The Phaidon Folio

“We’re Continually Living in Our Past”: Paul Graham on His Photos of a “New Europe”

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“We’re Continually Living in Our Past”: Paul Graham on His Photos of a “New Europe”
Television Portraits (Cathy, London), 1989. Image via The Tate.

When Paul Graham first began exploring photography, the “serious” photographers in Great Britain only shot on black-and-white film. His innovative use of color defied this norm, first earning him scrutiny and then credit for revolutionizing the genre. Since then, he has traveled around the world—from Japan (Empty Heaven, 1989-95), war-torn Northern Ireland (Troubled Land, 1984-86), and across Europe (New Europe, 1986-92) to his own living room (Television Portraits, 1986-90)—taking photos that explore social and political issues and raise compelling questions more than they reveal answers.

His powerful images have been displayed in countless exhibitions and multiple books, including a 1996 monograph by Phaidon. Here, we have excerpted a conversation with artist Gillian Wearing from the book in which Graham discusses the early reactions to his work, the distinctions between him and photojournalists, and the commentary his photos uncover.

 

Is there a place to begin?

I suppose so. I remember ‘discovering’ photography. I remember clearly, for want of a better term, the light going on. I was 19, and I walked into a magazine store and found Creative Camera, at that time a very good magazine. I remember the shock of seeing serious photography, it was just a revelation. That was 1976 I think, around there. It’s very strange when you feel an immediate empathy for something. You just feel you’ve utterly understood it, that it resonates inside you. I still get that feeling today when I see really good work.

What issues were you hoping to see with photography?

If I’m honest, I guess the biggest issue at that point was finding my own voice. Trying to express this profound empathy that I felt for the medium, seeing, if you like, that as well as going into me, that it could come out of me.

It was slightly different for me when I chose photography, that’s why I asked that question. I had an idea, and photography was the way of working out that idea.

I suppose you could say that I had a hunger for an expressive outlet, and photography was a way of answering that hunger.

How did that relationship develop?

It developed through seeing good work. A friend sent me a catalogue for a body of color photographs called Election Eve, by William Eggleston. It was a really thin pamphlet with just four photos, and it blew me away. He is often-cited for his show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, but to be truthful, I didn’t like that so much. The book, William Eggleston’s Guide, was not as powerful for me as this smaller catalogue. It wasn’t only the photographs, you see, it was the structure of the project—to travel from his home town to Jimmy Carter’s home town over the month leading up to the presidential election, and photograph the state of the nation. It was so elliptical, so tangential to traditional photographic practice that that approach probably moved me more than any specific image.

I can see that; I can draw parallels.

Yeah, and it’s good to be honest about it. It was quite influential for a while but then I reacted against it, drawing upon the work of people like Walker Evans, August Sander and the ‘New Topographics’ work. I went to the opposite extreme and made the House Portraits, which were just the fronts or sides of houses. They were incredibly austere. I used to get up at three a.m. to go and catch dawn in these modern housing estates when the light was really strong. I got completely immersed in that, probably because I was brought up in a new-town and it struck a particular chord. I did that for over a year, then thought, right, now I’m free. It’s quite strange, I felt like I’d learned something fundamental.

You’d gotten your own voice?

I’m not sure if I would go so far as to claim that at that point, but I certainly felt a clear change. You know, when you look back and somehow see everything in perspective, catching yourself in the rearview mirror as it were? Recently I realized that the work I’d made in my 20s—that’s A1, Beyond Caring and Troubled Land—were different and distinct from that made in my 30s—New Europe, In Umbra Res and Empty Heaven. The earlier work was produced with the consciousness of the outside world being there, waiting to be photographed, and me positioning myself against that. Later the world was more useful as a source for reflecting essentially invisible concerns.

I understand, especially in the beginning where you position yourself in your surroundings. I can relate to that because that’s how I felt when I started out in my relationship to other people.

Do you think that’s always necessary? Do you think that artists have to orientate themselves to the outside world first?

I don’t think it’s necessary, no one ever told me to do that. I was particularly interested in documentaries, not accepting any handed-down truths, finding out what my relationship is to things, my own truths. I think those areas are quite important because then you can see there are actually other ways of dealing with it. Photography still talks about the world, the truth comes into it somewhere along the line.

