Paul Graham Exhibition : The Whitechapel Gallery, London, May 2011

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 (  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  I’ve now read a transcript of an interview with Richard Woodward in June 2007 ( 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”.

May 2011