Paul Graham

Untitled #46, Man in Wheelchair, Detroit, 2001

2001

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Not on display
Artist
Paul Graham born 1956
Medium
Photograph, colour, Cibachrome print, on paper mounted on acrylic glass
Dimensions
Image: 1152 x 2035 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented anonymously 2012
Reference
P13198

Summary

Untitled #46, Man in Wheelchair, Detroit, 2001 is a colour photograph that shows one side of a road in a poor, urban neighbourhood in Detroit, Michigan. A lone figure is depicted in the deserted street – a black man in a wheelchair who appears to approach the kerb. It is unclear whether he is waiting to cross the road, or simply surveying the street. The viewer’s ability to see the figure properly is compromised by a distilled whiteness that obscures the image like a veil of muslin, the result of the photograph being dramatically overexposed. A pizza parlour advertises its cheap prices on a sandwich board, while a window above a liquor store claims that WIC coupons are accepted, referring to the programme designed to protect the health of low-income mothers and children who are at nutritional risk.

Together with Untitled #20, Man Walking in Grass, Memphis, 2000 2000 (Tate P80077) and Untitled #38, Woman on Sidewalk, New York, 2002 2002 (Tate P80078), this image is from a series of photographs collectively titled American Night, which Graham worked on between 1998 and 2002. The entire series comprises sixty-three photographs, which are divided into three distinct groups. The largest group consists of forty-six bleached-out images of solitary African-Americans in deserted urban landscapes, or the peripheries of such a setting. The figures appear to be just wandering or waiting. Untitled #46, Man in Wheelchair, Detroit, 2001 and Untitled #20, Man Walking in Grass, Memphis, 2000 fall into this group. Ten photographs form another group of street photographs of African-Americans, all of whom appear poor or damaged in some way. These photographs are in full colour, in contrast to the pale minimalism of the larger group. Untitled #38, Woman on Sidewalk, New York, 2002 is one such image. A further seven images, also in vivid colour, depict middle-class suburban homes, so perfectly kept that they lack any obvious sign of habitation.

The American Night series contrasts the perfection of high-suburbia with the poor and marginalised communities who exist on the fringes of all that is valued by the so-called ‘American dream’ and as such are rendered invisible by its narrative. The solitary presence of tiny figures in the bleached-out images emphasises their marginal status. They appear isolated, vulnerable and, indeed, barely visible. The full colour street photographs similarly depict forlorn figures. The impression is that of the white veil having been lifted or the fog having cleared, with the peripheral figures of the white photographs here viewed in detail and in heavily shadowed colour. The series is structured around this tension between seeing and not seeing, visibility and invisibility.

In an essay on this series of works, curator Val Williams has described Graham’s American Night in the following way:

In a work more political than any of his output since Beyond Caring and Troubled Land he has used a mature and supremely confident photographic methodology to construct a visual narrative which confounds, confuses and troubles the viewer. At this critical time in the history of post-war America, Paul Graham has made photographs which are to do with unseeing, incomprehension and a fracturing world.
(Val Williams, ‘American Night’, in Fundación Telefónica 2004, p.86.)

   Further reading
Paul Graham, exhibition catalogue, Fundación Telefónica, Madrid 2004.
Paul Graham and Michael Mack, Paul Graham, Göttingen 2009.

Helen Delaney
September 2011

Display caption

Untitled #46, Man in Wheelchair, Detroit, 2001 shows a road in a poor, urban neighbourhood in Detroit, Michigan. It is possible to discern a lone figure in the deserted street – a black man in a wheelchair. This photograph is from a series titled American Night which contrasts the perfection of suburbia with the poor and marginalised communities which exist on the fringes of all that is valued by the so-called American dream, and as such are rendered all but invisible. The tiny figures in the bleached-out images emphasise their marginal status.

Gallery label, October 2013

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