Television Portrait (Danny, Bristol) is a large colour photograph of a toddler perched on a stripy sofa. Graham has photographed him from his right side in profile, looking towards the right. The photograph is one of an ongoing series of Television Portraits, which Graham began in 1989. Many of the Portraits
were taken in low light conditions, possibly at night, resulting in large areas of dark, blurred colours and shapes and an intimate atmosphere. Unusually, Danny, Bristol was photographed in bright, natural light. The image is carefully composed with its subject in the centre and is sharply in focus, suggesting that a tripod was used. In the bottom right corner, a sliver of sunlight reflects off the shiny surface of the edge of a wooden coffee table. Set into the bare yellow wall behind the sofa, a white painted door and moulded door frame are cropped into the left side of the image. On the right, the stripes on a white radiator echo the black and tan stripes on the upholstery of the sofa. These architectural features and the smart sofa proclaim a typical British middle-class home. The little boy is wearing a bright green top and has bare legs. Most of the rest of his clothes appear to have been left in a heap on the floor on the dark green carpet in shadow behind the sofa. He is holding something soft and black, perhaps another garment, in his right hand and something else black is lying on the sofa in front of him. He is staring intently at a television beyond the picture frame and appears unconscious of the photographer’s presence. Other portraits include the first in the series, Television Portrait (Cathy, London) (Tate P77635), Television Portrait (Jack, Bradford) 1989 (Tate P77637) and Television Portrait (Yuko, Kyoto) 1992 (Tate P77638). All the Television
Portraits are framed in black and produced in an edition of five. Tate’s copy is number three.
Graham began making colour photographs in 1978. He was influenced by the work of American photographer William Eggleston (born 1939), whose seminal exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1976 introduced colour photography to the realm of high art. Two early series, A1 The Great North Road (book published 1983) and Beyond Caring (book published 1986), stem from Graham’s experiences as a young graduate (Bristol University, micro-biology, 1978) on the dole. In the latter series he photographed unemployment offices, documenting the poverty and hopelessness suffered by many people in Britain at that time. These photographs combine photojournalism (traditionally associated with black and white photography) with the use of colour and a strong conceptual framework. Graham has described this series as ‘confronting the economic violence being done to a large section of the population by early 1980s Thatcherism’ (quoted in Paul Graham, p.12). A subsequent series, Troubled Land (book published 1987), was shot in Northern Ireland and depicts apparently normal landscapes which on closer inspection are found to have been insidiously affected by the political troubles there. Graham then began travelling around Europe and flying regularly to Japan, producing further series New Europe (book published 1993) and Empty Heaven (book published 1995). He unintentionally began the Television Portraits in 1989 during a period at home in London in between trips abroad. In 1996 he explained that:
they were the antithesis of working in foreign lands: taking photographs in your own home ... I was with my flatmate watching television, and just took this picture, Cathy, and realised how beautiful it was ... I keep doing it. Funny thing is, I can’t set them up. I’d like to have about twenty of them, and I’ve got twelve now, but it never works when I say, can I come round to your house and do one of you? I tried it, and it just doesn’t work.
(Quoted in Paul Graham, p.30.)
The subjects of Graham’s Television Portraits all look away from the camera, their gaze focused on the television outside the picture frame, and their bodies in a passive state of watching. At ease in the environment of their own homes, they appear relaxed and unselfconscious. Graham uses photography as a means to explore, literally and metaphorically, the ways in which societies mask or conceal their historical wounds. With his Television Portraits, he has discovered a means of eliminating much of the masking conventional to portraiture. This has resulted in images which reveal aspects of people not normally on public view. For a recent series of portraits he photographed young people in bars and clubs in cities in the First World. These are collected in a book entitled End of an Age (1999).
Paul Bonaventura, ‘Paul Graham, The Man with the Moving Camera’, Artefactum, no.51, March 1994, pp.6-11
Carol Squiers, Gillian Wearing, Andrew Wilson, Paul Graham, London 1996, pp.30 and 76
Paul Graham: End of an Age, Zurich 1999