Paul Graham

Television Portrait (Yuko, Kyoto)


Not on display

Paul Graham born 1956
Photograph, colour, on paper
Support: 1090 × 890 mm
Purchased 1994


Television Portrait (Yuko, Kyoto) is a large colour photograph of a woman sitting in front of a green curtain. Graham has photographed her head and shoulders from her right side. Her face is in profile, looking towards the right of the image. She is holding her left hand up to the back of her head in an unselfconscious gesture. Her head is tilted forward from the neck and her fingers clasp her short black hair as though she has reached up to rub an itch. The photograph was taken in low light with a shallow depth of field. As a result, only a narrow strip in the middle ground of the image is in focus. This includes the side of the woman’s face and neck, the fingers of her raised left hand and a small diamond stud earring visible in her right ear. A green and white striped scarf encircles her neck and hangs down the front of her body on the left side. She wears a sparkly blue knitted top. The texture of the stitches in the knitted garment and of the smoother fabric of the scarf is clearly defined at the level of her neck. In the foreground, her right shoulder is blurred, as is the elbow raised behind her head. In the background, a dark green curtain hangs in soft folds. It fills the entire frame, resulting in a quasi-theatrical atmosphere. An orange light glows on the woman’s face and catches one of the fingers on her head. She is staring intently at a television beyond the picture frame. The scene is enclosed and intimate. Graham began his ongoing series of Television Portraits in 1989 with a photograph of his friend Cathy, Television Portrait (Cathy, London) (Tate P77635). Other portraits include Television Portrait (Jack, Bradford) 1989 (Tate P77637) and Television Portrait (Danny, Bristol) 1991 (Tate P77636). 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).

Further reading:
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, reproduced (colour) p.126
Paul Graham: Empty Heaven – Photographs from Japan 1989-1995, exhibition catalogue, Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg 1995

Elizabeth Manchester
January 2003

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Display caption

Graham is one of several British photographers who have developed a new approach to documentary photography. He came to prominence in the 1980s with a series of photographs of Northern Ireland, and since then has made a number of works which reflect on socio-political issues. In contrast, his Television Portraits are surprisingly intimate and domestic. The series began with a spontaneous photograph of the artist's flatmate, and now includes images of people watching television all over the world. Although they meditate on the power of mass media and the ubiquity of television, ironically the television is not visible in any of the photographs.

Gallery label, September 2004

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