You know how at certain ages you’re fighting angry about certain issues? Beyond Caring was fighting talk, in a way, confronting the economic violence being done to a large section of the population by early 1980s Thatcherism. It wasn’t some theoretical principle, it was my personal situation. I was unemployed, so giros, UB40s, waiting rooms and endless interviews were a part of my life. What is interesting about these places is that they are where political policy and people collide, where economic decisions and human lives meet head on. This was the primary concern of the work. The other factor, and remember this was 1984, was that people were shocked to see work like this made in color; ‘serious’ photographers used black and white and that was that. Color was seen as trivial, and it’s hard now to imagine the flack it received, people thought I was taking a serious subject and trivializing it, as if color film removed any social context. 

Baby, DHSS Office, Birmingham, 1980. Image via Paul Graham Archive.

Whose noses was it getting up?

I guess we’re talking about the photographic establishment. Some people embraced it and saw it as something positive, but other people—Magnum photographers, photojournalists—would pick on this photograph for example, the baby in a waiting room in Birmingham, and say that any social interpretation is undermined by the fact that the child is wearing pink, and that’s a happy color, so surely it would be better in black and white…

But color work did have a context of its own at the time.

True, and again these images worked a bit outside of that color genre, as it was then. They were non-color images, with fluorescent light casts, dull institutional color schemes, grey corridors. The few bright colors are those of forcefully optimistic orange seats or yellow walls.

Do you ever feel that you were coming from the photojournalism angle, or did you always consider yourself separate from that?

I never considered myself a photojournalist. I considered myself a photographer, I suppose, but labels only confused the issue.

Right, but you can see that there’s a barrier between yourself and that trade. I wondered if that extends into the work you did in Northern Ireland, Troubled Land.

I suppose it did, because that work transgressed two genres, mixing up landscape and war photography, and remember that war photography is the hallowed, high ground of photojournalism. To many people that was plainly perverse, to go to a war zone and make landscape photography, but I think that it was in part a reflection of my distance, and a way of approaching something big and beyond ordinary rational comprehension, starting at arms length, as it were.

Yeah, and it has a British reserve.

Sure, it’s strange how work always ends up having a degree of self-reflection in it no matter what you do. A key image that helped me locate the work was Roundabout, Andersonstown, Belfast, 1984, where you simply see a scruffy suburban fringe of Belfast, with everything looking quite banal, at least to anyone familiar with the topology of the British Isles, but then you realize all the lights have been smashed off the stands, the posters are place very high so that nobody can interfere with them, the roundabout’s all ripped up, there’s nationalist graffiti on the railings. And then finally you see the soldiers, one running over the roundabout, others walking away on the extreme right, secreted into this everyday scene. So the inventory isn’t actually correct, what appears to be ordinary is quite extraordinary, and perhaps more interestingly the opposite is also true, the adoption of the extraordinary into the ordinary fabric of the place. 

Roundabout, Andersonstown, Belfast, 1984. Image via Paul Graham Archive.

What problems would this cause for photojournalists?

These images are the reverse of press photographs. Photojournalists always use Robert Capa’s famous dictum, ‘If your pictures weren’t good enough you weren’t close enough.’ You are supposed to be there, running with the soldier on the front line. Through these images I realized that you can reverse that; instead of running with the soldier you can pull back to show the surroundings. Instead of isolating a detail, like the soldier, you can reverse out of that to embrace the housing estate, people going shopping, graffiti, the gardens, paint flecks and so forth.

It’s interesting how, when you find a structure to explore, you go there with certain notions but enter a state where you forget that knowledge and see beyond it to something further, unexpected.

Sure, that’s why we do it isn’t it? Forget the popular, clichéd misunderstandings of artists’ motivations. One real reason is to go beyond your knowledge, to transcend that foreground and be seduced by your own actions into unpacking something unexpected yet insightful and fulfilling.

How do you enter that state?

I guess I just work my way through my limited knowledge and out the other side. I photographed in Northern Ireland for many weeks, but all the early images were rubbish, and I was lost till I found the roundabout image. I took that photograph without much thought, so you could call it an accident, but then I subscribe to that school of thought which says that you should look at your mistakes and accidents as your subconscious strategies.

