Monday, 23 May 2011

Paul Graham

Paul Graham from white tube on Vimeo.

Some notes on my visit to the exhibition at Whitechapel Art Gallery, organised by the OCA. Lack of time (and a desire to get my thoughts down quickly so I can read what others thought of the work) means that I will concentrate only on those aspects of the exhibition that struck me most.

Overall, I found the exhibition enthralling. It is unusual to see so much gallery space devoted to one photographer's work, and seeing a sample of work across his career really helped one get a sense of who he is as an artist. Themes (and colour palettes) recurred across projects. It was great to see both his development as an artist over the decades and at the same time see those aspects of his work that are consistent.

Early work: A1 - The Great North Road
This early series was represented by a set of vintage colour coupler prints. One of Graham's early influences was William Eggleston and his influence was evident in this work, in particular in the beautiful prints with intense reds and deep blues. An exploration of colour seemed as much a part of this series as the subjects. Where Graham seemed to me to depart significantly from Eggleston was in a gentler, subtler sensibility. I felt a sense of common humanity with the subjects in these and later images, whereas in Eggleston you do sometimes feel that you're looking at a museum exhibits.

These vintage prints were relatively small (8" by 10"), in notable contrast to almost every other print in the galleries. All the later prints were digital pigment prints, ranging in size from medium to large and absolutely huge - I estimate around 8' tall (what's the size after A0?).

Troubled Land
A series of works about the social geography of Northern Ireland. Much has been made in reviews and discussion about the impact of these and his DHSS series of colour photographs on social documentary photography and I won't rehearse that discussion here. What struck me about them is that the point (fulcrum, punctum, whatevah) of the pictures was often buried in a wider landscape. The Union Flag a tiny patch of red white and blue in a sea of greenery; the Orange parade just visible over the brow of a hill; the graffiti details and running soldier on the Andytown roundabout, with the green hills in the background. In case we missed these points, the titles of the picture tended to draw your attention to it, creating a dynamic where you know there's something to see and have to search for it in the picture. This preoccupation with sight and visibility, and using  a variety of techniques to make viewers look hard at the picture, reoccurred time and again in later works, though his titles have become much less directive over time. In this context I felt that, among other things, he was making a point about the small everyday scenes of people played out in the wide green landscape, some kind of play on themes of transience and memory and history.

His series called Ceasefire, made over a couple of days in April 1994, seemed to me to be exploring similar themes. It consisted entirely of pictures of the sky taken in places which had seen significant loss of life over the course of the Troubles. The pictures, mostly of cloud-filled, threatening skies brought to mind thoughts of the gods of ancient times watching from the Heavens, and a feeling of small mankind, insignificant in the face of the elements.

End of an Age was a series of huge prints of teenagers taken around the turn of the Millenium. The prints were either bathed in the lush ambient light of various bars and clubs or taken with hard direct flash. As the guide said, it was as if he was asking 'How do you want your reality?' All of the subjects were lost in thought, often in what looked like existential moments of awareness of the sort that one seems to have more often when a teenager than at any other time in life (such moments are another recurring theme in Graham's work). They clearly referenced facebook and similar snaps but their enormous size gave them a different kind of presence. I wondered what those teenagers look like now, and what is happening in their lives. Time moves on for them while their youthful selves remain forever as they were in that moment.

American Night
This was one of the bodies of works which struck me most. The series contains mostly images which have been obscured by some form of milky glaze so you have to look quite hard to make out the subjects, interspersed with some dark toned pictures showing men on street corners with bandaged eyes and a woman sitting on a filthy pavement, a look of despairing realisation on her face. All of the people in this series were black. In the milky pictures you could just make out small figures isolated in a bigger image. The figures were still, as if some thought or emotion or just weariness had stopped them in their tracks for a moment. One picture stood out from the others: a grey clapboard house in bright sunshine, with a startlingly red car on its drive and surrounded by grass so green and perfect that it looked like Astroturf. I felt like this was the house where the rich white people lived: a different world in every way from that experienced by the other characters. This pictrue visually stood out like a sore thumb in the middle of the muted images, making no attempt at all to fit the style of the rest of the series - another example of Graham using form to get his message across.

The effect of the milky glaze was to draw you in, to compel you to look closer at the pictures for clues and signs. As I looked I began to see the isolated figures, and then slowly colours, including spots of trademark reds and blues and lots of green. The effect was of stillness and a slight claustrophobic quality, and a constant play on themes of sight and vision, metaphorical and actual, light and shade, darkness and light. I loved the pictures and  could look at them again and again.

Technical note: when I looked very closely at the pictures I detected slight but definite outlines around shapes (like digital sharpening halos). I wonder if this might have been a way to ensure that the scene remained visible under the glaze?

A Shimmer of Possibility

Last but not least, these were little series of images of a single scene. In the video above Paul Graham describes them as like visual haikus or poems. Still pictures documenting a series of movements, like a film but not. The pictures within each set are different sizes, using size and focus points to draw your attention to particular moments or points of interest in the series. This work particularly resonated with me as it seemed to me a way to take forward the problem I was grappling with in my assignment 2 self-portrait in fragments. I liked the multiple viewpoints, playing with interest and focus, and the little dramas.

For no reason I can explain to myself I spent ages looking at the Texas 2006 couple carrying their groceries and boxes of Pepsi home, like some modern day Hunters in the Snow bringing back their spoils. I found the mixture of hope and despair on the face of the San Francisco, 2006 Flower Seller almost unbearably poignant. All of the pictures in this little set are dark toned. Some are very dark indeed. Not the darkness that comes from overexposure but a kind of burnished darkness that was like looking at a reflection in brass, or through a glass darkly. The very darkest picture shows the flower seller's arm holding out some roses. I saw the roses first, but as I peered more closely into the murk I noticed the cuts on his wrist, suggesting a failed suicide attempt. Having to look hard to see this somehow made me feel the pain more than if the man's scars had been exposed to plain sight. I thought about Simon Norfolk, using beauty to make a powerful statement, compelling attention with beguiling images more than simple horror. The man also looks visually similar to standard depictions of Christ, and the red roses (thorns) and punctured wrist suggested to me an echo of the suffering of the crucifixion. These pictures and American Night also seem to me to be powerful examples of the use of digital processing techniques to great effect, going far beyond simple visual impact.

Enough for now I think. I will revisit this post and add some additional links and resources later.

1 comment:

  1. Some interesting points here Eileen. I haven't been able to get to London recently so haven't seen the exhibition but coincidentally I did blog about Graham recently. I think that the fact you can make some sense of his work (and I've seen very little to be fair) shows how you are maturing as a photographer and critic. Something that is coming through in much of your reflective writing too if I may be so bold as to say so.
    Kind Regards