be outsider images but have a greater degree of human interest, not only because there is more people in them, but also because the situation depicted could be considered highly political.

The book continues with the series Troubled Land, which includes pictures of Northern Ireland taken between 1984 and 1986. The presentation of the original book is very similar to that used in Beyond Caring.

Like the previous series, the pictures here are in full colour. They seem again to be taken from an outsider perspective and show essentially no action, being primarily landscape and cityscape shots with very little human presence. A technique which Graham uses for this series, which I find myself attempting quite often in my own practice,  but that is quite difficult to do in a way that is visually arresting, is to use either a normal or wide-angle lens to capture objects in the distance, which would tend appear as tiny spots in the resulting photograph. This can be seen thought out the series, in pictures like Union Jack Flag in Tree link – or Army Helicopter and Observation Post – link. While we were quite close to the subjects in Beyond Caring, in Troubled Land, the distance could not be greater. Graham goes to great lengths to ensure that he is away as possible from any action, to the point that we cannot see it at all in many instances (like for instance in Republican Parade, Strabanelink or in H-Block Prison Protestlink, where the camera is so far away one cannot see either parade or protest). Without the benefit of the original book text, one would never guess what these pictures were trying to show; but after looking at the caption, one could never be sure if these pictures are trying to depict the “aftermath” of the actions, or the actions themselves. In the small number of images were the action is somewhat visible, the distance is so great that is impossible to distinguish what is going own (such as for instance in Army Stop and Search, Warrenpoint link). This creates a lot of ambiguity and feels like it has been done in such a way deliberately by the photographer to obfuscate his personal views on the matter. While the subject in Troubled Land can be considered as political as that of Beyond Caring, Graham’s point of view felt considerably more personal, involved and painful with the latter, than with his plain, sometimes bucolic images from Northern Ireland that give very little away in terms of the difficulties experienced by its inhabitants.

The book continues with Graham series The New Europe, taken in various European locations between 1988 and 1992. The original book, also reproduced in thumbnail images (3), takes a different approach from the previous one, showing the images without captions, with some of them spreading two pages. All the pictures are again in full colour.

The images are an eclectic mixture of portraits and interior/exterior shots of places and objects. Graham makes use of flash for some of the images, most of which have a snapshot feeling to them. While the A1 and Beyond Caring pictures were clearly done in the style of a documentary, the pictures in The New Europe seem more personal, as if they were taken from a position of privilege (insider view). In the picture Untitled, Belfast, 1988 (Woman Smoking Cigarette) link -, for instance, I cannot help thinking that it is the photographer who is trying to grab the woman by the arm. Some of the other pictures, like for instance Untitled, England, 1989 (Baby) couldn’t possibly have been taken outside a circle of family or close acquaintances (or perhaps Graham had it all staged in an attempt to deceit the viewers!).  Yet, other than showing people and places from various parts of Europe, the series does not have the sufficient togetherness, both in form or content, to pull the viewer in any particular direction of narrative. It is difficult to understand what Graham seems to be saying.

The next series in the book, Television Portraits has been taken since 1986. These are all colour portraits of people from various places (in America, Europe and Asia) watching television. The portraits are all quite similar in style, with the subjects looking equally intensely (see for example this) or bored (or this one) at the screen, which is always outside the frame. What I find interesting about these images, which are all taken from an insider perspective, is the fact that people from different cultures are all united in their reaction to televised images. Either television has universalized its cultural appeal or we are not as different as we think.

In the series Empty Heaven, taken in Japan between 1989 and 1995, Graham returns to his eclectic mix of object and subject portraits. This time, the original book (5) has pictures shown side by side, as if they were paired, or spread across two pages. It also includes some pictures that are either heavily unsaturated or that were taken in black and white film, but the majority of the images are in full colour. The aesthetic values are very similar to those used in The New Europe: there is a lot of flash used and the majority of the pictures have a snapshot feeling to them. The series shows cultural elements that have been associated with Japan (or that are perhaps stereotypes of Japanese culture), including images of cats (eg link), various visual references to the bombing of Hiroshima and its aftermath (eg link), cherry blossom (eg link) and car engines (eg link). Object pictures are inserted next to or between portraits of people, some of which have been taken in a personal setting and betray a sense of insiderness (eg link). My feeling from the series is that while Graham may have lived in Japan at the time of taking these pictures, and probably was acquainted with many of the people portrayed, his overall stance on the series is detached. It feels as if Graham is (politely?) pointing out what he feels may be odd about Japanese culture.

