Paul Graham

Posted on February 18, 2013


Paul Graham’s Television Portraits was another reference for my Urban Artists at Work  project. I have commented on this previously here. Graham’s influence on my work has however been much more profound.

Graham is a photographer who is impossible to pigeonhole. He is perhaps Britain’s most revered art photographer, but his work has extended to documentary, portraiture and explorations of the medium of photography itself. His style is eclectic.

He founded his reputation in the 1980s with  A1 – The Great North Road, Troubled Land and Beyond Caring. These  were a form of personal documentary. When asked why he didn’t continue with this successful formula  he explained: ‘I could have repeated the same concept for a long time, but to me that’s like a creative death – I can’t do that. I’d probably be financially better off it I did, but I can’t’ (Shuman 2010). Graham has a restless inquisitiveness which informs his work and keeps it fresh. This resonates with me. I hope that I too can continue to move forward with my own photography and that I have the courage to take risks and avoid being pigeonholed.

Another insight I’ve gleaned from Graham is that : ‘Art isn’t about providing answers, is it? It’s more about the questions – asking thought-provoking, unexpected, unarticulated questions’ (Graham 1996, pp 16). Graham made this statement in an interview with  Gillian Wearing another unconventional artist/photographer. This has had a significant effect on how I work. As a scientist/mathematician I have the tendency to look for photographs which are fully resolved rather ones which ask questions. I’m not there yet but I am trying to change.

Turning to Graham’s portraiture, Graham made a second significant series of work in this genre in the late 1990s End of an Age. This is a series of portraits of young people at night clubs somewhere in Europe. The photographs alternate between ultra-sharp direct flash images and loose available-light photographs, saturated with colour, blurred and sometimes poorly focused. The variations in the lighting, colour and sharpness invite readings of the mood of the portrait subjects. As the publicity statement for the book explains: ‘These colour images are portraits in the fullest sense – images that seek to reflect on the inner self through our material presence‘ (Graham, 1999). When talking about the work in 2010 Graham himself commented that: ‘End of an Age alternates between sharp and blurry photos – soft camera shake pictures, couple with sharp, direct flash pictures – so that deals with focus’  (Shuman 2010). These two different explanations of the same portraits emphasise the polysemic nature of photographs! And that when faced with a portrait viewers are forever tempted to try to unmask the character of the subject!

Another interesting facet of this series is that all of the subjects are averting their gaze or looking away. Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen refer to this as an ‘indirect address which represents an offer in which the viewer is an invisible onlooker and the depicted person is the object of the look’ (Chandler, Notes on the Gaze). In other words the subject is objectified leaving the viewer free to observe and scrutinise them. The poses in my Urban Artists at Work series similarly objectify the subject. In the alternative ‘direct address’, the subject looks directly at the viewer and ‘demands’ that they enter into a ‘para-social’ relationship with the person depicted. This changes the nature of the engagement between subject and viewer radically.

For me Graham’s End of an Age  reemphasised the point that great art photography is about asking questions and not seeking answers. The title itself is ambiguous. Is it about the transition from youth to adulthood? Is it about the move into the post-modern era? Is it about NewEurope? All of these are possible interpretations. The portraits from End of an Age can be viewed by clicking on the photograph below:

End of an Age by Paul Graham

End of an Age by Paul Graham


Chandler D. Notes on the Gaze Available from: [Accessed on 18th February 2013]

Graham P. (1996) Paul Graham London:Phaidon

Graham P. (1999) End of an Age Zurich:Scalo

Schuman A. (2010) The Knight’s Move – In Conversation with Paul Graham Aperture #199 Summer 2010 Available from: [Accessed on 18th February 2013]