When I go back to some of my sign photographs, the ones that I’ve never shown, I think, God, they’re actually quite amazing, but I just ignored them at the time. You have to keep on going back to realize that there are other nuances there that may be relevant to what’s going on in society. That’s one of the wonderful things about photography, that you can keep on going back to what you’re showing and find new readings.

Sure, as your perspective changes, what was opaque at the time becomes clearer. The medium has this amazing consultability that extends far beyond the surface of the image.

But surely when you combine photographs in diptychs and triptychs, as you do, you close some of those avenues.

That’s always the problem of putting work together, which photographs you combine. Whether it’s just in the sequence of a book or exhibition, or locked into the diptychs and triptychs, you’re trying to tease out certain readings yet not deny other positions, not trap and kill the work. It’s a fine balance. Gombrich, writing about Picasso, talks about how if you explore his symbols and metaphors of sexuality, life, fertility, etc, although those are all there, to actually give every symbol a name, to declare it, is to deny it its secret integrity, and destroy it.

Which brings me to the first photograph in New Europe, the guy with the war wound. It looks like he’s mourning some kind of a loss; when I first saw it I was thinking maybe that area might have been bombed and replaced by new housing.

Well, yes, it’s a photograph of a man with an amputated arm, looking across the new developments on the outskirts of Madrid, although it could be almost any modern city.

Untitled, 1988-99 (one armed man). Image via Paul Graham Archive.

But I know there’s more to the image than that.

Indeed, it’s a gay cruising area, and he’s out offering himself, his body, for what it is—the seductiveness of the wounded flesh. That’s why it’s the opening photograph in the book, it lays between past and present, with damaged lives connecting them. I put that with an image of a very barren barber’s shop, also in spain, with these sparkling chandeliers reflected i its windows. They’re probably just paste, an illusion of wealth, floating out of reach. I use the two as a diptych on the wall or sequentially in the book, and, this is difficult, because I’m close to doing what I was referring to with Gombrich just now. I guess it’s largely subliminal, that connection where both touch upon something that’s not there anymore—the wealth in the window is illusory, and they say that you still get feelings from a lost limb. So it’s about sensations from an amputated past. There you are, I’ve killed it now, explained it away. I’ve pinned the butterfly down!

Untitled, 1988-89 (window reflection). Image via Paul Graham Archive.

The photographs in New Europe from Northern Ireland are quite different from the earlier ones.

Sure, physically they’re a lot closer, more direct and visceral. The photograph taken in an unemployment center in Belfast shows just a scrappy corner of the phone table, where people ring up after jobs, and looks across the tabletop full of graffiti to touch on the word ‘religion’ which someone has scribbled there. This is obviously because they were asked, or were worried that they’d be asked, are you Protestant or Catholic? The wire on the post image was something that I’d seen and went back to photograph at night because I wanted it surrounded by blackness. I mean, it’s just this house post on the one hand, quite ordinary, but then again, with its crown of thorns, its wounded side, it is much more about the pressure of being there, the crucifying psychological burden.

You’re putting these disparate elements together, but they all have a relationship, in some way, if you start looking closely.

When I was making this body of work it was one of the most traumatic, intense periods for Northern Ireland. They were burying the people that were killed by the SAS in Gibraltar, and then a gunman attacked that funeral and killed some of the mourners. Then at the funeral for those mourners they caught two soldiers in a car, and they were lynched on the spot. It was an endless black spiral. Looking back I would say that you enter this state of numb hypersensitivity. It’s hard to name it but, for example, even late at night, when you’re eating your take-out dinner at the side of the road, you look at this skip behind you and realize that someone’s shoved three bricks under the corner, and they’re completely crumbling, disintegrating from the weight of the load, because they’re being asked to bear too much. It’s some sort of transcendent frame of mind you enter, quite impossible to describe.

Was it an intense time, going around Europe when you did all the photographs for New Europe?

Going and coming. I had to get the tourist out of my system; you have to get the sightseeing out of the way, then get angry and frustrated with yourself. Photographs are everywhere and nowhere. You can go around the city all day fruitlessly, then you might be sitting at the bar late at night, only to find yourself opposite this guy who had come from East Germany, and he’s sitting in a disco, surrounded by colorful lights, the appealing glow of entrancing promises…

Whilst we’ve talked about individual pieces, we’ve been skating over the issues of the work as a whole. Obviously history’s very important to you; it seems to be an undercurrent in a lot of the recent work.