Graham returns briefly to Northern Ireland (or maybe not?) in his series Ceasefire, shot between 6-8 April 1994. I express my doubts because even though the captions refer to places in Norther Ireland, the pictures themselves are all sky shots, not showing any recognisable feature that could betray their location. They could have equally been taken in Kent. As in Troubled Land, Graham largely takes an “aftermath” approach in this series and shows largely similar cloudy skies (except for a couple of shots in which the sky was particularly dark – link – (perhaps taken after sunset) or almost white and featureless – link), which are not only detached from any action, but so far removed from its subject that any connection or interpretation imaginable is possible. I find the lack of engagement of the photographer with the political undertones of the subject quite disconcerting.

In the series the End of an Age Graham shows us a series of portraits of young people not doing particularly much other than posing. The original book, reproduced is small thumbnails (6), is quite chaotic in its presentation, having full two page spreads of one picture (particularly used in facial close-ups), as well as two pictures side by side, and one picture alone on the left or right hand side page of a spread, with no particular order being followed. The images are quite close, as if taken from a position of privilege, but they are also feel detached, as if subject and photographer could not see eye to eye. There are many pictures of people’s backs and side features (eg link) and no one is really looking at the camera. In some of the pictures, people appear to be in a trance and there is a voyeuristic feeling to the whole series, as if the photographer was abusing his position by showing some of the subjects in an unflattering manner (eg link). The way subjects are depicted, as well as the randomness of the original book’s presentation give an overall feeling of chaos and irreverence, but it is not clear if the photographer is attuned to this or critical, because of the ambiguity there is between the closeness of the images and the detachment between subject and photographer.

In Paintings Graham takes a series of pictures of graffiti or dirty walls, done in the late 1990s. The book goes back to the early books presentation style of having just one picture every two pages, placed on the left hand side page, but the pictures now are slightly smaller and have no accompanying caption (7). Like in End of an Age, the pictures have a uniform style and seem to be merely a collection. Perhaps, given the title, this is what the photographer wanted this to be: a collection of dirty walls and modern vernacular “paintings” (see for example, this and this other one). I find the series not as successful as similar efforts to portray rubbish by the likes of Keith Arnatt and Fay Godwin. As the subject itself is generally unappealing from a classical aesthetic perspective, it would take a certain styling in order to grab the attention of the viewer. This is not present here, as the graffiti is depicted as straight as possible (see here and here, for example).

The book continues with American Night a series of images that were taken in the USA between 1998 and 2002. The original book is organised with one picture on the right hand side page and a blank left hand side page with no caption, as in the Paintings series (8). The majority of the images, which portray American cityscapes, have been deliberately overexposed or printed overexposed, so that most details are masked (eg link). From time to time, these almost blank images are intersected by correctly exposed images, showing the exterior of well-off suburban homes (eg link) or people (the majority of them seemingly destitute or disabled) on the street (eg link). The original book, which is lavishly printed, contains perhaps the most aestheticised series I have seen to date, and is hard to make anything of it, except perhaps to say that the portraits and street photography images shown towards the middle of the book are in my opinion, clearly voyeuristic and exploitative. Perhaps the photographer wanted us to reflect upon the socioeconomic divide in America or to take a view on income inequality, but the aesthetic elements of the series are so strong that they are slightly off-putting and non-conductive of any political reflection. None of the people featuring in the street photographs seem to have given consent to be photographed, although some seem to be aware that they were being photographed (and do not seem particularly pleased by it, like for instance American Night No 38 (Woman Sitting on Sidewalk) New York 2002 – link). These pictures are not denouncing anything and appear to be intrusive and devoid of any sensibility.

In the final series contained in the book, A Shimmer of Possibility the presentation changes again. The original book had one image for every two page spread, either on the left or right hand side page, but the images were of different sizes (most of them quite small, though) and changed their position on the page as the book progressed (9). This is a series of photographs of people doing various mundane activities: cutting grass (link), eating (link), walking with their shopping (link), but Graham presentation is quite interesting in that it resembles the information one would get from a moving picture. In the series, for instance, we see a woman eating and we have a group of related images depicting the before, during and after of this activity, with a close up of the food she is eating as well as the rubbish she has left behind after finishing. With this presentation style, it is possible to get more information than what one would normally get from a single frame. It seemingly makes the job of the viewer easier, but at the same time, there has to be something for the viewer to get to. The problem with A Shimmer of Possibility is that the situations depicted are so mundane that there is no real interest in the end, even if we built the viewer’s attention up by showing different aspects of the situation.

(1) Graham, P., Mack, M., Chandler, D., Ferguson, R. and Almereyda, M. (2009). Paul Graham. Göttingen: steidlMack

(2) Idem, pp 305-309.

(3) Idem, pp 310-313.

(4) Idem, pp 320-323.

(5) Idem, pp 324-326.

(6) Idem, pp 328-331.

(7) Idem, pp 332-333.

(8) Idem, pp 334-339

(9) Idem, pp 340-352


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