Paul Graham (UK, 1956) belongs to that generation of photographers who were amongst the last to engage with the medium before it became part of the broader contemporary art world.
At the beginning of the 1980’s Graham was among the first photographers to unite contemporary colour practise with the ‘documentary’ genre. In 1981/2 he completed ‘A1 – The Great North Road‘– The Great North Road (1983) , a series of colour photographs from the length of the British A1 road, which had a transformative effect on the black and white tradition that dominated British photography to that point. A1 is held up as a turning point within British documentary photography – when it became legitimate to use colour instead of black-and-white. The road itself features rarely in the 41 plates that make up the monograph; much of Graham’s attention is drawn to the various cafés and service stations along the route. The series is almost completely devoid of any recognisable landmarks (i.e. places of social or historical significance), and might easily be taken for any major British road. Rather than the A1 as simply an object of study, Graham uses it to transect the north / south divide: the road becomes a means of investigation.
This work, along with his other photographs of the 1980’s – the colour images of unemployment offices in ‘Beyond Caring‘ (1984-85), and the sectarian marked landscape of Northern Ireland in ‘Troubled Land‘ (1984-86) – were pivotal in reinvigorating and expanding this area of photographic practice, by both broadening it’s visual language, and questioning how such photography might operate. Many UK photographers moved to colour soon after, and a new school of British Photography evolved with the subsequent colour work of Richard Billingham, Tom Wood, Paul Seawright, Anna Fox, Simon Norfolk, Nick Waplington, etc.
Since then Graham moved outside of his UK roots, but continued to explore the fertile territory where the descriptive and artistic aspects of photography coalesce, often tackling difficult subject matter for a medium that engages with the observable world.
‘New Europe‘ (1988-1993) used a poetic flow of images to look at the tension between the shadow of history and the rush to an economic superstate in Western Europe.
‘Empty Heaven‘ (1989-1995), considers the relationship between historical trauma and the child-like fantasy world in Japan – themes that would later become central to the ‘Superflat’ movement of contemporary Japanese art. in
‘End of an Age‘ (1996-98)More recently his work has reflected an examination of what we expect from a photographic image, be it a portrait – as in these hard:soft images of young people
‘American Night‘ (1998-2003) reflects the landscape and social fracture of America through overexposed, near invisible white images. Examining what actually registers in our sight with
Graham moved to the United States in 2002, where he completed ‘a shimmer of possibility‘ (2004-2006) which embraces everyday moments of life in todays United States, whilst embracing time’s flow as a part of still photographic work through extended sequences of images.
Most recently, ‘The Present‘, completed this trilogy of works in the USA, with doubled moments taken unstaged from the streets of New York. These diptych works are separated only by a fraction of a second, yet highly specific focus shifts awareness between the images.
This unofficial trilogy of USA works – ‘American Night‘, ‘a shimmer of possibility‘ and ‘The Present‘, each embrace one of the 3 principle controls of the camera: Aperture, Shutter and Focus. As the aperture controls the light, the shutter controls time, and focus specifies what we look at, the trilogy of American works could also be described as engaging with Light, Time and Consciousness.