I'll probably catch shit for this... And this is a photographer whose work I hold in the highest regard- for its power, originality and social relevance. What more could one ask? And who am I, a nobody, to criticize- then again, that's never stopped anyone else.
While Paul Graham's most recent work still works the social landscape, unlike most critics and fans alike, I'd have to disagree that his new, more "conceptual" work is anywhere near as aesthetically powerful or socially insightful. As a general rule, whenever I hear the words conceptual and transcendent, I start to shift uneasily in my seat, because I damn well know that, most likely, I'm being set up for something I'm probably not going to like, (if I do- fine) and if I don't- it's all because my tiny little mind is just way too small to grasp the work's total magnificence.
Graham's earlier work (eg- A1, Beyond Caring, Troubled Land) was groundbreaking in its incorporation of color into provocative essays. They were intense but not in your face, more laid back, contemplative, not the traditional photojournalism of the day. They excelled aesthetically as singular images, and revealed a subtle cohesive narrative that intensified the experience as a whole. These were essays that to this day withstand repeated viewings.
While looking at Paul Graham, the retrospective book, I took great delight at seeing his earlier essays beautifully reproduced in the beginning of the book. And I remembered an interview where he stated that after Troubled Land, he received many an offer to basically repeat that essay in different parts of the world. But he wanted to go on to something else- been there, done that. Understood.
What followed however, seems like a stage of decided indecisiveness- some rather lame portraits, including a series on people watching TV which are every bit as boring as the programs they must've been watching, and some close ups of graffiti... Even the book doesn't seem to quite know what to do with some of his latter work as it prints these photos in a noticeably smaller, haphazard manner- as opposed to the confident print per page of his earlier work.
Then we arrive at what I take is his conceptual, transcendent stage with repeated scenes of a man mowing a lawn (and how many times must a man...), and the overwhelmingly overexposed scenarios of African Americans lost in the distance of the American landscape (ie- consciousness?), in stark contrast to the fully exposed colors of white American suburbia. Part of Troubled Land's power and brilliance was its remarkable subtlety- one was never hit over the head with the obvious in your face animosity, hatred and violence that infested that beautiful country. Even though the writing was all over the wall (sometimes literally), it was always lurking in the shadows.
Would critics have been so lavish with their conceptual largesse had they been considering a no name photographer? Some of those overexposed prints appear as if they damn well would have made interesting compositions, guess we'll never know. Together with a handful of dynamic street portraits from the series, it appears Mr. Graham still has it- when he wishes to fully engage.
There are those who no doubt argue that Graham has well transcended the insular photographic world unto the larger stage of conceptual art. Perhaps, but I'll miss the one who could impart in a simple well exposed and composed photograph, all the power and subtlety that life, imagination, and society could bestow it- and do it on a regular basis...