Great North Road Garage, Edinburgh, November 1981 by Paul Graham

Paul Graham, Garage on The Great North road, Edinburgh

Paul Graham; Garage on the Great North Road, Edinburgh, 1981

 

[Continuing to re-post pieces from my 2013 series Hodgson’s Choice]

Paul Graham changed my attitude to colour. An excerpt from a gallery text on his own website says that he “belongs to a rare group of photographers that were the final generation to enter photography before it became part of the broader contemporary art world.”  That’s true, and it has nothing much to do with exact dates.  Along with such as Philip-Lorca di Corcia and even Nan Goldin, Graham remains a photographer, not an ‘artist-working-with-photography’.  Graham won the Hasselblad award last year (2012), the first Briton to do so. He’s an international player. Yet, in our very British way, in the UK he’s hardly known outside photographic circles.

When Graham started, documentary photography (at least in Britain) was in black-and-white, and it was about telling the truth.  After him, it was in colour, and it was about having a view.   Richard Billingham, Martin Parr, Nick Waplington, Paul Reas, Donovan Wylie, Anna Fox, even Gillian Wearing…a generation of British photographers, shading off in all directions towards art, were liberated by, and in some sense indebted to Graham.

In the early days, Paul Graham did eye-watering things.  He went to Northern Ireland in the middle of the Troubles and made beautiful, even romantic landscapes with just the tiniest glimpses of all being not well.  He made a record of Britain on the dole in the Thatcher years that would (I’m not joking) have brought down the government had it been published by a major novelist or film-maker.  But he was a youngish photographer, and it passed.

In that same period, Paul Graham went on an absurd road trip up the A1.  The A1 is to road trips as a fairground choo-choo is to the TGV.  It was so British it wasn’t even a motorway.  It still isn’t, as a matter of fact. And on this ridiculous road, with culture and reflexes and patience and sympathy and wit, Paul Graham began to make pictures about what it meant to be European as Europe fell away from dominance.  He was literate in photography – and in a lot of other stuff, too – and he made out of the sleepy cafes and uninspiring landscapes of the A1 a vision so much bigger than the A1 that everything he has done since has been checking the wake behind.

Of course Graham had seen his Joel Sternfeld and his Stephen Shore and his William Eggleston and his Joel Meyerowitz. But still.  A subaqueous car showroom, in which the only line of black is a twisted aerial?  And those names, perfect for cars:  here we go, in the money of 1950 or so, Singing and Humming along.   I don’t even think Humbers were still manufactured when the picture was made: sold to Chrysler or somebody, and then again, to become Talbot, I think, then swallowed up in Peugeot.  This showroom was drowning even as Paul Graham photographed it. The Singer, descendant of the sewing machines which represented one phase of the Industrial Revolution.  And next to it, the Humber, named after the great estuary that watered part of that British industrial landscape.  All going under, in the early days of Thatcherism. It’s very simple: I know intimately the culture this picture comes from.  I even remember the smell of those places, of T-Cut and spilt petrol.  In Britain, this is a brilliant, game-changing picture.  But it also speaks right to me.

Paul Graham’s early prints are absurdly undervalued.  You can buy them from Pace/MacGill in New York, or from Anthony Reynolds in London.

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Simon Roberts – We English

 

At Maldon, in Essex, they race across the mud of the River Blackwater at low tide.  It’s not a medieval tradition.  It was started a few years ago, a bet for a pint.  High over the South Downs, hang-gliders grant a few hours respite from the 9-5.  You can buy Chatsworth brand ice-cream.  It would be easy to mistake Simon Roberts’ excellent survey of the English at play for another of those slightly sneery collections made from on high. A new show by Anna Fox opened in London recently, showing Butlins as an alien place, very much ‘how the other half live’.  Roberts is more complex than that.  Apart from anything else, he has a degree in human geography: this is a research project in photographs as well as an exhibition.

Roberts made a road trip around Britain looking at leisure in the countryside. It’s an industry that has boomed as more of us have had more time on our hands.  His distant models include such photographers as Benjamin Stone, but there is a whole written canon of non-photographic surveys of the English which dates back to Celia Fiennes in which this project takes its place, too.  His direct model is probably Paul Graham, whose A1 was among the early surveys of British life to be done in colour.  Graham was openly shocked by the direct outcome of specific political decisions.  Roberts is much more ambivalent.  He sees land use changing (in such things as an inland beach made on a former gravel pit, or a roller coaster rising in lunatic arabesques above flat fens) and he sees the massive dependence on the car to get people out into the country.  But he also sees enthusiasm and patience and a deep-respect for tradition. Just as the changing sociology is made of many strands, Roberts’ pictures resist a single reading. 

We do absurd things.  We drive miles to a beauty spot and barely leave the car-park.  We even camp within yards of the car. We accumulate mountains of consumer goods to bring us ‘closer’ to nature, from strollers to shove the children around, through carbon-fibre fishing rods to the ubiquitous car itself.  On beaches and National Trust sites we crowd close to feeble ‘amenities’. People do things in groups, from bird-watching to rambling. Yet we are also more inclusive than we ever were, more equal.  A Moslem couple walk in the wilds beneath Stanage Edge, and it is only prejudice that makes that a surprise. 

Roberts’ manner is calm.  He shows people small in the landscape, clustered into groups rather than isolated as individuals.  He likes to shoot from relatively high, so we see patterns. It is partly a show about ritual in the landscape, the strange things we do to feel we belong. It is partly about how the very numbers of us who come to enjoy the land spoil the thing we admire.  A strong theme is about movement, but Roberts shrewdly notices how much movement is local.  Playing golf still has something pastoral about it, even in the shadow of the very power station which employed you.

These elegant pictures invite multiple readings, but they do it with confidence and zest.   With flashes of wit, humanity, and abundant respect for his photographic predecessors, Simon Roberts has added a good one to the canon of surveys of the English.