Paul Graham’s photographs, particularly his pictures of Britain in the 1980s, are empty of what we would usually call events. Like Patrick Keiller’s lingering shots, they present landscapes and people in an unpolished, unspectacular light.
The photographs which make up A1 – the great north road are in deep contrast to “on the road” sequences like Robert Frank’s The Americans. Frank’s photos appear to show momentary bursts of activity or revelation, as though he had sat through hours of nothingness in order to capture his own brilliant moment. They create an alternative reality which may have little to do with the scenes which they purport to convey. We think of them now as showing the myth of Americana, but we forget that they played an important role in creating that myth.
Graham’s photos, on the other hand, show those hours of nothingness. Indeed, they show more than hours; what we see is not just the Britain of 1981, but the history which has made the Britain of 1981. It acknowledges that Britain is inseparable from its history, but it also shows it at (what we now know is) a pivotal moment in time.
The series follows the route of the A1 northwards, from the City of London up to Edinburgh. So we inevitably begin outside the solid stone walls of the bank, with two young upstarts smiling over a piece of paper and an unseeing woman passing them, a little out-of-focus.
We barely recognise them as humans, but then nor do they recognise us. They are inextricably linked with what they do, with a system of money-making which keeps us at arm’s length. Coming first in the series, we might expect this photo to set the scene, but in fact it is quite out of kilter with the rest of the series. It is more like one of Frank’s photos, in that it captures a moment which then becomes an emblem of what we associate with the City (the point of which, lest we forget, is its resistance to being seized in an image).
A half-hour drive up the A1, and we see another woman. She stands waiting for a bus at Mill Hill in north-west London. The wind reddens her face and blows back her jacket, and her hands, plunged into pockets, clutch her hips. She looks straight at us, and however we interpret her expression, she sees us.
There is no romanticism or mythology here. The photograph speaks for itself and without making any assumptions of the subject, it suggests a way of life. The photograph of the bankers is dated, but this one is not. The graffiti (KGB / PUNKS) may have changed, perhaps the flyovers have collapsed, but the subject matter and the composition still speak to us.
As we drive further north, we see the people who maintain the circulation of goods around the United Kingdom: the truck-drivers, and the service station attendants who keep them fed on bacon sandwiches, ketchup, strong cups of tea. In the corner of a motel room sits a bright red bible on a white bedside cabinet. In another extraordinary picture, a sign saying “hotel” stands in the middle of a burning field. Was there a hotel here once? Are those Gideon bibles going up in flames?
Graham’s other projects during the 1980s speak of more explicit themes: recession and the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Although these photos share the documentary effect of the A1 photos, what is interesting about them is that they could never have appeared alongside newspaper reports of the day.
The pictures in Beyond caring of DHSS offices show people staring defeat in the face, or people who long ago accepted that society had defeated them. Taken from floor-level, you can almost step into the realities which these photos depict. You can smell the stale cigarette butts that litter the floor; you can read the cheerily helpful notices on the wall that give the lie to the hopelessness of unemployment. Children and pushchairs are present in virtually every scene. Those children are in their late twenties now. The younger men and women are approaching retirement. The older ones are probably dead. The social security offices have since been closed down, or spruced up and sub-contracted to the private sector. But despite these cosmetic improvements, the mood within will not have changed. But no newspaper photographer would dare (or be allowed) to step inside, and so the subjects of these photos are reduced to statistics.
Troubled land is the last series in Graham’s 1980s trilogy, and the most strikingly different. There are no people in the foregrounds of these photos, nobody looking back at you. With their huge blue skies and terraced houses, they are disarmingly passive, normal and disquieting at the same time. Unlike most war photography, an image like “Roundabout, Andersontown, Belfast, 1984” (above) does not record a sudden moment of agony. Whereas many war photographs only show what is happening “right now” (and can therefore make it difficult to work out what happened a moment ago, or a year ago, or what will happen as a result of this event), “Roundabout” is more like a moving picture. Wondering what could be “wrong” about an apparently normal scene, our eyes wander through the image and gradually pick up clues: the “P.I.R.A.” graffiti on the railing, the rubble on the roundabout, the street-lamps craning like birds without their bulbs and with election posters stuck to their necks. Then we see a soldier on the left-hand side running to catch up his colleague who is further down the road. A man walks by with a dog, pretending not to notice what is going on around him.
In an essay on war photography, John Berger writes: “The image seized by the camera is doubly violent and both violences reinforce the same contrast: the contrast between the photographed moment and all others.” Paul Graham’s photographs of conflict, whether geographical, economic, political, etc, blur this contrast. They bring us closer to those who were there in that situation. By not capturing what we would usually think of as the moment of violence, they stretch time and make the image linger in our minds. Keeping one’s distance from the horrors that we see thus becomes impossible.
Paul Graham: Photographs 1981-2006 is at Whitechapel Gallery until 19 June 2011. Admission is free.