Paul Graham: Photographs 1981-2006

Roundabout, Andersonstown, Belfast, 1984, Paul Graham Image copyright Paul Graham
Image caption Roundabout, Andersonstown, Belfast, 1984

Some photographs change the way we look at the world, some change the way we look at photography, and some do both. For me Roundabout, Andersonstown, Belfast, 1984, by photographer Paul Graham (above) is one such picture.

In a wider context it cemented Graham's position in the photographic hierarchy as a leading British photographer, one of the few then challenging the perceived wisdom that all serious photography was in black and white, and on a personal level, when first seen in the 80s, it revealed to me that photographs can be subtle and need to be read, not just glanced at. They deserve respect.

The picture is part of Graham's 1984-86 series entitled Troubled Land and depicts the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Standing in front of the picture with Paul Graham at The Whitechapel Gallery in London where a collection of his work from the past 30 years opens to the public today, I was interested to hear how this photograph had been such an important one for him.

Image copyright Paul Graham
Image caption Unionist Posters on Tree, County Tyrone, 1985, from the series Troubled Land, Pigment ink print

Graham told me that on returning from his first trips to Northern Ireland he felt depressed with the results. His pictures were of the gabled ends of buildings displaying huge murals in support of one group or another, the sort of pictures used widely in the press at the time. Yet they tell us little of the story itself, they are but illustrations.

Despite having no press card or indeed legitimate reason for being there he continued to work on the project and it was this photograph that set the tone for what was to come. Whilst standing by the roadside with his medium format camera in hand, a British Army patrol approached him and asked what he was doing, whilst making it clear he should take no more pictures. But his instincts took over and he made this frame as the patrol left the scene. You can see the soldiers running off down the road on the right, with one still on the roundabout.

At the time he didn't realise its significance. It was only when he was looking through his negatives that he realised this was his breakthrough picture, one which offered a gateway to the story. His style was now set, it would be anti-surveillance, turning the camera from a device that focuses in on the most important part of the frame, to one that captures the wider view and pushes the viewer to seek out the significance of the picture.

Where a photojournalist would get closer to the story and seek out the murals, the soldiers, young mothers pushing prams in front of barracks, men in balaclavas, Graham stood back. He photographed rural scenes, wide views of towns, pictures you have to delve into to find the subject, which is often a small speck of detail somewhere in the frame. The viewer has to work hard to untangle the components. Graham said: "It's a combination of landscape and conflict photography, using small seductive landscapes to reveal the details."

As mentioned, when I first saw this picture back in the 1980s it was a revelation. Wow, you can do that with photography I thought. Within this two dimensional object there are so many clues, so many stories and mysteries. The soldier running in the distance, the graffiti on the crash barrier (something Graham did not see until in the darkroom), the broken lights, the posters placed high on the lamp posts and the flagstones removed from the kerb. It is only then you begin to understand that this is Northern Ireland during the Troubles. You begin to see how the landscape and the communities are shaped by the events around them and how stories can be told, and documents created, in new and exciting ways. You don't have to point a camera with a 28mm lens into someone's face to get to the truth, or even to start the conversation.

Image copyright Paul Graham
Image caption Woman at Bus Stop, Mill Hill, North London, November 1982, from the series A1 - The Great North Road, Vintage colour coupler print

Graham was one of a small band of photographers coming out of the 1970s with the determination to break the stranglehold of documentary black and white photography. Spurred on by the writings of Victor Burgin and John Tagg, plus the work of American colour photographers such as Stephen Shore and William Eggleston, Graham focused his attention to his homeland and in 1981 set off on a road trip following the route of the A1 from London to Edinburgh, a project that ended up as his Great North Road series.

Unlike the wide open American roads, sleek diners and beat poets captured by Robert Frank in the classic road trip book The Americans, Graham had to make do with a Little Chef and a man in an apron decorated with a giant crossword. As Graham put it: "Once you get stuck behind a caravan on the A1, bang goes your Kerouac ambition." Yet the resulting work set his tone for the next 30 years and is one that should be examined deeply by all students of photography.

As an aside, I can sympathise with Graham. Back in 2009 I retraced his route up the A1 as part of our coverage of the anniversary of the global downturn. Graham spent two years on his project, sleeping in the back of a Mini, ours was but a quick dash with very different aims, but it was fascinating to make the journey all the same.

Graham's work and his journey as a photographer is compelling. His work is hard to define and defies being boxed in, he is not simply a documentary photographer.

Graham uses the camera to expose the things we overlook. They are right there in front of all of us, yet we carry on with our own lives trying to make the world conform to our idea of it. Graham's pictures force us to open our eyes. He slashes through the everyday and in doing so lets in a little metaphorical ray of light to illuminate the subject.

Image copyright Paul Graham
Image caption Untitled 2002 (California) # 7, From the series American Night

His pictures are not there to amuse or reinforce our views, and the true meaning of the pictures is often concealed.

If we jump from the A1 trip to 2004 we find Graham back on the road, this time in the USA and primarily on foot, capturing more non-moments for his series, A shimmer of possibilities. Graham describes these pictures as innocuous moments of life, over-looked, stuttering sequences, his work he says is about an "ongoing moment".

In one sequence there are nine photographs of a man mowing a lawn. The pictures show the man moving up and down a strip of grass, then in one frame it rains and finally he drives off. Nothing is happening and yet this moment is as important as any other from that day. Who are we to define what is important, history is not one continuous line.

Graham has spent most of his life positioning himself outside of the rules in terms of where a photographer should stand and how they should approach a subject.

Graham is a watcher, a watcher of people and the space they occupy. He is also able to keep pushing the boundaries of what is accepted by the photographic community. His American Night series which placed over-exposed pictures alongside hyper-real colour photographs caused uproar, 30 years on from shooting the A1 in colour it seems little has changed.

I could go on, but instead I'll leave you with a few of his pictures and suggest if you are in London before the 19 June you head to The Whitechapel Gallery to see the prints for yourself.

Image copyright Paul Graham
Image caption Man Reading Paper, Bloomsbury DHSS, Central London, 1985, Pigment ink print
Image copyright Paul Graham
Image caption Bus Converted to Café, Lay-by, West Yorkshire, November 1982, Vintage colour coupler print
Image copyright Paul Graham
Image caption Baby, DHSS Office, Birmingham, 1984, from the series Beyond Caring, Pigment ink print
Image copyright Paul Graham
Image caption Untitled #43 from the series End of an Age, 1986, Pigment ink print
Image copyright Paul Graham
Image caption Girl with White Face, Tokyo, 1992, from the series Empty Heaven, Pigment ink print
Image copyright Paul Graham
Image caption New Orleans, 2005 (Cajun Corner), from the series a shimmer of possibility, Colour coupler print

One final note is that as Graham rediscovered his old negatives for the exhibition, scanning all the work himself, and indeed printing much of it, he found himself reminiscing about film. He began to scan the blank film ends and unexposed frames from each body of work to gather what the press release for the work describes as a "negative retrospective" of his practice. This resulted in a series of pictures of abstract dots, the base of each film, the very essence of the pictures.

This work is on show at the Anthony Reynolds Gallery from 21 April and available in book form from MACK.