Paul Graham: Photographs 1981–2006
Exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, London
I was pleased that I was able to visit the Exhibition on 21st May along with other students from the OCA, with Gareth Dent to lead us. I downloaded information from the Whitechapel Gallery website but didn’t read it before visiting. I’ll give my impressions and then see how these relate to the information that I read later.
The Gallery is a bright spacious place to visit and a lot of space has been given to this exhibition of Paul Graham’s work from 1981 to 2006 on the various floors. We had a member of the Gallery staff as a guide but had time later to wander on our own. That was helpful because there was a lot to take in all at once so it was good to be able to go back to review.
The information leaflet described the exhibition as a comprehensive survey demonstrating Graham”s “innovative approach to documentary, reinventing traditional genres of photography to create a unique visual language.” One of the first things I learned was that Paul Graham was amongst the first photographers to use colour in documentary photography which was a radical step. I find it difficult now to appreciate that because I’m used to seeing colour and that fits with our guide’s comment that we review them on the basis of the picture not the colour. I don’t agree with that entirely because I did judge some of the photographs on the basis of the colour.
The sets of images were grouped according to series and I was interested to note how the framing changed and how different size images were put together in the same series. The chronology is divided into three time periods – 1981-1986; 1988-1996 and 1996-2006 but, I think, with concurrent rather than consecutive explorations in photography.
The earliest ones were the most striking for me. “Beyond Caring” (1984-85) takes us into various unemployment offices in England. I spent quite a bit of time there accompanying unemployed people and the series does capture that sense of endless hanging around waiting for your number to come up, although it doesn’t capture the underlying frustrations which could sometimes erupt! In this series there is evidence of ‘shooting from the hip’ photography in the angles and slightly tilted lines.
At first sight, and from a distance, the “Troubled Land’ series (1985-86) looks like fairly ordinary , often urban, landscapes. However, this is Northern Ireland, and it was only when I moved closer that small details took on more significance (http://www.paulgrahamarchive.com/troubledland.html#a). The Gallery information refers to the fusion of traditional landscape with war reportage – the soldier moving across the roundabout; posters on tops of lampposts. To me, once noticed, they seemed like sharp pinpricks pointing to the everyday reality of this constant state of tension. Graham returned there in 1994 and chose a more abstract view in “Ceasefire”. I have to say that the series of clouded skies didn’t have the same impact for me at all. If I hadn’t been told I wouldn’t have been able to name the country.
The later photographs record travels further afield Europe; Japan, the United States where he now lives. One of the series, “A Shimmer of Possibility” (2004-2006) mirrors his early travels up the Great North Road and records travels across America. Some of them reminded me of the exercises in my Workbook – a sequence of composition. In those exercises we were asked to move around and see what caught our attention and here Graham does the same. He follows a woman with a younger man (her son?) carrying their shopping home. There’s no sense of timescale but they’re obviously moving because the scenery changes, but very slightly. Another set of images is of a man mowing the lawn http://www.paulgrahamarchive.com/possibility.html. I’ve now read a transcript of an interview with Richard Woodward in June 2007 (http://www.paulgrahamarchive.com/interviews.html) which is based around books written by Graham, each of which is described as “a filmic haiku”. In the interview Graham says that his source was Chekhov’s short stories and the critical essays around them. There isn’t much happens in the stories and they are dealing with simple, everyday things. In this case I think that Graham achieved his aim because there certainly isn’t really very much happening at all, what Graham describes as “isolating a small rivulet of time”! The Roundabout in Belfast in 19484 also showed a snapshot in time but it is so different. For me Graham moved from the complex to the banal but then, we all have our own unique reality at any given moment in time don’t we.
The interview is interesting because it reveals more about Graham’s, influences experience and thoughts on photography today. One thought I had going around the Exhibition was about the sense of Paul Graham being an observer – standing back – so that for me there was a sense of unconnectedness with his subjects. Richard Woodward makes this point about Graham being clearly an outsider and we never learn much about the people and Paul Graham’s response is to say, “I don’t want to feign being intimate with somebody I met 5 minutes ago. I accept and embrace that so much in life is “ships passing in the dark”. It was honest o f him to say that but, maybe, that’s why, for me, there wasn’t anything exuberant or joyful in his work, or moving either. For that to happen I think that a photographer needs to feel some kind of emotional connection, to be able to think, “That could be me”.
Elements of design
“The vocabulary of design is made up of what we can call graphic
elements, the two dimensional forms that appear inside the picture
(M. Freeman, p. 65, 2007)
Freeman differentiates between the ‘marks and forms’ within a painting or illustration and the real subjects which they might represent. He goes on to make the point that the unique property of a photograph is that its images are always taken directly from real things, so that the marks on a photographic print, unlike those which are hand-drawn, always represent something that existed. He divides these graphic elements into a trinity of
- Points – which tend to draw attention
- Lines – which are valuable in directing and creating vectors
- Shapes – which have the role of organizing image elements and bringing structure
which are all connected and tend to create more complex structures as they are combined.
