A really busy and enjoyable month looking at this great book with a whole bunch of contributors to whom I am extremely thankful for making it such a vibrant and lively discussion. As always, you can find the summary of our discussion below, but feel free to continue adding thoughts and questions in.
Thanks go to photographer Adele Reed for sharing her thoughts on Paul Graham’s ‘A1: The Great North Road’. If you would like to share your own thoughts on this book, do so in the comments section below or to me via email.
Graham’s portrait of this historically endearing straight-forward British system is poignant in many ways. The moments he captured and brought away from the culture along the road are portrayed in a candid, sympathetic and honest manner, serving tribute to working class Britain, their collective apathy of the eighties, and the despondent neglect the road suffered during these times. Rupert Martin wrote in an essay published as an introduction to the series that Graham illustrated the ‘kind of self-sufficient melancholy’ of the people – who somehow seem downtrodden but proud of their society.
For me it’s a heartfelt and warm testament to the salt of the Earth, the genuine, honest members of our nation who keep the cogs turning, who support the road, and who the road supports back. Cafe interiors crumble into decay but a charm withstands: vibrantly painted walls and garish patterned curtains reflect fashions and a flamboyancy our country should be proud of. I feel a deep affection for our provincial towns whilst viewing the images.
The A1 road for those who know it, or know the book, doesn’t exactly conjure up thoughts of a road trip or road trip aesthetic. There are no dessert vista’s here, no vast stretches of road ahead and behind. This is most certainly not the orange-tinted views of Wim Wenders or Stephen Shore as they pass through El Passo and Nevada, neither does it evoke thoughts of Kerouac or Pirsig’s prose.
This isn’t to say we do not recognize some of the conventions of the genre in the images, particularly in the diners, cafes and petrol stations, but Graham has also weaved a decidedly British streak into the book. Bright blue skies give way to overcast days and wet roads, neon is only seen once, and all in all, this is a much more subdued photographic approach. No fanfare will be found here, just a well paced, expertly edited series of images, and in this I find myself looking harder, and for longer.
What lies at the heart of this book (to myself at least) and does conform to the road genre is the human encounters Graham has documented along the A1. These are all characters we recognise, they are the hundred of people we see in the car alongside, or in the adjacent cubicle at a restaurant and if you are anything like me, you wonder about why they are here, now, or what it is they do and why they do it. Almost all of the subjects in ‘A1’ hold the camera’s gaze back, I like to think they are looking at Graham, or at me, wondering exactly the same things.
Interestingly, while we see life from the road, cafe’s and fields going by, even pulling up to a petrol station, we are never inside the car. It is at first an odd omission, especially compared to the more well known photography from the US dealing with the road, it’s landscape and it’s stories. But in doing so Graham remains very much a traditional documentarian, slightly removed from each situation he encounters unlike his Stateside contemporaries. The result is another reason this is such an important and unique piece in the ever expanding road photography genre.
After looking at Phil Coomes’ ‘Recession Road’, I would like to share another project which retraces (to an extent) the footsteps of Paul Graham.
My thanks to Sebastian Arthur Hau for pointing me in the direction of this project by Benoit Grimbert and my thanks also Benoit who has contributed some text on the project and of Graham’s influence.
To see the complete series by Grimbert, head over here. And if you would like to compare the two, I have included the video showing Graham’s work below.
The first Paul Graham photographs I saw were images taken from his ‘Troubled Land‘ series. I was about twenty, and I remember the impression of contemporaneity and novelty (in comparison with other photographers working at that time in the field of landscape photography) that these subtle colored images produced on me. I also remember that they vaguely seem to me as specifically European, even if they may also be considered as a kind of response to the most recent American landscape photography (I think in particular of Stephen Shore and William Eggleston). This fact never stopped his images stimulating me, and I still look at his series (‘A Shimmer of Possibility‘ included) as works which synthesized both the american and european
Much later, I was deeply impressed by another work, as a book : ‘A1, The Great North Road‘. Having the book in my hands, the entire series – the photograph on the cover in particular – operated as a sort of appeal. Appeal of an unpredictable road trip to the North, which was absolutely not defined, and then the appeal of taking photographs – the strength of the images and of the imagination. The fact that I did not really know the road contributed to make it worthy of interest. If Paul Graham photographed this road partly on the basis of his childhood memories, I will do it under the impression of a pure representation, it would be a photographic one. Therefore, the point was not for me to follow in his footsteps, in the search of the possible traces of what was depicted in the book. This series just worked as the driving force behind me, and the framework became quite conceptual – from a material point of view : a road, The Great North Road, with a beginning and an end, clearly identifiable ; from a representative point of view : a series of 40 photographs, placed according to the geographical order of the road – the content and the form of the photographs following my own photographic approach.
