Can you imagine a time when colour photography was considered fleeting, superficial, too eye-catching and generally associated with advertising? Those were the days in the 1970s. Serious art photography was done in black-and-white only. Anything else was cheap, tacky marketing stuff as colour was deemed to undermine the seriousness of the message. At least that was the picture in the British art photography scene – across the Atlantic big names such as Stephen Shore or William Eggleston had already made inroads for the recognition of colour photography as a medium of art.
One of, if not the pioneer of colour art photography in the British Isles is Paul Graham. He burst on the British art scene in the early 1980s with his series of photos “A1 – The Great Northern Road”, following the course of the A1 motorway. A retrospective of his work at the Whitechapel Gallery in London is currently paying homage to Graham’s contribution to British photography with a large exhibition of his work from 1981 to 2006.
And colour is the central defining characteristic of Graham’s work, however diverse his projects are. His series of images “Beyond Caring” (1984-85) depict the hopelessness of British dole offices, poignantly set off by the cheerful red of the benches in the waiting area. His work “Troubled Land” (1984-1986), concerned with the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, forces the viewer to engage with the images by transcending the superficially nice (sometimes also non-descript) landscape photography and instead reading the little, red-white-and-blue or green-white-and-orange clues in the photographs. We are shown, for instance, a landscape of green fields, some dramatic clouds and a bend in the road. The green fields places the images in Ireland – but what is so special? It is the painted curb in the foreground, demarkation stones for a Loyalist area, signified by the colours of the British flag. And how else if not in colour was Graham supposed to represent this? Colour and ideology go hand-in-hand here, without colour photography, the project with its many references to tricolours would have made no sense.
In the mid-90s Graham pulled out all the stops of colour photography with his project “End of an Age”, depicting young nightclub goers. The atmospheric images are highly saturated with the colour of nightclub lights, reflecting off the sweaty faces and overpowering the details of the shots. The aesthetics of this were quickly copied by advertising campaigns – a sure sign that colour photography has still got its nemesis “advertising” breathing down its neck.
Maybe Graham was conscious of that and that is the reason why he chose to go an altogether different route with his next project, “American Night” (1998-2002). Upon first seeing the images, the viewer might think Graham had caved in and gone over to b/w photography. The large format works, taken in the US, depict disadvantaged areas but are seemingly devoid of colour. All deliberately and highly overexposed, the pictures only reveal colour as you spend time looking intensely at the image. The overall effect is reminiscent of impressionist painting – the pictures look grey, unprecise, fleeting, vanishing. But just as your eyes get used to the red light in the dark room, your gaze gradually adapts to the colour in these images, too – suddenly the green of the grass and the red of the bricks is recognised by the retina. The closer you get to the print, the more colour you see – and the more you engage with these images of poverty and disadvantage in the US.
Or maybe this is a far too intellectual interpretation of Graham’s approach. As he reveals in the accompanying video interview (watching highly recommended!), Graham fell into a sack of cement at the age of 5 and was left temporarily blind. His eyesight returned over time, but Graham remembers the initial reappearance of light as a washed out, overexposed, tiny field of vision. His “American Night” series may recreate the experience.
Whatever his intended message may be – the viewer is left with the question whether we are living in oversaturated times, not only in terms of commerce and lifestyle, but also in regard to the imagery we are exposed to on a daily basis.
In any case – colour has certainly found its place in contemporary art photography. And even if we are overexposed to colour in magazines, TV and advertising – our lives are seen (and lived) in colour. Kudos to Graham for establishing it and using the medium to transmit a message.
Paul Graham – Photographs 1981-2006
20th April – 19th June 2011