Eurosceptic – Paul Graham’s ‘New Europe’

By rejecting active story interest, he makes sure that no one will regard him as a reporter. Rather, he is a particular kind of solitary artist, wandering in disparate zones, curious but disaffected, who picks up marks of unforgotten violence graffitied or inscribed on surfaces. In more recent work, Graham comes close to these surfaces and studies them. Throughout his travels in contemporary Europe, we recognise that he’s essentially a still life photographer with humanitarian instincts, and that he has, perhaps, been one from the beginning.                                                                                                                                          Max Kozloff

               The work of Paul Graham has been improving steadily, broadening in both scope and ambition, since he first came to the attention of the British photographic community with A1: The Great North Road (1982 ), and gained the notice of the photographic world generally with Beyond Caring (1986) and Troubled Land (1987). The photographer (or should we, like Max Kozloff, call him ‘artist’) has not been without his detractors however, for like another leading light in the so-called ‘New Colour Documentary’ school – Martin Parr – Graham would seem to transgress the boundaries of what passes for good documentary practice in Great Britain. That is to say, he takes social ‘issues’ – decidedly ‘hot’ social issues like unemployment offices (Beyond Caring) and Northern Ireland (Troubled Land) – but does not appear to be making the ‘concerned’, politically unequivocal statements demanded by the ethos of documentary photography in general and British documentary photography in particular. He has been accused of ‘exploiting’ serious political situations in the cause of simple formalism, a heinous crime according to the orthodoxy of the actively left-wing photographic practice which dominates ‘media and cultural studies’ departments in many British universities.

And the detractors do not stop there. Graham has also been attacked from what might be termed the right flank of critical opinion, traditional straight modernist photography buffs – the ‘photographic fundamentalists, as he disparagingly calls them. His style – which is formalistic to a degree – has become starker, sparer, and more equivocal with the passing years, thus adding the charge of reductionism to the formalist tag. A move to the Anthony Reynolds Gallery in Dering Street, and a tendency to print large and exhibit in ‘diptychs’ or ‘triptychs’ has not helped either. ‘Reductive’ or ‘empty’ formalism, therefore, is the generic charge from various quarters, particularly from David Lee, one of the photographer’s most obdurate and trenchant critics. A leading art and photographic critic with traditionalist leanings, Lee seems concerned not so much with Graham’s perceived lack of political commitment but the reductive tendency, which seems at times to take him close to the boundaries of conceptual photography, a conspicuous dislike of Lee’s. In his review of In Umbra Res (1990), Graham’s second book on Northern Ireland, Lee notes in an accusing tone the photographer’s ‘apparent ambitions to make the big conceptual/ Postmodern league, and then goes on to criticise his ‘exploitation of the civil war for its fashionable appeal.’ And the piece concludes by denying Graham even the redemptive factor of formal values. ‘Graham’s simplistic grasp of Ulster’s peculiar historical situation is not even redeemed by its visual form.’

All this criticism – and from whatever quarter it tends to focus more than necessary upon the question of career profile – tells us less, I would contend, about the worth of Graham’s work, and more about the parochial rivalries that afflict British photography. Much of it also reflects the ambivalent attitudes which still seem to pertain in Britain regarding the photographic medium, its relationship to current art practice, and the current travails of documentary photography in particular. For outside of these purely local considerations, Graham’s imagery has been very well received indeed. He was the first young British photographer for many years to receive the singular accolade of a one-person show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and in 1989, he received the prestigious W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fellowship – awarded, it might be noted, not for ‘conceptual’ photography, but for his contribution to the humanistic documentary tradition. Of course, such establishment imprimatur do not in themselves validate Graham’s worth. Only the work itself does that, and the work unfortunately has not been given anything like the attention Graham’s career has received from British commentators. The level of both ambition and achievement displayed by his recent oeuvre – partisan theoretical positions notwithstanding – surely warrants close attention. Thus with the publication in the last two years of New Europe, his latest – and to my mind – his best book to date, it seems pertinent to take a look at his imagery and the issues it most certainly raises.

