I have admired Paul Graham’s work for a number of years now, so I was delighted to find a copy of his newest offering in the tiny Soho branch of Donlon Books. Since buying it I have greatly enjoyed exploring its themes, which are presented with Graham’s always intriguing and enjoyable obliqueness.
Any fan of Graham’s will, I think, greatly appreciate this new work, and those, who are not quite as familiar will I’m sure be beguiled by this golden treat. The newbie’s also have the joy of using this as a starting point to look through his back catalogue, something I wish I could do afresh, but then with an artist as visually eloquent as Graham there is always the opportunity to discover a heretofore-unseen detail, which is sure to delight. I would have to say that Graham is one of the few photographers whose entire oeuvre continues to excite and challenge.
For anyone who is unfamiliar Graham, he is one of those photographers that belong to that loose confederation that introduced British Photography to colour in the 1970’s and 1980’s. He is a master of the type of work that can be described, for want of a better description: oblique social commentary, (I don’t particularly like the labeling of photographers and their work, but sometimes it is useful). He has added his voice to the chorus of artists who seek to bring our attention to various forms of social inequality and hopefully challenge the assumptions that they, all too credulously, rest upon. As the term oblique would suggest, Graham eschews that which for some has become problematic, namely the language of photojournalism and documentary photography that is most often associated to this type of subject matter. Instead he has developed a language that often incorporates various functional elements of the photographic act – a strategy that is most notable in the so-called American Trilogy: American Night (2004), A shimmer of Possibility (2007) and The Present (2012). The results of this are images that slowly burn their way into the consciousness of the viewer; rather than ‘simply’ presenting something, they take the viewer on a journey, you have to work to get into images, rather than letting them lay it out on a plate.
Does Yellow Run Forever is no exception to this. The first thing to note is its size; it’s small, much smaller than his previous books. It is immediately a very tactile book, covered in gold suede with no photograph, but a debossed title. The next detail one notices is how far the pages, which are edged in gold leaf, are indented from the edge of the cover – 5mm instead of the usual 3mm. It’s subtle but it makes a difference, almost as if you are being made to dig a little deeper for the treasure at the end of the rainbow; which leads one past the gold fly page to the first photograph.
The photographs follow three themes rural landscapes from Ireland, all of which feature as the central feature an arching rainbow; next are those of a sleeping woman and finally the frontages of various gold shops.
Taken separately these thematic threads seem to be unrelated, but in the hands of Graham, they are woven into a contemplative narrative about the nature of human desire.
In the Irish images we see delicate rainbows floating above the verdant countryside. For many a life in the country idyll is itself a dream, but the rainbow suggests more, bringing with it another dimension: the mythical bridge to other worlds, the land of the gods, the physical manifestation of the rainbow snake or the location of a leprechauns’ gold. In the literal sense as an optical and meteorological phenomenon the rainbows reveal the constituent parts of visible light, that which allows for the existence of the photographs themselves. But it is in the mythical capacity that Graham employs the rainbow – they act as the medium by which the other images are connected. As a testament to his attention to detail, along with his commitment to creating a distinct world within the confines of the book – the rainbow photographs sit higher up the page, the most intangible, ephemeral of the three narrative elements. We can see them clearly enough, but, like so much of that which make us truly happy they are ephemeral, they are not of this world, we can never physically grasp them and yet they cannot but fill us with joy.
Then there is the sleeping woman. Herself an enigma – who is she, where is she, what is she dreaming about? Questions we can only imagine the answers to, which allow her to be whom we desire, where we desire her to be and dreaming about what we desire her to dream about. These photographs show her surrounded by white or pastel coloured walls, there is a tenderness to them, making Graham unusually present in the image, she seems to be safe and dreaming, not having nightmares. The tenderness of Graham’s gaze reveals his fillings for her fore she is his partner – and so we are presented with another intangible: love, art’s eternal muse. Again the details are telling; these photos sit in the middle of the page, lower than the rainbows, associating them and her physically with this world, yet her slumber renders her in a liminal space, somewhere perhaps between a version heaven and hell and leads us to the final set of images.
The gold stores: they feel like the most earthly of all the images and so sit at the bottom of the page – the diametric opposite of the rainbow photos. Like the rainbows’ gold has its own mythic quality: its eternal lustre and very real rarity and subsequent value. Possessing it could make your dreams come true, but equally coveting it, like all obsessions, can be the stuff of nightmares. These images are perhaps most in keeping with Graham’s earlier work. The stores look to be in less prosperous areas, indeed one of them shows a man who looks to be laying out goods on the pavement to sell. It isn’t difficult to imagine neighborhood people going to the store, seeing their wedding rings, along with anything else, to make ends meet. One wonders if those with financial concerns can sleep as soundly as the woman features in the book.
This, I think is the core of the book. So many of our “dreams” are excessively materialistic in nature that perhaps we forget, or in many ways are prevented from fully appreciating what is really important, namely, those intangibles that makes us memorably happy.
Photographically speaking Graham has pulled off a very difficult balancing act. He has pitched the structure and content of this work precisely; what looks like ‘straight photography’ is imbued with just enough concept so that neither one dominates the other, which allows both to breathe and the full complexity of the work to be appreciated. He also manages to face up to some of photography’s clichés; what serious photographer would honestly photograph rainbows? – without them being cringing. One doesn’t feel the need to look over both shoulders for the photographic thought police when looking at these photographs. It’s nice to think that this can be done – at a time when there is so much pretentious nonsense dominating photography at the moment.
Does Yellow Run Forever? By Paul Graham MACK 2014