PAUL GRAHAM: PHOTOGRAPHS 1981-2006

24 May

Whitechapel Gallery, London, 20th April-19th June 2011

Although artists, including photographers, generally exhibit little or no anxiety with regard to what exactly constitutes art, the same can’t be said for some curators. Before anyone even gets to see Graham’s exhibition they’re confronted with a huge block of text explaining somewhat defensively that what the visitor is about to see is the work of a “fine art” photographer. I’ve never seen anybody introduced as a “fine art painter” or a “fine art installation artist”. Many pioneering scientist-photographers of the Nineteenth century saw themselves as being firmly in the tradition of Western art, so I think it’s high time gallery people stopped getting their knickers in a twist about a medium that’s coming up on two hundred years old. Is there really anyone attending a contemporary art institution (or even an art museum like the Victoria and Albert) who doesn’t accept that photography is an art form? The fact that there’s such a thing as commercial illustration or comic books doesn’t seem to make anyone neurotic about painting. Nobody needs to be told the difference between an illustrated advert for fabric softener in a women’s magazine and the Mona Lisa.

Neither is the inherent size, function and format of a photograph in any way akin to an academic oil painting, so in most cases there’s no compelling reason for a photograph to be five feet wide or more. This gigantist phenomenon in “fine art photography” [sic] is another crass expression of status anxiety: my photo’s as big as your painting, so it must have the same worth. There are a few needlessly large prints in this particular exhibition, and an awful lot of dead space in the middle of the main room that could have and should have been used to show more work, but we’re here for the content and the content is great.

Ballardian landscapes that are no longer rural nor yet properly urban evidently fascinate Graham: the road that runs alongside a power station, an anonymous hedgerow, a roundabout or a Little Chef service area on some godforsaken road to nowhere may be populated by a few cars with unseen drivers, or they may be entirely devoid of living human presence. In all cases, though, the effect is strikingly anthropological and analytical: the expected human subjects aren’t even necessary because their environments are so telling. Graham’s views of an extremely grim unemployment office in the equally grim early Eighties are full of people, and people fill the frame, but they too are a kind of landscape rather than being subjects in their own right as would be the case in a comparable socially aware painting of the Nineteenth century. None of Paul Graham’s pictures are asking the all-too-common-in-the-art-world rhetorical question “aren’t poor people dreadfully picturesque?” Even though he seems more interested in people as types than as individuals, there’s always a sense that the images arise from fascination rather than prurience.

Many of the photographs are just plain beautiful: landscapes the equal of any historical painting, and no less so because they unromantically own up to the presence of pylons, concrete flyovers, roadside clutter and waste ground. In other words, they’re fine art. No apologies or insecurity necessary.

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