Burning Fields, Melmerby, North Yorkshire, Septmeber 1981 © Paul Graham
Susan Sontag once noted the pervasiveness of the misconception that photography’s dual powers – ‘to generate documents and to create works of visual art’ – are necessarily opposed. In many ways the work of British photographer Paul Graham can be understood as an exploration, or negotiation, of the shifting relationships between the two forms of practice. His earliest published work, A1 – The Great North Road, for example, evinced an attachment to traditional themes of documentary practice, including the road trip, the national survey, and the particulars of working class life. Vitally and unexpectedly though (this was early 80’s England) it achieved its ends through the defiantly irregular use of colour film and a large format camera.
Pittsburgh (man cutting grass) 2004 (A Shimmer of Possibility) © Paul Graham
A similar balancing act structures his latest 12-book series, the acclaimed A Shimmer of Possibility, in which Graham sequences any number of photographic allusions, suggestions and evocations. Of course, the resonances and ambiguities of the work are a world away from the certainties of documentary procedure; but at the heart of the enterprise is a faith in the camera’s prosaic and uncontroversial recording function. In other words Graham – unlike so many of his peers – stakes a claim for the artistic status of his photography without resorting to, say, digital manipulation, the staging of tableaux, or dallying with moving imagery.
Union Jack Flag in Tree, County Tyrone (Troubled Land) © Paul Graham
His has been a restless and innovative career – one well-served by this intelligent and generous monograph. Early on Graham chose to dispense with the photojournalistic convention of the ‘winning shot’, or indeed the ‘decisive moment‘, and he has instead built up distinct bodies of work which are most fully realised in book form. This volume surveys each project and concludes with an invaluable fully illustrated bibliography which reproduces every spread of each book he has authored. Thoughtful essays by David Chandler, Russel Ferguson and Michael Almereyda serve as useful guides.
Wrapped Tree #3, Financial District, Tokyo (Empty Heaven) © Paul Graham
In an interview in 2007 Graham remarked that one of MoMA curator John Szarkowski’s greatest achievements had been the identification of a fertile artistic territory in the space between the demands of editorial commissions and the ossified conventions of fine art photography. As this retrospective amply demonstrates – from the sectarian Troubled Land to the graffitied Paintings; or from the Japanese Empty Heaven to the bleached white American Night – Graham’s work repeatedly shows how rich in possibilities that area remains.
SteidlMACK, £40, 400pp