Monthly Archives: May 2011

Paul Graham and the value of retrospectives

The Whitechapel Gallery has an exhibition of Paul Graham‘s work showing until 19 June 2011.  Paul has popped up on my photographic radar occasionally over the years. I remember his “A1 – the Great North Road” series when it first went public in the early 1980s. Although I’ve admired his photography, I confess to not being enthusiastic enough to buy any of his books for my shelf.

Before visiting the exhibition yesterday the impression that I had of Paul Graham is that he is intellectually honest and down-to-earth (I have never met him so I base this opinion on my interpretation of his work in books and magazines over the years).  I was therefore a bit dismayed when I initially entered the gallery to find his work being presented in large print sizes apparently as individual works of art rather than the narrative form I was expecting.  A retrospective is inevitably going to be selective and must therefore lose the original story, but has this exhibition diluted the honesty I was expecting and “sold-out” Paul Graham as an interpretive documentary artist?  Looking at the prints from the Great North Road series steadied me, and comparing this with later work such as the man cutting grass in A Shimmer of Possibility (2004-2006), I was reassured that the answer has to be “No”.  The exhibition isn’t about the narrative in each of the series on display, it is about the development of Paul Graham as an artist-photographer, which is hardly surprising given the title of the exhibition: Paul Graham. It is inevitable that the curation and display will be influenced by current trends and taste in gallery design, so even though I would have preferred more images at a smaller size, it is an excellent exhibition and well worth a visit.

Since Paul shares my opinion that books and other publications are a better way for most people to access photography than art galleries, I bought the exhibition catalogue (so yes, I now have a Paul Graham book on my shelf). I haven’t been through the catalogue in detail yet but it is clearly much more than the exhibition in book form.  So if you can’t get to the exhibition do try to see the book: Paul Graham. 2009. steidlMACK. ISBN 978-3-86521-858-2.

While I was looking at the Beyond Caring (1984-1985) series (a bleak look at the British Department of Health and Social Security or, as we knew it at the time, the Department of Stealth and Total Obscurity), which uses large blank areas and off-vertical angles in an attempt to achieve a distinctive appearance that now seems rather contrived, I overheard a couple of young gallery visitors remark with surprise how old this style actually was.  Perhaps that’s the real value of this  retrospective: it tells us that fashions and styles come and go – we need to look deeper for the real message.  For me, Paul Graham’s photographic series have these messages, about historical events as well as the human condition.