Preparation for the Assignment
I felt quite organised in preparing for the exercises which lead up to my final choice because I thought I was clear in what had to be achieved. I made visits to a range of places, taking with me small index cards with lists of aspects I needed to cover. There was London of course. I visited Seaford on the East Sussex coast for the first time and experienced the challenges of dealing with different light conditions. I also visited Stopham in West Sussex and went twice to Watts Memorial Chapel and Cemetery in Surrey, designed by Mary Watts, wife of the painter because I was fascinated by its curves and bas relief shapes. I was pleased that I overcame some of my inhibitions and photographed people celebrating the royal wedding and enjoying local carnivals.
What happened was that in each place I got drawn into exploring particular aspects and forgot some of the others. I ended up with many raw images and a computer desktop covered in folders which is unlike me, but I didn’t want to ‘forget’ anything. Within all this whirl of photographic activity I kept putting off writing up the exercises and began to feel swamped. It was difficult to decide on one subject because although I had covered everything needed overall I couldn’t, at first, find one subject that contained everything needed. I woke up one morning with an inspiration to take on the challenge of finding these graphic elements in photographs of people. I did but had to use some quite old photographs to achieve this and I wanted to use new photographs. Eventually I slowed down and gave myself a calmer thinking space. The exercise images utilise examples from the variety of visits etc and I have chosen London as my Assignment subject – mostly the City of London.
1. Single point dominating the composition
A point has to be a very small part of the overall image but it must contrast in some way with its setting to be significant. I think the illuminated red heart does this quite well. I’ve been thinking that I could have focussed in much more closely but then the red boxes beneath the heart might have become more prominent and lessen the impact of the heart as a point.
2. Two points
I have had some debate with myself about this in terms of which point is which and, indeed, whether there are just two points. It depends which point of view you take as it were! The sign stands out against the whitened brick wall and the black door but, then again, the red cross also stands out for me against the sign. I don’t think that the sign against the wall would have been interesting enough in itself. To me it needs the balance of the door, especially as the blackness of the door is highlighted by the two studs on the door jamb.
3. Several points in a deliberate shape
The arrangement of the elements in this elaborate gate detail form themselves into circular and triangular shapes.
4. Combination of vertical and horizontal lines
The baseline is the pavement and the hospital roof lies around one-third upwards. I wonder, looking at it now, whether the architects of the new blocks behind designed it to gain this effect. There is rhythm in the portico columns and all the windows create patterns. This was taken at 35mm focal length at f13 and the smaller aperture has compressed the perspective. The horizontal lines are defined by the name panel above the columns; the roof of the older building and then by the window ledges. The vertical lines of the columns add strength and, I think, a sense of stability to the older building, whereas the vertical lines of the glass windows on the upper left of the newer block make it look more fragile to me.
I didn’t feel entirely sure about including this even though I personally like the effect. Looking at it again I can now see that the signs constitute two points which I hadn’t quite realised before. In this composition they break uup the rhythm/pattern of the building but it might have been a bland image without them. I took this from across the road (85mm lens at 35 metres away). Alternatively I could have moved much closer and angled my camera upwards to accentuate the verticals of the windows and impression of height.
Here I tilted the camera, but only slightly, to accentuate the effect of the supports of the London Eye. The diagonal lines also combine to form an implied triangle.
Curved feminine bodies in a curved shape. This is ‘Chimera with Personifications of Fire and the Sea’ by Francis William Doyle-Jones. The sculpture is over the doorway of one of the buildings in the City of London (24-8 Lombard Street) which used to be the Royal Insurance building. The statues represent insurance risks of fire and sea and, in the middle, the uncertainty of the future. The feathers in the wings of the hydra in the middle also have a diagonal/triangular aspect.
Freeman points out that curves must usually begin as real curves (as here) but they can be exaggerated by being viewed at a more acute angle. this occurred here because I angled my camera upwards from the pavement and the doorway is quite high.
7. Distinct, even if irregular, shapes
Reflection of Old Hallows Church steeple on Tower Hill which also forms an actual triangle.
8. At least two kinds of implied triangle
The birds on the support of the London Eye had nicely arranged themselves to form part of a triangle with the diagonal structures. I think that the birds increase the effect of the implied triangle, particularly the bird at the top which highlights its apex. There are other actual triangles here of course formed by the shape of the supporting structure.
A lamp outside the Port of London Authority building implies a triangle. Each lamp forms a triangle within itself and then, together, combine to produce another triangle. I could have focussed in on just the lamps and their horizontal base but the whole ensemble also creates yet another triangle.
9 & 10 Rhythm and Pattern
There is both rhythm and pattern in the reflection of the buildings against the colours in the window bands.
Detail from Battle of Britain memorial. The helmets and arms create rhythm here for me and give a sense of dynamism and movement. There is also an implied triangle formed by the men’s bodies and a pattern created by the helmets.
