H-Block Prison Protest, Newry is a colour photograph on paper. The image was shot by the artist in Northern Ireland in the mid-1980s as part of a group of work collectively entitled Troubled Land. It was subsequently reprinted by the artist in the mid-1990s in an edition of ten, plus two artist’s proofs, on Fuji paper and previous versions were destroyed, as he explained in a letter of July 2007 to his London gallerist Anthony Reynolds:
I first printed these c.1987–88 on Kodak Ektacolor paper, which was considered the best available, but little was known about the stability and permanence of such colour materials at this point, as most photographers made b/w [black and white] images then ... However, it was discovered that Fuji had far better stability, and almost negligible ‘base-yellowing’ in comparison ... I reprinted these on Fuji paper in about 1993–4. (I destroyed the yellowed Kodak prints.) ... nothing has changed about these prints from c.1993, except the material. They are exactly the same size, same borders, same printer (me).
(Letter from the artist to Anthony Reynolds July 2007, Tate Gallery Records.)
Tate’s copy is the eighth in the edition and is inscribed with the artist’s name, the title and the edition number of the print.
H-Block Prison Protest, Newry depicts an empty stretch of road with a grass bank and some houses to one side. The lamp posts stand out against a rain-heavy sky. The white lines down the centre of the road have had other white lines painted adjoining them and the words ‘THE GREAT ESCAPE – 38’ have been written in white paint on the pavement. Graham first visited Northern Ireland in 1984, during the IRA’s declared ceasefire, when he began working on the group of landscape photographs which he would later publish as a book, Troubled Land (Grey Editions, London 1987). In this series, he developed a response to the historical and political events of the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland through an examination of the geographical landscape.
Influenced by the work of American photographer William Eggleston (born 1937) in his choice of apparently insignificant, disregarded sites, Graham’s subject became ‘the way in which the geography of “the Troubles” is held as a continuous narrative within the landscape itself, in which everything is charged with significant meaning’ (Wilson, p.64). By using colour, as Eggleston had done, and by standing back rather than getting up close, Graham set himself apart from the accepted language of photojournalism and reportage, an approach which led him to be criticised as ‘somewhat radical, like working in colour when all serious photographers made black and white, like mixing up genres by making war photographs that looked like landscape photographs’ (Graham quoted in Wilson, p.141). For Graham, such criticism ignored the fact that ‘the subject of “the Troubles” is so etched into the landscape that it is impossible to see one without seeing the other’ (Wilson, p.64).
Her Majesty’s Prison Maze, also known as ‘The Maze’ and ‘The H-Blocks’, was a prison used to house paramilitary prisoners during the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland from the early 1970s until it closed in 2000. It was located nine miles outside Belfast in County Antrim. The H-Blocks, so-called because of their shape, were used to house prisoners convicted of terrorist offences. They became notorious during the ‘Dirty Protest’ of the late 1970s, when inmates refused to wear prison uniforms or use the prison’s toilet facilities, and during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s. The pro-IRA slogan painted on the pavement in Graham’s photograph H-Block Prison Protest, Newry celebrates the escape in September 1983 of thirty-eight inmates, referencing the title of the iconic war-time film starring Steve McQueen. Within this political context, it becomes apparent that the white lines on the road have also been added to, creating a series of H’s – a clear reference to the hated H-Blocks.
Other works from Troubled Land in Tate’s collection are Paint on Road, Gobnascale Estate, Derry 1984 (P79338), Graffiti on Motorway Sign, Belfast 1985 (P79339), Republican Coloured Kerbstones, Crumlin Road, Belfast 1984 (P79341), Roundabout, Andersonstown, Belfast 1984 (P79342) and Union Jack Flag in Tree, County Tyrone 1985 (P79343).
Paul Graham, exhibition catalogue, Fundación Teléfonica, Madrid 2004, pp.9–35.
Andrew Wilson, Gillian Wearing, Carol Squiers, Paul Graham, London 1996, reproduced p.71.