carlier | gebauer

Paul Graham

Exhibitions at carlier | gebauer




Paul Graham 
Anthony Renald's Gallery, Bob van Orsouw Gallery, Lawerence Rubin-Greenberg Van Doren-Fine Art, New York, 2000 
(Ed) Augusto Arbizo, Belinda Marcus 
ISBN: 0967-7573-39 


Paul Graham 
Shimmer of Possibility
Steidl, MACK, 2007 
ISBN: 978-3865-2148-36


Paul Graham 
The Present
Mack, 2012 
ISBN: 978-1-907946-18-9114 


Paul Graham 
Paris 11-15th Nov.
MACK, 2016 
ISBN: 978-1-910164-64-888 


Paul Graham 
Does Yellow Run Forever 
Mack, 2014. 
ISBN: 9781-9101-6406-89-6  


Paul Graham on Mother: 'I wanted to look clearly at her last years on Earth'
by Sean O'Hagan

Paul Graham on Mother: 'I wanted to look clearly at her last years on Earth'
Light on a sleeping face, the pastels of a blouse – the British photographer’s latest book is a simple and profound collection of portraits of his mother

Last month at the New York art book fair, three people approached Paul Graham independently to tell him how moved they were by his new book, Mother. “They essentially said the same thing, that it struck a deep chord with them,” he says. “It’s my most personal, intimate series of portraits and that is perhaps the reason it resonates so strongly.”

Mother is, indeed, a deeply moving book, not least for its simplicity: 14 portraits, all but one of which are studies of Graham’s elderly mother, Dorothy, as she dozes in an armchair in an English retirement home. (The exception, in which she looks straight at the camera as if suddenly alert to its presence, appears like an almost accusatory jolt in the middle of the sequence.) There is no accompanying text, but the portraits speak quietly and heartbreakingly of intimate but universal subjects: unconditional love, familial duty and tenderness, the slow, inexorable passing of time, the silence that falls on and around the very old.

“My mother was 88 when I started the series and she is 90 now,” says Graham, who is 63. “I suppose I wanted to somehow create an extended portrait of her in old age, a clear-eyed look at her and her last years on Earth. For myself, but also for my family. I have a young son now, and with that came the realisation of what it really means to look after a child. Plus, you find yourself reflecting on your own memories of being looked after as a child. It’s the continuity of a line.”


What, though, prompted him to make a book of the images, to put them out in the world rather than keep them in the family? “It wasn’t a difficult decision to make,” he says. “I asked my mum, of course, and she agreed, though to be honest, she would bless anything I do. And I trusted in my instinct. There is nothing embarrassing or undignified in the portraits. There are no fancy camera angles. I kept everything constant: the same chair, the same daylight through the window. The only things that change are her cardigans and tops. For me, it was a very conscious and contemplative process.”

The end result bears that out. Mother is, one one level, an exploration of old age as a kind of hinterland, a suspended state in which the world shrinks to the size of a room and consciousness fragments. Throughout, Graham’s patient, painterly approach demands and repays attentiveness, and one’s eye is drawn inevitably to small details: how the camera’s focus shifts almost imperceptibly from portrait to portrait, highlighting the lines on his mother’s face or the silvery grey of her hair.

 "I would sit there for hours listening to the ticking of the clock, the wind blowing outside, very consciously aware of time passing" Paul Graham

There is nothing obtrusive, just light falling gently on a sleeping face and on the soft pinks and violets of a floral blouse. I have long been fascinated by the idea of quiet photographs, but here the silence is almost Beckettian. “I would sit there for hours,” says Graham, “listening to the ticking of the clock, the wind blowing outside, very aware of time passing. I knew I had to find some way of conveying the stretching and unravelling of time as I experienced it in that room.”

Graham has always been an artist concerned with the otherness of the everyday. This may, in part, be a reaction to his teenage years, which were spent amid the precisely ordered conformity of Harlow new town in Essex. An entirely self-taught photographer, his early books, such as A1 – the Great North Road (1983) and Beyond Caring (1986), gave the impression that he belonged to a still unfolding tradition of British social documentary as practised by the likes of Chris Killip and Graham Smith. The first clue that this was not the case came with 1994’s Ceasefire, a photo-book about Northern Ireland published the same year as the IRA’s actual ceasefire. It comprised images of the sky over Ballymurphy, the Bogside and various other neighbourhoods associated with the Troubles.

American Night followed in 2003, some of its photographs printed to look almost opaque, a visual metaphor, he said at the time, for the disorientation he felt when working in the dazzling sunlight of the American south. Since then, the critically acclaimed and multi-volumed book, A Shimmer of Possibility (2007), and 2014’s Does Yellow Run Forever? – images of rainbows in the west of Ireland, his partner sleeping, and American gold stores – have continued Graham’s singular exploration of what he calls “elusive and nebulous subject matter”.

In 2001, he told me: “The photography I most respect pulls something out of the ether of nothingness.” With Mother, he set himself a similar but different challenge: to evoke his mother’s presence when that presence was becoming ever more elusive. Encroaching mortality may be the subtext, but the tenderness of Graham’s gaze betokens something else: the weight of love and loss conveyed through the act of deep looking. Mother is, unavoidably, an elegiac book, but also a quietly accepting, even affirmative one.