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Book Review: 1981 & 2011

1981 & 2011. Photographs by Paul Graham.
MACK, 2012.
1981 & 2011
Reviewed by Tom Leininger

Paul Graham 1981 & 2011
Photographs by Paul Graham. With text by David Campany.
MACK, 2012. Hardbound. 104 pp., illustrated throughout, 8-1/4x10-1/4".

Paul Graham was awarded the 2012 the Hasselblad Award and the book that celebrates his photographic career brings together two of his series of pictures A1 - The Great North Road from 1981 and The Present from 2011. Thirty years separates the works. It is possible to see the potential of Graham in the first, and him working at the top of his game in the second. Bringing together these works helps an understanding of Graham's varied methodologies.

If you are unaware of Graham's photography David Campany's essay between the two series, Noticing, is worth the price of the book. In addition to the essay there is a short explanation of the award and how Graham fits into its history by Dragana Vujanovic and Louise Wolthers. Campany fluidly takes the reader through Graham's career. He touches on the nature of photography and narrative, weaving together a tight essay that rewards the careful reader. He relates the work to the times in which they were made and how that has influenced contemporary photography. He touches on the themes of Graham's work and how he bends time. If you need an introduction to Graham, this essay is the perfect place to start.

1981 & 2011, by Paul Graham. Published by MACK, 2012.

To put it simply, this work is about photography, seeing, color, shape, and not about those things all at the same time. This is what interests me about Graham's work. The photographer in me says this guy is making images that I am afraid to, or I never see. What is really going on in The Present? Do we know, do these photographs tell us? Yes and no. They tell us that Paul Graham has come from a place of tradition and moved into a place where questions about the medium and narrative live. Paul Graham is a photographer of spaces that explain temporal truths. 

1981 & 2011, by Paul Graham. Published by MACK, 2012.
1981 & 2011, by Paul Graham. Published by MACK, 2012.

Working in color with a view camera in the early 1980s was not as common as it today. The influences of Stephen Shore are clear, but Graham's voice does come in through his color palette, which is different from Shore's, his pacing of the photographs and their distance from the subjects. Landscapes and portraits build into a narrative of a specific place and time. It is clearly documentary work carried out in a specific manner. The work feels traditional.

It is in The Present that Graham starts to challenge the medium and the idea of the photographic moment. With his use of diptychs in this publication, he asks the viewer to set aside the notion of the singular image. His world is precisely sharp, but compressed. He notices very specific people and colors, shapes. Challenging pictures offer up a critique of the decisive moment, or decisive edit.

1981 & 2011, by Paul Graham. Published by MACK, 2012.

When reading the pictures in The Present according to a strict traditional photographic ruled view they are all flawed and the point is lost. Looking deeper, Graham's sense of humor comes through. These are not action packed images. Printed at a smaller size in this book, one has to look very carefully to see the difference between the images.

The book is well designed with the A1 pictures being placed at the top of the page and the work from The Present printed toward the bottom, at times in pairs. What is missing is the gatefolds that were present in initial book form of The Present. Both works shine in this well printed book. The embossed ampersand on the cover and the beige paper for the essays add to the experience.—TOM LEININGER

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TOM LEININGER is a photographer and educator based in North Texas. More of his work can be found on his website.