“I'm sometimes called a 'documentary photographer' but... a man operating under that definition could take a sly pleasure in the disguise. Very often I'm doing one thing when I'm thought to be doing another.”
Paul Graham (UK, 1956) belongs to that generation of photographers who were amonst the last to engage with the medium before it became part of the broader contemporary art world. Whilst later photographic based artists would approach the medium as ‘artists using photography’, this unaffiliated grouping - which includes such luminaries as Nan Goldin, Andreas Gursky, Rineke Djikstra, Thomas Struth and Philip-Lorca DiCorcia - engaged with the medium at a time when it was not simply a component in an artists' repertoire, but unique artistic territory in its own right.
At the beginning of the 1980's Graham was among the first photographers to unite contemporary colour practise with the 'documentary' genre. In 1981/2 he completed 'A1 - The Great North Road', a series of colour photographs from the length of the British A1 road, which had a transformative effect on the black and white tradition that dominated British photography to that point. This work, along with his other photographs of the 1980's - the colour images of unemployment offices in 'Beyond Caring' (1984-85), and the sectarian marked landscape of Northern Ireland in 'Troubled Land' (1984-86) - were pivotal in reinvigorating and expanding this area of photographic practice, by both broadening it's visual language, and questioning how such photography might operate. Many UK photographers moved to colour soon after, and a new school of British Photography evolved with the subsequent colour work of Richard Billingham, Tom Wood, Paul Seawright, Anna Fox, Simon Norfolk, Nick Waplington, etc.
Since then Graham moved outside of his UK roots, but continued to explore the fertile territory where the descriptive and artistic aspects of photography coalesce, often tackling difficult subject matter for a medium that engages with the observable world. 'New Europe' (1988-1993) used a poetic flow of images to look at the tension between the shadow of history and the rush to an economic superstate in Western Europe. 'Empty Heaven' (1989-1995), considers the relationship between historical trauma and the child-like fantasy world in Japan - themes that would later become central to the 'Superflat' movement of contemporary Japanese art. More recently his work has reflected an examination of what we expect from a photographic image, be it a portrait - as in the hard:soft images of young people in 'End of an Age' (1996-98); or what actually registers in our sight with 'American Night' (1998-2003), which reflected the landscape and social fracture of America through overexposed, near invisible white images. Graham moved to the United States in 2002, where he completed 'a shimmer of possibility' (2004-2006) which embraces everyday moments of life in todays United States, whilst embracing time's flow as a part of still photographic work through extended sequences of images. Most recently, 'The Present', completed this trilogy of works in the USA, with doubled moments taken unstaged from the streets of New York. These diptych works are separated only by a fraction of a second, yet highly specific focus shifts awareness between the images.
This unofficial trilogy of USA works - 'American Night', 'a shimmer of possibility' and 'The Present', each embrace one of the 3 principle controls of the camera: Aperture, Shutter and Focus. As the aperture controls the light, the shutter controls time, and focus specifies what we look at, the trilogy of American works could also be described as engaging with Light, Time and Consciousness.