Paul Graham, ‘Television Portrait (Danny, Bristol)’ 1991
Paul Graham
Television Portrait (Danny, Bristol) 1991
Tate
© Paul Graham; courtesy Pace and Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

While many of us may be transfixed by our neat, high-performance mobile phones, let’s not forget the days when it was instead the telly that held the nation’s undivided attention. It seems like a different age. At the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, Paul Graham captured this era when he started taking photographs that would become a series called Television Portraits, and which includes this one of baby Danny.

While the photographs may appear to have been meticulously staged, they are anything but. As Graham explained earlier this year: ‘These images were taken haphazardly over a period of a few years ... wherever I found myself sitting with friends and family, watching television together.’ He realised how beautiful they were and decided to carry on, but kept the spontaneous and natural process. ‘I’m not much of a one for strategically organising “shoots”, so everything was natural, just as and where. They were taken as far afield as Japan ... and as near as my own living room’.

Graham began the series partly as an antithesis to his photography reflecting on broad social and political issues, such as the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and to the work he was doing abroad. These domestic images focus instead on the intense atmospheric simplicity of looking. As he has said: ‘Being a photographer who prefers to work directly with life, I loved the notion of refusing to look at the programming we were proffered through the airwaves but instead to decline its charmless hypnotism and look at the living, breathing, sentient being right next to you.’

Looking at them today, these intimate portraits of people completely at ease in their living rooms remind us to appreciate what’s really in front of us. In Graham’s words: ‘To refuse the supposed “entertainment” and choose life, no matter how placid and quiet on the surface, is clearly a deliberate act. It’s one I hope will not go unnoticed, as our attention is ever more splintered.’

Television Portrait (Danny, Bristol) was purchased in 1994.

Simon Grant is Editor of Tate Etc.