I spent a lot of time on the exercises and Assignment and, as I mentioned earlier, ended up feeling quite swamped with all the images. To some extent I think that there was a mirroring effect going on as I was sorting order out of chaos and recognizing graphic elements in images. In some respects I think I’ve ended up playing somewhat safe and keeping things simple but, as a result, I’ve now become more consciously aware of lines and shapes which means that my skills in composition should have improved.
17th May 2011
Exercises:8 and 9 Triangles, Rhythm and Pattern
A – Exercise 8: Real and implied triangles
No. 1 – a triangular subject
Triangular sign warning of steep cliffs.
No. 2 – Triangle by perspective converging to the top
To me the shadows at the bottom enhance the base of the triangle.
No. 3 – Inverted triangle by perspective
This is the roof line of a cloister at Watts Cemetery
No. 4 – Still-life arrangement : implied triangle with the apex at the top
No. 5 – still-life arrangement: inverted implied triangle
No. 6 – People triangle
I can see more than one implied triangle here – one formed by the left leg of the man wearing blue jeans and the legs of the lady ,and another (inverted) formed with the ladies feet as the apex. I noticed the shapes formed as the people were walking by and focused in to capture an image of just their legs.
B – Exercise 9: Rhythm and pattern
There is rhythm in the tiles here with the patterned relief below them.
knots, curves and faces form the patterns here.
Project : Using lines in composition
Exercise 7 : Implied Lines
I can see implied lines as follows:
To me the lines in the first picture give a sense of flow and movement because they are curved, whereas the straighter lines in the second images create more tension in the movement between the man and the horses.
Analysis of two of my older images
The donkeys are positioned between shallow diagonal steps and their eye-lines are also diagonally positioned – one towards me (in curiosity) the middle one downwards and looking slightly ahead whilst the one on the right is looking further ahead. Although they are standing still their positions and eyelines give a sense of readiness to move at any minute.
The trees form a curve which is enhanced by the lighter curved markings on the sandy path. This gives a sense of movement forward into the distance.
This was taken whilst studying Part 2 but when I had just gone out and about with my camera. My walk (without the dogs) took me along a path near to a golf course and these golfers in the distance attracted my attention
The golfers are forming their own line whilst there is an implied line between the one teeing off towards the hole.
Two planned photographs
For photograph 4 I took a diagonal shot which shows the edges between the table, benches and wall more sharply. The planks of the table also lead the eye off into the distance. In photograph 5 the pointing hand again leads the eye along the horizon.. There is a implied triangle in both images.
I actually prefer the first set of photographs because there is more sense of movement whereas the last two photographs are more static. I think that’s probably because I planned to take them rather than having an instant response to a scene which attracted me.
Project : Lines
Exercise 6: – Curves
I was very taken by both the curves of the ladies and also the circle they created as they leaned to organise the table. An argument could be made that they form a triangle rather than a circle but I think their curved postures are more circular here. I cropped this to emphasize the circle.
One of the gravestones at Watts Cemetery, Compton which shows the curves within curves which are very reminiscent of the whole style and layout of the cemetery and its chapel.
I cropped this to emphasize the curves of fruit and their arrangement.
These are more gentle curves here in Seaford.
Project : Lines
Exercise 5 – Diagonals
The structure of the London Eye presents very strong graphic elements. The supports are actually diagonal and I emphasized these here by tilting the camera slightly and using a wide angle lens (17mm). The converging diagonals also form a triangle.
A close-up shot of the window pillars of Watts Cemetery Chapel in Compton, Surrey. (http://www.wattsgallery.org.uk/visitor-information/watts-chapel). Here I tilted the lens (38mm) upwards so that the vertical lines converge and also create a greater sense of height.
Again at Watts Cemetery. I was immediately attracted to the red diagonal pump handle and the green spout on the watering can.
Patchwork fields in Seaford, East Sussex. I was standing on the cliffs by the sea and looking downwards. I used the tripod and set my lens at 84mm so that the perspective was compressed. These are softer diagonals set off by the different colours of the landscape.
Project : Lines
Exercise 4 – Horizontal and vertical lines
For this exercise I decided to look at image thumbnails almost with my mind’s eye (like when you quickly scan and almost see things subliminally) and see which images leapt out to me as being either horizontal or vertical. The exercise brief refers to lines in photography as usually being the edges of things, with contrast often being the quality that makes them stand out.
(a) Horizontal lines
Several horizontal lines jumped out at me here, almost like stripes, with light and dark and colour contrasts.
The horizontal slats of the bench glow against the green and brown of the background.
Taken in the middle of the day. I haven’t manipulated this image and still can’t understand how I managed to gain a horizontal shadow of myself!
The horizon caught my eye here and the lambs are level too.
(b) Vertical Lines
A lighthouse which has been moved inland back from edge of the cliff. There are horizontal lines at the bottom and on the lower roof but I think the vertical aspect is strongest, especially with the vertical fence around it.
Standing in line and waiting for the competition results to be announced.
Steeple pointing skywards.
There is a triangle here of course, but the vertical lines are strongest, with the contrast of the rough tree barks against the smooth finished pole.