“The way in which we write history is tinged with this conundrum. It suggests blinders in the very least and in doing so, should compel an understanding of context that is piecemeal or limited”
It’s often difficult to unpack a particular body of work or historic book that has been republished without regarding the circumstances of the time in which it was produced. The point is not to say “It was like this” or “When it was…”, the point is to put some amount of context into the periphery of the images whether one was present at the time or not. Of course, to historicize also favours annotations that are often half-blind in their assertions of the disconnect between memory and representational “realities”. The way in which we write history is tinged with this conundrum. It suggests blinders in the very least and in doing so, should compel an understanding of context that is piecemeal or limited.
Though much has been written about Robert Frank’s The Americans with its brooding melancholy and implied “outsider” look in, it would be very hard to understand the book without taking into consideration the Post-War America that it was obliquely critical of. Without an awareness of how the American dream was pandered at home and abroad, it would be nearly impossible to gauge the impact of the book. We must to some degree historcize its content and in our evaluation keep the era of its production in mind, even if the current moment is largely removed from the memory of said production. It is of course a subjective book of images and a book about the fleeting occupation of being bound to the road and the moment as seen through Frank’s eyes and kerouac’s writing in equal measure to the world it vaguely represented.
Thatcher’s Britain of the 70’s and 80’s was a complex historical period. There are social and political machinations at play today that make the period hard to succinctly regard nearly forty years later. Having not been of age nor country to experience Thatcher’s Britain, my limited understanding of the atmosphere of the times is conditioned to what I have read or drawn from my own interests in both history and culture. My understanding of the time is that of utter confusion and perhaps above all, economic lament and terse and unyielding displays of governmental power moves upon or against the British citizen. From my outside position and from examining the cultural debris of the time through documentaries, books and films like Withnail and I from the future, I can draw a strange aimless conclusion about the time manifested by rain, joblessness and the ever-present and charming brand of British brand of black humor.
In later cinematic efforts, Shane Meadow’s jarring, yet bittersweet re-appropriation of his 70’s and 80’s youth in This is England feels like a partial summary of the Midlands at the time and I can perhaps oddly understand some of Chris Killip’s photographs more through those films. There are other “post-Kitchen sink” dramas from the time that also resonate such as Scum, Sid & Nancy and a number of more extreme renditions of the political moment such as the still-as-yet-to-be-believed made for T.V. serial Threads. In music, goth, synth-wave, no wave and punk rock all carried the mantel of the period with a indebted testament to youthful anger and shoegazing woe. This would lead to a very interesting moment in the following decade as evinced through raves, drugs and a new cautious outlook on culture at large. In effect, nihilism would give birth to this cautious optimism built from a capitulation to the neoliberal archetization of the country’s political and financial future coupled with a general fed-upedness with the cyclical anxieties embedded with protests and beatings. The youth, instead of breaking bottles would instead follow the sound system to a farm and enjoy the labor of ecstasy.
In 70’s and 80’s literature, it would be very difficult to escape infrastructure and national municipal planning of roads without considering the effect of J.G. Ballard’s dystopian vision of Britain. Thinking through the margins of time, politics and psychology, Ballard had intuited some of the conditions of Thatcher’s Britain in his earlier novels. The progression of his work moves from Sci-fi rumination on decay, climate apocalypse and social deconstruction through an obsession with “progress” and economy placed within the imagination of consumer society, sexual excess, class fixation and a notably anarchic psychosexual survey found both in Crash in High Rise. Both of these novels and their later cinematic envisioning concern characteristic motifs in Ballard’s work that were a direct reflection of Post-War commitments to strife, listlessness, New Town dreaming and the social upheaval of class and labour within the larger cities as industry was shipped abroad as made pinnacle through the later lens of thatcher’s rule. Without the circumstantial information and the oblique references to culture, it is harder to unpack the potential for era-based chronologies of historical analysis.
“Thinking through the margins of time, politics and psychology, Ballard had intuited some of the conditions of Thatcher’s Britain in his earlier novels. The progression of his work moves from Sci-fi rumination on decay, climate apocalypse and social deconstruction through an obsession with “progress” and economy placed within the imagination of consumer society, sexual excess, class fixation and a notably anarchic psychosexual survey “
In refining the outlook of the times from the future, I am looking presently at Paul Graham’s astute images from the 80s. Though I have enlisted a series of examples that carry a particular historic value placed on them from my own projections or interests, it would be fair to note that this bias does not always limit the historical record itself. Intention is the devil. Interpretation is often something worse.
It should be noted that within thinking through the history of a moment, it should be suggested that what could be considered “documentary’ fails greatly from the future and often it fails greatly to be heeded as the author’s true intent. One can only surmise that we tackle the question of the document to imply a simple indexing in which an artist was present and recorded…a something…or a somewhen. Graham it should be noted, has never felt obliged to endure this conversation about the documentary tradition and my emphasis on it in passing is to simply place the work within the larger framework of how it was perhaps misinterpreted as overly intentional outside of the limits of the road and Paul’s subjective interests.
In my examination of A1-The Great North Road (MACK 2020, this edition), it would also be difficult to forgo the historic weight of this work on the medium of photography. The associations mentioned above regarding the documentary tradition can be dis-assembled with some ease from the future and yet regarding the original edition and its production being framed within the early 80’s, it is easy to see how the gravity of those associations could easily circulate when it was published. At that moment, the photobook trade was not as it is now and the emphasis on photography in Britain was imaginably smaller than it is currently, which isn’t to suggest large. This is to indicate that the book would certainly have made an impact at the time and would then have been put to test in its ability to be easily or rather un-easily characterized within the pursuit of the documentary tradition as was fashionable at the time.