The first issue to dispose of is that of the book’s mode, which ought to be largely irrelevant, except that it would seem to prescribe in many minds its presumed aims and aspirations. Has Paul Graham defected to the ‘art’ camp, and can he be described in any way as a ‘documentary’ photographer? And if so what implications does that have for our readings of the imagery? Or is the ‘conceptual/postmodern’ nexus a more accurate label and with it an entirely different set of assumptions? The answer would seem to be – given the points of similarity between his work and that of British contemporaries such as Paul Reas, Jem Southam, or Julien Germain, and to a lesser extent Martin Parr and Anna Fox – that Graham’s work is in the contemporary ‘documentary’ mode, but thereby hangs a tale. This means in essence that it derives from the straight modernist documentary ethos developed during the nineteen-thirties, but that, in keeping with much current work, it borrows from both postmodern and so-called ‘conceptual’ modes, rendering its link with the documentary past both oblique and somewhat tenuous. We have perhaps stepped over the threshold of the ‘post-documentary’ era, but Graham himself still proclaims an interest in photographic practice as opposed to art practice. ‘I am committed to the photographic medium, he usually affirms when asked. So, as matters are defined currently, New Europe might be considered as poetic documentary, with the emphasis firmly on the poetic rather than the documentary dimension.

This ought to tell us one thing. That Graham is not attempting to make a sociologically inflected statement about the ‘New Europe’, presenting a cut-and-dried thesis complete with unequivocal, right-on political stance. The tenor of the work, rather, is closer to German photographer Michael Schmidt’s rightly acclaimed book Waffenruhe (1987), which dealt with similar issues, namely the awful weight of recent history upon the present, and dealt with it in a similarly fragmented, troubled, and highly poetic manner. It is futile to look for concrete history in either Schmidt or Graham. Each photographer’s work might be considered to consist of mood pieces, yet each is informed intellectually and morally by history – Schmidt in a profoundly personal, emotive way, Graham in a more distanced, coolly cerebral, though no less expressive way.

The historicist thrust of Paul Graham’s European essay is spelt out immediately by the book’s title.  ‘New Europe’ embodies all the ironic, postmodern inflections that are almost de rigeur these days, referring to both the past and the present, as Urs Stahel informs us in his afterword to Graham’s pictures. ‘New Europe’ has been both a notion and a plan of action proposed for the continent at frequent intervals during its history, the latest manifestation being the bright, positivist slogan for the European Economic Community – the European ‘free’ Common Market – rather than the nominally more sinister designs of various imperialist enterprises. The last of these of course – patently the most sinister and diabolical of all – was Adolf Hitler’s crazed dream of a single, racially pure ‘Nation Europa, purged in blood, which tore the continent in half, the great wound that Graham lays bare in his first image.

A veteran of this or some other nameless struggle, baring his torso to display his wounds, stands on a piece of wasteland, gazing without joy at the fruits of peace, a crowded landscape of the rabbit-hutch apartment blocks which now proliferate everywhere, scarring the land and our nations’ souls with their homogenized anonymity. ‘Nation Europa‘ Whereas Hitler’s term, with its deliberate echoes of Roman imperialism, attempted to aggrandise and legitimise his hideous enterprise, our current ‘New Europe’ is peddled with all the moral turpitude and lack of spirit that accompanies the selling of soap powder. Times change. ‘Thank God,’ we can say in Hitler’s case. Styles of marketing change. But, Paul Graham would seem to say, is this merely a case of plus ça change? Does the new propaganda simply paper over the old cracks? Can the brave new ‘United States of Europe’ really succeed, or is this just the latest in a long line of illusions, another soft-sell political virtual reality, that fails either to deliver the promised consumerist paradise, or dissolve away the old nationalisms that lie dangerously close to a brittle surface?

These are the big questions Graham appears to be asking in this ambitious work. I say ‘appears’ because there is no closely argued written manifesto to accompany the visual material, only the fragmentary visual evidence of some highly elliptical images, which we must endeavour to decipher. And even when we think we have deciphered them – no easy task in itself – Graham would probably offer half-a-dozen alternative readings, and rightly so. For he acknowledges that, since the cultural meltdown of postmodernism, we no longer trust or hold to the evidence of our own perceptions. Collectively we posit not one broadly shared, but multiple, many layered definitions of both perceptual and conceptual reality, the ‘new consciousness, as he terms it. This, he maintains, has caused a crisis in photography. Since there is no concrete reality, photography has lost its central role, for the medium’s traditionally perceived strength was to deal with the concrete, with physical actuality – the ‘old consciousness as it were. Certainly, for much of its history photography was regarded as a simple simulacrum of reality, but both those troubled by the potential abuses which might stem from an over-reliance on the camera’s fidelity to empirical fact, and the best photographers themselves, have always realised that at best photographic realism is a hydra-headed beast. Well before the advent of psychoanalysis and surrealism and other attacks upon our conscious certainties, the relationship of even the most determinedly realist photography to the concrete was becoming gradually more provisional, elliptical, and indeterminate.

