Untitled #20 (Memphis), 2000
from the series American Night
Lightjet Endura c-print
189 x 239 cm
Exhibition from September the 5th to September the 30th and from October the 12th to October the 28th 2006
The gallery Les filles du calvaire presents together with les Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie d’Arles , the series American Night by Paul Graham, who exhibits in France after ten years of absence.
“Since the mid Eighties, Paul Graham has produced photographic works which have explored the boundaries between art and politics. In his last series, American Night’ he photographs the poor and the damaged who inhabit the urban landscapes of the US. His chronicle of American life is a reflection of dislocation and stress, of lives lived in an intensely solitary state. Graham photographs his subjects as if through the eyes of someone almost blind. Set against a background of the detritus of the street, half-seen through a milk-white mist, his characters are ghosts in a half-dead world.
Paul Graham was part of a loose grouping of UK photographers who emerged in the Eighties as socially critical colour documentarists. They were interested in Britishness, fascinated by a nation in flux, gripped by the radical social and economic reforms of Tatcherism which replaced the Welfare State consensus of the Sixties and Seventies. Photographer such as Paul Graham, Martin Parr, Paul Seawright, Anna Fox, Paul Reas, Nick Waplington, rejected traditional documentary practice by combining documentary methodology with idiosyncratic personal vision. At the heart of their work were intense political statements about post war society. During the Eighties and early Nineties, they delivered an incisive critique of British institutions. […]
In 1986, Paul Graham published Beyond Caring, a study of benefit offices in the UK, and, in 1987, Troubled Land which explored the political tensions of Northern Ireland. Both of Graham’s photo series looked at the fissures and pressure points of British society.
In Troubled Land, Graham revealed what would be his documentary method for the next decade: a series of bland landscapes whose ordinariness was subtly disrupted by the presence of sectarianism and strife. Graham looked for marks, scraps of paper, haphazard slogans, warnings, imprecations, the tiny indicators of massive unease. In this series, he set a new agenda for colour documentary photography, influencing those who followed him, most particularly Seawright and Fox.[…]
American Night is a narrative centred around peripheral vision, blurred sight and limited vantage points.Its characters wonder through the streets, along the highways, past the fast food joints, through the parking lots, always alone, seemingly aimless. They are waiting, watching, dislocated. In the “day-for-night” photographic method which Paul Graham has used, they wander through a dreary mist, the visual white noise of a society under stress.
But American Night is no simple critique of urban loss and damage. Interspersed with the dreamlike whitened images of America’s injured and wandering poor are his colour photographs of American homes, Graham reminds us that the photographer’s vision is partial-drive three blocks from a demoralised slum and we will be in leafy paradise.
He makes these photographs easy to look at, a visual feast- to decipher the white photographs is difficult and frustrating, tiny figures weave around the street furniture and the parked cars, all but disappear in a forest of fast food outlets. And, lest we thought that we had found the rationale behind this remarkable collection of photographs ( washed out pictures of the poor, high stylisation for luxury homes) Graham false foots us again and inserts a section of film noir documentary photographs of poor and damaged Americans pictures which defy era, which are rich, dark and as full of energy as the “white” pictures resound with lethargy.
We know the photographic references of this street documentary- Walker Evans writ large Philip Lorca diCoria confronting scurrying shoppers-, but again, Graham has upped the ante, built in anxiety and obscurity into the compositions which we think we know. Here is the oddly distorted mirror held up to the white images, photography’s traditional mores held to ransom by a blurred and indistinct vision. For American Night is as much about photography as it is about the perplexing world in which we live. It is a kind of treatise on the act of visualisation an representation- everything has been photographed, in every way possible and negation of vision is the only advance which photography can make. When Paul Graham made Troubled Land, in Northern Ireland, he crossed a cultural boundary and the photographs which he made were an expression of his bewilderment, a struggle to comprehend the violence which is exemplified only by stripes of colour, fragments of paper, figures in the distance. In American Night, he has again studied a society in which h is an outsider. He has looked not only at its margins, but also at its prosperous and elegant core, and, as at the time of In Umbra Res, he has again insisted that: “if you avert your gaze from the periphery of your vision, you can begin to make something out.” […]
At this critical time in the history of post-war America, Paul Graham has made photographs which are to do with unseeing, incomprehension and a fracturing world. Producing pictures which we see as the blinded characters in Saramago’s novels would see the world, printing texts which cannot be read, he announces the loss of vision, the abandonment of clarity.”
Val Williams, in American Night, Paul Graham, Edition steidlMack