Paul Graham

Untitled #20, Man Walking in Grass, Memphis, 2000


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Not on display

Paul Graham born 1956
Photograph, colour, Cibachrome print, on paper mounted onto acrylic glass
Image: 1518 × 2035 mm
Purchased with funds provided by the Photography Acquisitions Committee 2012


Untitled #20, Man Walking in Grass, Memphis, 2000 is a colour photograph that depicts a solitary man walking in deep grass on the side of a deserted road in Memphis, Tennessee. The viewer’s ability to see the lone figure is compromised by a distilled whiteness that obscures the image like a veil of muslin. The details of the image are difficult to decipher because the photograph is dramatically overexposed. The green verge of grass and trees, along which the man walks, cuts across the centre of the image horizontally. Above and below this, the road markings and overhead wires create parallel diagonal lines. The minimal composition is rendered even sparer by the blanching of almost all colour.

Together with Untitled #38, Woman on Sidewalk, New York, 2002 2002 (Tate P80078) and Untitled #46, Man in Wheelchair, Detroit, 2001 2001 (Tate P13198), 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 #20, Man Walking in Grass, Memphis, 2000 and Untitled #46, Man in Wheelchair, Detroit, 2001 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

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