When I started that work it was just on the feeling that this was a significant time for Western Europe. Only after I had gone some way down the road did all this stuff about 1992 come up. Prior to that nobody was talking about the single market, European unity, economic and legal bonds, etc. Then suddenly there were all these promises of a new beginning, facing the future hand in hand, free from the shackles of the past…and I’m sorry, but one should always be skeptical of promises of new utopias. Spain’s not going to forget about Franco, his shadow is stained into the place for a long time yet. You realize this history is not something dead and buried, it pursues people in every country.

It seems to be becoming more apparent now since Bosnia. Nationalism is hitting back quite hard when we didn’t expect it.

There’s a village in Bosnia where people live together in a mixed, intermarried community, and when the war started they regarded it as something far away, on the other side of the country. A few months passed by and it was only 20 miles away; a few weeks later and it was in the next valley. Then suddenly one morning a car drew up in the center of their town, out got some young men who went to a particular house, knocked on a certain door, and shot the boy who answered dead. Then they got back in their car and drove away. All the younger people were devastated by what they saw as a senseless attack, but the older people understood, they knew that the dead boy’s father’s father had killed someone 50 years ago, just after the Second World War, and that his very specific murder was the settling of a score that had been simmering for 50 years.

That’s very dramatic. It’s not as obvious in Britain, it’s more nebulous than that isn’t it?

Sure, but we’re continually living in our past. I remember this taxi driver saying how when he drives through the East End of London he feels like shouting out to people on the streets: ‘The war’s over…you can eat good food now! Buy fresh vegetables, there’s no more rationing, enjoy life!’ You do almost have to shout at people to get them out of this historical torpor.

I’m quite interested in how we address all this. It’s a very ambitious thing, isn’t it, to address that ‘new Europe’…

It’s an ironic title, obviously.

Yeah, sure, but it’s still ambitious, on whatever level you look at it.

Of course it’s ridiculous if you try to address everything, but you can narrow it down to a couple of main concerns, like how the past pursues each nation state, Germany, Spain, Ireland, Italy and so on. The other interesting question for me was what are we heading towards, what is this united common goal? Is the prospect simply a capitalist consumer heaven that they’d have us accept? If you’re too poor to take part, or your lifestyle’s too different, are you to be marginalized? I wanted to make pictures about the banality of this promise, of people caught in a modernist nightmare, trapped in this web of consumerism with all its promises. Didn’t you feel that personally? I spent all my Saturdays going to shops; that’s what you did when you were younger, and you finally realize that it amounts to nothing. You realize how hollow it all is.

I’ve been trying to escape Sundays most of my life! But mostly I’ve been trying to escape boredom.

It’s this dead avenue of existence, that’s why I put the shoppers’ photograph next to the image of a false wall. I don’t know if this will sound pompous, but New Europe was quite different from the previous works. As a book it did strive for something denser, layered, requiring multiple readings, to work as photographic ‘literature,’ if you can call it that.

I think I prefer images which start having intimate associations on the wall or page.

At the beginning I never realized that you could do that. You’re brought up to believe photography works on the surface.

It’s hard to break away from conventions, isn’t it? And once you’ve been in it for a while, you have to keep on trying to question yourself.

I could have had a very successful career making more Troubled Land-style photographs, but can you image a fate worse than being trapped into repeating your own successes?

People remember what you were doing when you were first discovered.

Keeping that excitement takes real determination. So much baggage accumulates around your imagination that you can become leaden, grey. Without the energy to interrogate yourself you’re dead. For example, going back to this question of history, I began asking myself, what was at the heart of this? Somewhere in there is the question of what kind of pressure a society, and ultimately individuals, hold within them, bottle up inside their heads. What containments do we live with?

Whether we share identities or not.

Everyone has these burdens within them, and I guess that’s really what interested me, the balance between living a normal life and these unspoken weights that have to be carried, sometimes passed down through generations, often unwanted, on the shoulders of people across a nation or continent, concealed, hidden. I realized that concealment is something important that has run through a lot of my work, from the landscape of Northern Ireland, and the unemployed tucked away in backstreet offices, to the burdens of history swept under the carpet in Europe or Japan. Concealment of our turmoil from others, from ourselves even.

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