The first and most just observation about the work is Graham’s incredible use of colour, which no doubt shattered a number of reservations for the genre of colour photography at the time held by people looking for new and progressive methods to making images. It also must have enabled a certain amount of trepidation by those in traditional circles for the book’s banal and non-descript images of orange tables and their respectively etched and worn chairs, blue back rooms and the glorified valour of truck and carpark images in the brooding and wet English weather were emphasized over the accustomed “scenes” that pervaded the medium’s gravity towards those working in a documentary form. Graham eloquently painted a different picture of Britain through his palette and move towards “new colour”. His palette, it should be noted within A1 is varied.
Within the sunlight exteriors (of which there are very few) colours pop and saturate the land creating a cautious optimism about place itself. These images are augmented by canny investigations of “non-spaces”,both peopled and un-peopled in which colour is the driving focus-blue and red are a common recurring mix perhaps best exemplified by the interior studies of John’s Café, Bedfordshire and the interior diner of Blyth services, Nottinghamshire with its corollary bible. These images are rounded out by the industrial product opulence of the Great North Road Garage with its cherry-red Singer and Humber signs found in Edinburgh-these, the relics of industry on the imagined marquee.
These are images in which colour takes precedence and are staid in opposition to a number of other photographs within the book where colour is important, but is subdued by low light and the nearly audible din of slow silverware set on tables that have seen many a classic fry-up. The landscape views present a dull throbbing of green and blue and black doused in asphalt and rain alike. You can imagine the arousing notes of olfactory petrichor and diesel echoing the audible sounds of rain and of news about the Falklands resonating from the Austin Metro crunching the gravel from the roadside as it levies its diminutive heft northward past moors and past associations of villages and former wars and glories alike.
Of course, colour and palette are not the only considerations for the images themselves. Again, we can consider the number of social observations of the (predominantly) men within the frame. We can see their tattoos, their clothing, their epicurean delights and draw a lithe contextualisation of roadside Britain from the asphalt banks of the A1 as Graham and his camera weave in and out of petrol stations and pull off the road for a glimpse of sodden moors and enveloping contained grass burns alike. The mood of Britain of the early 80s is present and accounted for and perhaps one of the greater unspoken gifts within is Graham’s ability to frame and attribute Britain’s citizens in frame with a humility that speaks of his later work and its human qualities. In passing, I would also suggest that A1 is the anti-thesis of the American road trip, a Bulwark for a return to average-ness and a denial to the sublimity that America enforces with its cryptic love of petrol-economies that rot out the heart of all that expansive nothingness it spent years taming.
Having lived in London for a significant portion of my life and to risk ending on a melancholic note, it would be almost impossible for me not to mention the images of Graham’s A1 as he starts his journey in North London just off the same road that I lived near for years. I am co-opting and making his work my own nostalgia in active defiance of his intentions I would imagine.
I recognise with great amusement the same A1 from 1982 as it ferries bus and auto from the Archway roundabout up through Highgate just past Shepherd’s Hill where I made my own home thirty years later. The amusement mostly stems from recognising the Old Methodist Church in Archway which itself still rests in the same spot with a slightly larger roundabout and different shops perched under its brick skirt. It exemplifies the old and often incorrect assertion or adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same. It is a formidable piece of London architecture and property and it rests just to the left or right depending if incoming or outgoing to the Archway tube station and the hospital nestled just behind it.
Perhaps fifteen minute’s walk up the hill you see another very recognisable view of Greater London from the Victorian pedestrian bridge which essentially links Highgate village to the eastern edge of Crouch End (Crooshond for inveterate neo-locals) where it meets Archway. The view is impressive and is sadly a view that I have never personally viewed from the bridge itself as it was sectioned off some years ago. The reason for this and to which I can historically posit from experience is that the bridge itself where Graham’s camera made the photograph is known locally to Londoners now as Suicide Bridge. I can attest to its prowess and name having witnessed two separate occasions of self-killing on my morning cycle ride to work in the early 2010s.
This same bridge historically is where the A1 begins to open up on its way towards Muswell Hill and its way out of London proper. When Graham made the image in March of 1982, he would likely have had little idea that in the same month fifteen minute’s walk away, Dennis Nilsen would be active at 23 Cranley Gardens claiming the life of John Howlett. He would not be aware that in the proximity of taking his images, that he was in proximity to my historical associations of place within his images forty years on and the dark and persistent motivations that outlines part of the history of the A1 and Thatcher’s Britain. On a note of speculation, I shall be curious if this motif re-enters again in Beyond Caring if it is to be re-published. Though the dates do not align, Nilsen worked at the Kentish Town job centre.
Of course, I am regaling the reader with tales of my own morbid interests and the way in which I understand an image or two and not their intention, nor their significance at the time of production, but this is part and parcel of why photography, in its stillness and inability to be properly contextualized from afar lends to the inaccuracy of its ability to be contained and limited to the form of document or truth. There is much to consider in circumstantial fact that photography on its best day can only allude to and this potential rests outside of the author’s hands and intentions.
A1-The Great North Road (Mack, 2020) is nothing short of a brilliant book. It is the second edition of the title and has been slightly re-imagined and perfectly re-printed with precision. Looking back on it and from afar and in several ways, I can see the value and allure of the work and how it placed Graham at the centre of a new vision of Britain, but also photography as a medium with the inclusion of the discussion and decisiveness of colour film. I consider the book wholly deserved of its mythical status and feel compelled towards a greater understanding of its historical trajectory even if appropriated vastly from the intentions of the author and the book’s future. Highest Recommendation.