Mini review Paul Graham at the Whitechapel Gallery

Over Easter, as well as the Street Photography show we also visited this, and it was absolutely stunning.

Paul Graham is probably the most important British photographer that most of us have never heard of. He is from the same generation as Martin Parr, but with a style and outlook that is more serious, more fragmented and, perhaps, more thoughtful. Perhaps the reason we are so much less familiar with Graham, in spite of having made roughly a book every couple of year, a Duetsche Borse prize and numerous shows is that after he established himself in the 80s he moved to documenting in Europe, Japan and the USA. Graham’s work seems to be about the possibilities in the mundane and the editing of the work.

The show is a retrospective with work from all of his books. As an aside it is noticeable that the work generally gets larger and larger as the years go on, perhaps a comment on the recent history of photography in itself. I really enjoyed the early works, done in England. The first series is a document of a trip up the A1, recalling the idea of the American road trip but taking it into the UK. Graham manages to find a different take on the familiar which makes it unfamiliar, and less English to my eye. The theme of finding extraordinary images in the mundane is something that hits you again and again. The “Beyond Caring” series shot in DSS offices in the early 80s takes that and adds a palpable feeling of disgust and injustice at the way the system de-humanises claimants. Some of the rooms look more like places of punishment or torture than of support. The later work confidently takes on a more lyrical and elliptical approach to the subject matter with, for example portraits of sitters watching TV. It takes real courage to use only the clouds over Northern Ireland as the IRA ceasefire comes into effect in the ‘Armistice’ series. The only misfire comes with a series of portraits of teenagers taken around the millennium, a comparatively ordinary metaphor of transition.

The second to last room, ‘American Night’ mostly consists of a series of massive, pale, prints which all contain a single tiny figure, alone at the roadside amidst the Ex-Urban sprawl of modern America. The viewer has to work hard to find them in the near white-out prints. These contrasted with hard, dark prints of urban scenes where the single figure is large, almost life size given the scale of these prints. The presentation of these images is stunning, they appear to be printed directly on to the back of the pespex or glass and have a subtle shadow behind them.

The final room contains work from the books that comprise ‘A Shimmer Of Possibility’ a cycle of 12 small books presented as photographic short stories, rather than a traditional monograph. In each set a seemingly mundane activity, again in an American setting, is presented in a series of shots giving a narrative tension by not only showing a person taking part in an activity but views and details that are from the viewpoint of that person. This works in drawing in the viewer for example in one series a man smokes cigarette and paces while he does so. In another a man in a wheel chair moves around and appears to be in pain, banging his chair against a lamp post. In a third a man mows a strip of grass adjacent to a car parking area, the lens flares as the sun comes into shot behind him, a particularly vivid, cinematic move on Graham’s part. In all of these series the viewer starts to construct narratives and alternative realities.

All in all this is possibly the best photographic exhibition I’ve seen in the last three years.

“Just slow down and look at this ordinary moment of life. See how beautiful it is, see how life flows around us, how everything shimmers with possibility.” — Paul Graham

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