Paul Graham’s Photos Both Past and Present Reveal Meaning in the Mundane

Paul Graham, "Beyond Caring, Woman in Head Scarf," DHSS Emergency Center, 1984-85
(Courtesy galerie Les Filles du Calvaire)

PARIS — Though not quite as well-known as his compatriot Martin Parr, Paul Graham, winner of the 2012 Hasselblad Prize, may possibly be one of the greatest visionaries in contemporary British photography. Over his prolific career as an artist, he has consistently received high acclaim both for his earlier color documentation of social issues and for his more recent, impressionistic, storytelling images along similar themes. His current show at Le Bal, the contemporary photography center in Paris (through December 9), presents his newest series, “The Present” (2011) as well as “Beyond Caring” (1984-85), an early series that documented British unemployment offices.

When it appeared, “Beyond Caring” was revolutionary — its use of color and large-sized prints, contrary to the black-and-white work of many of his peers, pushed critical photography into a new medium. To avoid the “no photography” rules of the unemployment offices he wanted to capture, Graham would often put his camera down next to him to shoot, which kept his subjects at human level. Rather than dramatizing the plight of the dole-line workers waiting to be helped by social services — of which he was then one — Graham instead presented a view into the real-world social stasis of Thatcher’s England.


“The Present” presents a different type of view on New York, where Graham has now lived for 10 years. The third work of a trilogy made in the U.S. — including “American Night” (1998-2002), in New York, and “A Shimmer of Possibility” (2004-06), road-trip images inspired by the short stories of Chekhov, through trips across the country — these more recent works capture the minutiae of everyday life, either the quietly sublime or its daily struggles. With overexposure and saturation, Graham uses luminance to emphasize the significance of the mundane.

While “The Present” executes the same formula as the previous works, Graham has here organized the images into diptychs, the same place captured at two successive moments, changed only in very subtle ways. In 8th Avenue and 42nd Street, a police officer is replaced by a mail carrier, also in uniform, to humorous effect.

Perhaps what Graham’s new series most reveals is just how fleeting the present really is; in these everyday moments in public places, with faces and street names obscured from memory, time slips by us with little imprint, much like a daydream.