End of An Age # 34, 1997
By David Levi Strauss, Originally Published in ArtForum, March 2000
Paul Graham’s latest series, “End of an Age,” 1999, consists of forty-nine large color photographs of twenty-somethings hanging out in clubs somewhere in Western Europe or the US (Edinburgh? Munich? Helsinki? New York? Graham refuses to specify). Most of these images are portraits that catch the singular subject unaware and unposed, usually in profile, often leaning against a wall. No one looks directly into the lens. One turns three quarters away, like Betty in Gerhard Richter’s eponymous 1988 painting, into a sea of red and gold. Harsh, stark, sharply defined flash pictures alternate with moodier available-light images that contain more saturated color. These are silent images made in a loud place, still images in a fast place.
Graham eschews the most basic convention of portraiture–the direct gaze of the subject–along with most rules of professional photography. Some images are out of focus; others are almost entirely obscured by color cast. What makes them each compelling is their aggregate conceptual force. Nearly every one of these kids wears the same expression: an open, somewhat stoned, searching look. Although they are bona fide portraits, intended to “draw forth” something from each subject, this something is collective rather than individual. Unlike Graham’s previous series in Northern Ireland (“Troubled Land,” 1984-87, consisting of landscapes into which subtle signs of political conflict intrude) and Japan (“Empty Heaven,” 1989-95, comprising close-ups of automobile engines and images of wrapped trees, scar tissue, and other gestures of concealment), “End of an Age” avoids markers of cultural specificity, since it is really a portrait of a collective condition rather than one of a particular group or nationality.
Over the last twenty years, Graham has become a canny practitioner of a pointedly allegorical photography, in which the apparent or superficial subject both parallels and illustrates a more profound one. In “End of an Age” the deeper subject is the passage from innocence to experience. The club kids in these pictures are suspended in that liminal zone between childhood and adulthood, or between the personal and the social. It is significant that they all are portrayed as spectators. They stand around the edges like actors in the wings waiting to go on. They drink, smoke, listen, and watch. Their utter absorption makes them appear even more vulnerable, and that state has a particular expectant beauty that Graham captures splendidly. But the tenderness is undercut by a certain zombie freeze. In the gallery exhibition as well as the book that accompanies it, bracketing the portraits are blown-up images of eyes whose pupils are flame red in the flash of the strobe, which makes them look larval and slightly predatory. The series can be read as a portrait of a generation, but it is also a portrait of a time–which is now.