Everyday Scenarios & Complex Iconography: Paul Graham, Whitechapel Gallery, London.

Review by Emily Sack, a candidate for the MA in Art History at Richmond the American International University in London.

A visit to Whitechapel Gallery to view Paul Graham 1981-2006 is a transatlantic adventure beginning in England and Northern Ireland then moving to the United States after a brief sojourn in Tokyo. Graham presents his audience with a startlingly honest insight into the reality of daily existence. The exhibition moves in a roughly chronological order, but the viewer first finds himself or herself confronted by a relatively recent series of everyday people watching television. These figures are completely absorbed in the activity without acknowledging the photographer’s presence. These photographs highlight how television has become an integral part of modern life and the reality of its impact upon the human condition.

The series entitled Beyond Caring from 1984-1985 exhibits several unemployment agencies and captures the sense of hopelessness apparent in each of the figures. One particularly poignant photograph displays a toddler bundled in a pink coat and hat standing slightly distanced from the chairs where others wait. The other figures in the scene are middle-aged and even elderly and the juxtaposition of their situation and that of the little girl implies the cyclical nature of poverty and unemployment – that girl may eventually be sitting in one of those chairs hoping for relief.

On a journey reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Graham travels the length of Britain’s A1 highway photographing the geographic and social landscape. Graham does not always portray his home country in the most positive light, but he also has a tendency to find beauty in typically un-beautiful scenes littered with gas stations and clumsy advertisements. The theme of the journey and the road trip recur throughout the artist’s oeuvre, often in unexpected ways – such as the jigsaw puzzle of a historical ship.

The exhibition continues upstairs with a series entitled End of an Age (1996-1998) explores a number of teenagers in an unnamed European city. The photographs are displayed almost touching around all four walls of the gallery space in order to best capture the circular motion of the figures. Each youth holds their head facing in a different direction and Graham organizes the works so that a complete cycle is made from facing far left to far right. The subjects of these works are in an uncertain time of their life, and their adolescence is mirrored by the ambiguity of the closing of one millennium and the beginning of another. Some of the images are blurred becoming almost more of a study of colour than humanity, but others are remarkably crisp. The lighting and proximity of the subject to the camera are unforgiving, and blemishes and unfortunate haircuts are immediately apparent to the viewers. Whether the young adults are scared, hopeless or contemplative, they are the future because the new millennium marks the end of their childhood.

Returning to the motif of the journey, Graham travelled to the United States and captured images in many major American cities. The first half of the American works is part of a series entitled American Nights from 1998-2002. Several large-scale photographs are labelled based on the urban centre they depict, but curiously the majority of the photos are overexposed rendering the actual image difficult to decipher. Many of such images from cities including Detroit, Memphis and Atlanta include a solitary figure presumably walking along the road, though some images do not contain any figures. New York and California, however, appear in full colour. Paul Graham, as an outsider looking in on American culture, experiences a much less romantic image of New York than the Times Square and Central Park conceptions of the city. The figures chosen as subjects are African Americans – two figures wear an eye patch and one woman is captured in profile so the viewer cannot make eye contact with her. These downtrodden individuals certainly do not lead a glamorous life, and these images parallel the A1 series from earlier in the artist’s career. California, however, is seen as an upper-middle class suburban home complete with a red American-made car. Based on popular television shows and the Hollywood lifestyle, California is believed to be an Arcadian idyll of American modern culture, but in reality the people and landscape are quite diverse.

Among other photographs in the American series are a flower salesman in San Francisco, a couple walking home from the grocery store with two cases of Pepsi, and a man cutting the grass along the side of a highway. By capturing such iconic images as the McDonalds logo, Pepsi, and Camel and Newport cigarettes, among others, the consumerism of American culture becomes apparent. Overall, Graham’s images of the United States are less than complimentary, but they are not meant to derogatory. In the same vein as his works in Britain, the photographer is interested in artistically documenting modern life. By depicting scenes in Europe, America and even Asia, Graham is highlighting important aspects of the various cultures and inviting the viewers to create their own interpretations and their own commentary.

Paul Graham Photographs 1981-2006 continues until 19 June. For further information on the exhibition please visit www.whitechapelgallery.org

Paul Graham
Texas, 2005, (Pepsi Walkers),
from the series A Shimmer of Possibility
Pigment ink prints
32.9 x 45.3cm
Courtesy Kirkland Collection, London