BY Mark Durden in Reviews | 06 JAN 95
Featured in
Issue 20

Paul Graham

BY Mark Durden in Reviews | 06 JAN 95

This exhibition comprised of nine big, beautiful
colour photographs of grey skies.There is nothing
new in this: photographers have pictured the sky
before. In the 20s and 30s, Alfred Stieglitz made
Equvalents, a series of small, intense black and
white sky pictures. Closer to home, WiIliam
Eggleston took several hundred pictures of the sky,
colour prints he likened to fragments of frescoes, a
series of which he titled Wedgewood Blue. To turn the
camera away from the world to the sky marks an
aestheticising vision which is the furthest remove
from the status of the photograph as document.
What all these celestial images have in common is
the desire for a heightened and purified view
through photography - an essentially modernist
gesture. The sky, like the sea, is an archetypal
modernist subject: an empty expanse, deaf to history
and politics.

In contrast, Paul Graham locates the sites
from which he took his skyscapes:
Andersonstown, Belfast; Ballymurphy, Belfast;
Newry; ShankhilI, Belfast; Bogside, Derry and so
on. Graham also informs us that they were all
taken during the ceasefire in April1994. Anchored
in time and place, these images are less free-floating.
Without text these would be nothing but blank
sheets, sites for contemplation. Captioned, they
carry a metaphorical weight. These skies are readable
as metaphor for the political condition in
Ireland. The rather uncertain condition of the
weather in April, becomes, in literal fashion, an
objective correlative of the uncertainty of lreland's
political climate.

This is a different approach from the one
Graham took in his pictures of Ireland almost a
decade earlier. For the images which made up his
book Troubled Land, it was the landscape as site of
territorial division which drew his attention. His
series of photographs picked out the loyalist and
republican signs among the Irish landscape: a tree
in the distance of a green field in County Tyrone,
topped with a Union Jack flag; the messy trail of
red, white and blue left by paint spattered on a
road in Derry; and a road sign on top of which
were painted the initials 'IRA' in blue letters.
Landscape was neither a site of escape nor of
reverie, but politically contested terrain; a site of
competing and conflicting identities.

The series of photographs in the Anthony
Reynolds gallery have no such literalness. They
depict and tell us nothing. We must rely on the
photographer's word about where they were taken
- even the fact that these are skies over Ireland is
uncertain. To look to the sky from the streets of
Belfast or Derry, at the time of the ceasefire, might
be seen as a sign of hope. But then what are we
meant to infer if the sky pictured has more clouds
than sunshine? Whatever the connotations of
place, to picture the sky still forms part of a formalist history of the photograph as an aesthetic
medium. It's hard to see these pictures as involving
anything but a retreat from representation. In
the end, you even begin to doubt that these pictures
are grounded by their captions.The roll call
of place names, familiar to us as part of the bloody
history of 'The Troubles', might only be there to
give a certain piquancy to the beauty of these cloud
studies: Graham may be using Ireland's history
simply to bolster a particular aesthetic.

Mark Durden