Embedded in the book, perhaps more discretely, is another line of potential meaning, not the primary thread, but an important secondary one. In the 1980s, Graham travelled on occasion to Germany, coming into contact with such German photographers as Michael Schmidt, Volker Heinze, Joachim Brohm, and Gosbert Adler, and also Americans like John Gossage and Lewis Baltz, who used to visit Schmidt’s Werkstatt für Fotografie  in Kreuzberg, Berlin.

As I have said, New Europe exhibits a strain of highly elliptical narrative which Graham had been steadily developing in his work. Now he has created something not unlike the poetic, allusive (and elusive) style of narration found in Michael Schmidt’s Waffneruhe, and perhaps even closer to Volker Heinze’s Ahnung (Unease), published in 1989. Consisting of only sixteen colour photographs, Ahnung is a fragmentary, but highly successful mood piece built around Berlin, containing amongst other things, evocative and enigmatic images of the Berlin Wall and the rusting gate to the now demolished Gestapo headquarters.

With only sixteen pictures, Ahnung looks almost like a sketch for a bigger book, and that bigger book could be New Europe. Indeed, one of the pictures in Volker Heinze’s work is a portrait of Paul Graham. And in New Europe is a photograph of Wilmar König, another of the German photographer friends of Graham.

New Europe is a fascinating confluence of connections between books, photographs, and influences. In the number of night photographs in Graham’s book, one might also add John Gossage’s Stadt des Schwarz (City of Black), from 1987, as another inspiration. I am not suggesting that New Europe is anything less than original. It is a product wholly stemming from Graham’s own sensibility, but nevertheless marks part of a viable alternative to the School of Düsseldorf and its emphasis upon the gallery orientated single print rather than the photobook. It is possibly too much to talk about a ‘School of Berlin’, but there was a period, in the late 1980s, when British, German, and American photographers were meeting together to exchange ideas. Three great book about Berlin – the Schmidt, the Heinze, and the Gossage – came out of these fruitful exchanges. Graham has extended the idea across Europe, and his book, with its wholly pertinent title, may well herald the beginnings of a ‘New European photography’ and a pan-European photographic culture.

And the presence of portraits of friends, coupled with the fact that a fair number of the photographs in New Europe were taken in dark nebulous spaces, such as night-clubs, adds a distinct personal strain to the work which could be overlooked as the more ‘public’ imagery – the Franco shrine, Star of David, national colours, and so on – is perused for it s historical references. Just what is being ‘documented’ has been an issue with the discourse around New Europe. Throw in these personal references and it can be seen that the book is not just a meditation upon the continent’s past, present, and future, but also a work in the ‘diaristic mode’, a record of Graham’s own experience.

This, of course is the way that ‘documentary’ photography has been heading ever since John Szarkowski made the statement accompanying his important New Documents exhibition at MoMA in 1967. Noting the shift in photography from external to more internal concerns, Szarkowski wrote that there was a new generation of photographers whose aim was ‘not to reform life, but to know it.’

Knowing life is to question it, so if this new generation were not trying to reform life, the very best of them were at least trying to question it. The old certainties of the claims documentary photographers once made were gone, to be replaced, not by new uncertainties but by scepticism, a willingness to question and take nothing for granted, not even seeing itself – ambiguity used in a positive way.

New Europe is a fascinating example of how far the ‘new document’ has progressed to the beginning of the 1990s. For this kind of work – analytical, metaphorical, personal – the term ‘documentary’ itself would seem redundant, although that is not to say that the imagery itself neglects to analyse society or describe modern life. I believe that New Europe is one of the most important photobooks of the last five years. It is the best book that Graham has made to date, his most difficult and his most lyrical. It also might be a flagship for the New European photography, marking a moment when Paul Graham moved from being a parochial British photographer to a truly international one.

Unpublished, 1994