I had my first trip by car along the A1 in October 2008. There was a second trip in
December 2008, and a third in March 2009. Without any particular intention, I drove this road, leaving it each time I was attracted by something I had saw on its sides. Sometimes, the photograph was made quite quickly, but most of the time, it took me several hours to find the appropriate place to make it. At any time, the photograph, although very composed, was literally “unexpected”.
“Great to see you are looking at Paul Graham’s Great North Road book, I think it’s one of the most important series to have been shot in the UK. Every frame tells a story and yet is also a visual delight, and of course the work as a whole provides a strong social comment on the time. Now of course it comes with a dollop of nostalgia as well.
As you mentioned we used it as a jumping off point for our recession road project in 2009, though in reality we were on a very different mission, with tight deadlines and a financial story to wrap around it –where the story led, as opposed to the pictures. But it would be fair to say my colleague Paula and I carried these frames in our head as we headed north. What did we find? Well, another country from the one in Paul’s book, that’s for sure, though there were some similarities and given time they could be teased out, but sadly we had just five days on the road.”
It would be an interesting exercise to make the journey in current times and see what changes have been wrought. One would imagine there would be new freeways, big box retail and neon-lit ‘service centres’, yet still the same air of suburban angst and hopelessness faintly lingering.
The idea was to travel the road in search of stories on the recession, just like Graham, Coomes’ choice to follow the A1(M) meant a swift dissection of England from the wealthy city of London, through industrial and post-industrial towns of the midlands and on towards Scotland.
While Coomes’ refers to Graham’s work on a couple of occasions, it is not a complete retracing of locations or ‘After A1: The Great North Road’ style project. It is however a well thought out project in it’s own right and as an archive of a time period is very interesting. I have archived all the posts in the lists below.
There is an audio slideshow created by Phil Coomes and Paula Dear that sums up the weeks travel, hearing direct from the public who have spoken to Coomes adds some weight to the piece and makes me wonder what Graham’s subjects would have spoken about, given the opportunity.
Readers from England might well know about the A1 road depicted in this months book (Paul Graham’s ‘A1: The Great North Road’), but for those who don’t, here is just a little information on the road to help with you reading of the book.
The route was originally used by coaches from the 17th Century (aprox) who were traveling between London, York and on to Edinburgh, Scotland. Since it’s birth it has been constantly changing route. Due to the nature of the transportation and that both horses and workers were in regular need of water, food and sleep, the early route passed through many more small towns than it’s modern day counterpart.
With the wonders of technology we can see exactly where the new ‘Great North Road’ travels, and despite it’s bypassing a great deal of towns, it is still perhaps the most interesting road to travel in the UK, not just for it’s size but for it’s uncompromising straight line through wildly disparate towns and regions.
In the 19th Century the route took around 45 hours by coach, today only 7
The most important information regarding the road, at least for the reading of the book is the text accompanying the book itself as it gives a few clues as to what Graham was looking out for on his trips.
From the blurb on the back cover:
The A1 was the first major road to run the entire length of England, linking the ‘two nations’ of North and South. Conceived as the central artery of the 1930’s trunk road system, the A1 travels from the Bank of England, in the very centre of London, up through the industrial midlands, North East England and the East coast of Scotland, to finish in Princess Street, Edinburgh. The 400 mile route was the busiest road in the country and quickly became known as the ‘Great North Road’, a title it aptly deserved until the late 1950’s, when it was usurped by the fast and efficient motorway system, which left the A1 in a state of atrophy, underused and decaying.
Seeing as this books isn’t easy to come by, I have made a quick video found here. My apologies for the book’s condition but thanks to CU Photography’s library as I don’t have a copy myself. Let’s just say it is good to see a book has been so loved!
(This video is intended to give a feel for the layout, design and sequencing of the book, for a selection of high quality images from this book, head over to Paul Graham’s website)
From the publisher:
Photographer Paul Graham spent two years completing this documentary on the life and landscape of the Great North Road. Throughout 1981 and 1982 he made numerous trips along the A1, crossing and recrossing the length of the nation to record every aspect of life at the verge of this great road. The photographs reproduced in this book build not only into a significant documentary of the A1, but also provide a thread along which we can travel the Great North Road, deep into the nation’s heart, and weave a picture of England in the 1980s.
From the publisher: Photographer Paul Graham spent two years completing this documentary on the life and landscape of the Great North Road. Throughout 1981 and 1982 he made numerous trips along the A1, crossing and recrossing the length of the nation to record every aspect of life at the verge of this great road. The photographs reproduced in this book build not only into a significant documentary of the A1, but also provide a thread along which we can travel the Great North Road, deep into the nation’s heart, and weave a picture of England in the 1980s.
What with the London 2012 Olympics just around the corner, I’ve been feeling patriotic and noticed that so far, we have yet to look at a British photobook, and so the next two months will do just that.