The revealing thing about the new Paul Graham show at The Whitechapel is how his photographic language has evolved to incorporate the unsayable. His early work, much-loved, of the Great North Road and the masterful Beyond Caring, were robustly political, polemical even. The very first photograph proper in the A1 book is testament to that – it’s of bankers, ties flapping, and an elegant woman in a coat and neck scarf that can only be described as Thatcher blue, striding through the other shadowy figures in suits.

Executives, Bank of England, London November 1981

Other photographs of people in the book – always Graham’s chosen medium – are without exception working men and women. It is as though these people in the throes of traversing the country for work of one kind or another would become, thanks to Thatcherite policy, the subjects for his next book, when their jobs had evaporated into bankers’ wages.

In his next work, he studied DHSS offices across England, once more showing his penetrating insight into a strand of English society, one that he has captured so vividly that anyone who has had the misfortune ever to ‘sign on’ will be transported straight back to the prison-like ambience. Never has the word ‘benefit’ seemed like less of a boon.

Mother and Baby, Highgate DHSS, North London, 1984

It’s the condition of waiting Graham really understood and the poverty of the environment made for that purpose. How did people pass those hours without a phone to fiddle with or Twitter to titilate?

It was a daring move, back then, to utilise colour photography to represent ‘serious’ subjects and this is how Graham grew to ‘own’ his style, which he described as a mix of William Eggleston and Robert Adams, a style he developed with Troubled Land, his seminal work from Northern Ireland. These are among my favourite kind of photographs, those that reward you for looking longer. Only with detailed study is it possible to absorb the rich detail that Graham’s eye took in. A Union Jack in a tree, a Republican parade – pictured so minutely among the houses and the rolling grey mist that they can barely be seen – or kerbstones painted in Unionist colours, fading into a crepuscular sky.

Union Jack Flag in Tree, County Tyrone, 1985

Thereafter, Graham’s solidity and photographic surety seemed to slip away, as he cast his net wider, photographing the ‘new’ Europe that was being delivered by the EEC. What’s so wonderful about a show like this is that the connections between bodies of work suddenly materialize. Here the seeds were surely sown for Shimmer, with the poignant photograph of a one-armed man, looking across a scrubby vista to a contemporary Spanish tourism or housing development.

Untitled, Spain, 1988 (one armed man and window reflection)

This image is paired with an oddly lit interior space, perhaps the lobby of a restaurant. A chandelier is reflected in the glass wall of this otherwise sterile space. Such a curious pairing is typical of the way Graham’s work is exhibited. As with the fascinating sequencing of his books, Graham’s musicality is not easy to explain, but its effect endures. In this instance, the photographs follow a double rhythm of hope and its opposite.

Chronologically, his next two bodies of work, Television Portraits and Empty Heaven  – set in Tokyo – are slight bodies of work by comparison, and Ceasefire is really only a coda to Troubled Land. The portraits from End of An Age similarly do not hold my attention for long, though his interest in looking at people looking could well have performed useful studies for his greater works. And the next great work surely arrived with American Night 1998-2002.  Graham’s most obviously conceptual work to date was also an indictment of race and class in America.

American Night #32 (man crossing road) Greensboro, 2002

American Night #30 (white SUV outside new house) California, 2002

The vast majority of photographs are bleached out, the better to contrast with pristine mansions printed in shocking colour, and small series of images of black American men and women, who appear contingent, abject, even blind. The metaphor of blindness pervades the work and by forcing his audience to look at starkest inequality of ordinary inland America is again a deeply political act.

With A Shimmer of Possibility, elegantly exhibited at The Whitechapel, everything comes together, like an ensemble piece of everything that ever mattered. It is excruciatingly beautiful. Graham is no longer polemical with his photographic language, but rather painstakingly observant. The title sounds hopeful, and perhaps is meant that way, but I see a mirage emanating from the very word Shimmer. His camera has alighted on random individuals going about their daily business in a host of American cities.

Pittsburgh (man cutting grass), 2004

In capturing fragments of their lives in filmic sequences, the sense of people just doing their best to get by is overwhelming. Chekov is the much-quoted inspiration behind this body of work, but for me, its poignancy resides in a Bob Dylan lyric: ‘the only thing I knew how to do was to keep on keeping on, like a bird that flew.’

It’s a joy to be able to see a photographic retrospective like this for a contemporary photographer. It’s an artistic occasion on a par with any Freud or Hockney show and it is vital that such opportunities can continue, so that photography can vacate its still marginal position in the arts, and occupy centre stage as the medium par excellence of our times.

Max Houghton

Paul Graham, Photographs 1981-2006
is at The Whitechapel Gallery, London
20 April – 19 June 2011

See also: The Foto8 book review by Ken Grant: Paul Graham, published by SteidlMACK.