When I first looked at Paul Graham’s Beyond Caring work in the mid-1980s, the essence of how we photograph and what we photograph seemed at once to be called to account, waking a generation from its gentle humanism as never before. The distance between such clear, colour-laden pictures and the more usual documentary strategies of previous decades could not have been more polarised. Through these angry and troubling photographs – and they still confound me in their achievement – the possibilities of contemporary documentary practice, and the languages through which we communicate what we can’t ignore, had to be re-appraised. Graham was conscious of this reformation and has always recognised the danger of treading water, instead of building ideas and taking risks. I remember his blunt assertion in Camera Austria a few years later that, rather than questioning his use of colour, it was others who should justify their own continuing use of monochrome.
Colour has not been the only expansion. Graham’s enthusiasm for the work of Michael Schmidt and Volker Heinze, two German photographers he visited and drew inspiration from in the 1980s, also proved influential. Both had made experimental and involved series, drawn from the experiences of living through a modern fractured Germany. It led Graham to strategies of metaphor and suggestion that would go on to govern the New Europe and Empty Heaven series and much that he has completed since. Beyond the single picture, the series – or “slippage” – across the page would knowingly expand a book’s potential. The uncelebrated (yet excellent) Television Portraits, made between 1988 and 1996 would sensitise such casual interiors as friend’s apartments – as if the smallest detail, the light from a TV screen or, elsewhere, the glimmer of a smoking man in a nightclub, could betray an age. This nourishment would lead to an extended engagement with Belfast, Zurich and several other European cities and coincided with substantial fellowships and gallery shows that considerably enhanced his position within photography. In the Paintings series, gathered from the walls of tense and claustrophobic interiors, and long before Houellebecq’s confessional shuffles through a soulless Paris reached Radio 4, Graham maps explicit and urgent communications of lust and desperation, embedded on the scratched, coloured booths where casual lives meet and pass.
SteidlMACK’s excellent new monograph draws together these series, situating them among the more widely known elements of Paul Graham’s career to date. From A1 – the Great North Road, Graham’s own rendering of the American “journey” template, to the recent A Shimmer of Possibility, Graham has been a severe and articulate presence within contemporary practice.
The folios, in this well designed book, are convincing and extensive. Furthermore, the work is contextualised by serious and fluent essays. David Chandler’s text, in particular, is a layering of interview, literature and chronology, which locates the book’s extensive folios through disparate and rich influences. The book closes with thumbnails of the page layouts of all Graham’s prior publications, revealing rhythm and consistent strengths across the photographer’s career.
Looking at the pictures again, both here and as they have punctuated some of the survey shows in the recent attempts to rekindle some kind of British History of Photography, I’m conscious of Paul Graham’s centrality to recent practice (and also that he has been lost to America, where he now teaches and works). The later work has grown to articulate difficult moments in history with profound depth. This valuable collection shows clearly that the photographer’s efforts to progress his medium, and its deployment, remains dangerous, brave and insistent.