There are many powerful single images in the Whitechapel’s 25-year survey of the work of British photographer Paul Graham. One is of a bare Birmingham DHSS waiting room in the 1980s, in which the only person standing unaided in a room of weary looking claimants either sitting or resting on sticks (in some cases doing both) is a tiny, pink-clad toddler. Alone in the centre of the frame she somehow represents a hope for a better future, albeit a small and fragile one.
Then there’s the group of individuals captured at a street corner in New Orleans in 2005, each one facing, looking or walking in a different direction. They all seem lost: lost in thought, lost geographically or looking for someone or something, yet none of them seems aware of, or able to make eye contact with each other.
Both of these images are part of larger bodies of work. The first from the series ‘Beyond Caring’, in which Graham captured the bleak and filthy conditions within Britain’s dole offices. The second is from ‘A Shimmer of Possibility’, a series of 12 sequences of photographs taken in America, where Graham now lives. Each series contains a different number of images that sum up sequences of moods or small moments in time, making them closer to poetry than prose – if indeed there was a written or narrative equivalent.
Along with his compassion and respect for his subjects and his early use of colour in the recording of serious topics, it’s Graham’s ability to step outside established photographic conventions that have made him one of the pioneers of the medium in this country. His images of Belfast during the Troubles don’t confront the conflict head on with monochrome shots of riot-torn streets. instead they at first glance seem to be idyllic British landscapes. It’s only after looking further that the politics of the pictures become clear – a Union Jack hung high up in a tree; red white and blue paint splattered on the road.
Graham has also been unafraid to experiment with photography in conceptual and technical ways. In the series ‘American Night' (1998-2002) he placed images of rundown suburban American streets alongside views of the bland but pristine exteriors of more affluent homes. By underexposing some prints to the extent that they appear as pale, barely-there watercolours, and printing others in deep-contrast high colour, the references to the ‘whitewashing’ and invisibility of America’s poor, in all its connotations are cleverly implied without ever being obviously stated.
If there’s an omission, it’s that there are none of Graham’s images from the ‘Paintings’ series here – those close-ups of smeared and graffitied toilet doors and walls that through Graham’s eye have been transformed into abstract paintings with hints of Twombly and Rothko (scatological subtext notwithtanding). And if there’s any feeling of dissatisfaction at the end, it’s in wanting to see more from each of Graham’s series of works.