Does Yellow Run Forever?
I’ll say it straight away, as photographers go Paul Graham ranks high in my estimations. Looking back across the span of his career in advance of writing this review acted as a reminder for me that few photographers have exhibited his diversity of subject matter, his willingness to experiment, or his knack for the manipulation and application of the unique attributes of photography and the book format. This reputation means that on the one hand I’m pretty prepared to gobble up anything new he puts out, but it also means the bar has been set pretty high, and his new work has much to live up to.
Graham’s latest book is Does Yellow Run Forever? a small volume which consists of just three types of photographs. The first photograph shows a young black woman asleep in a series of bare walled rooms, an image which is then followed by three photographs of rainbows in the west of Ireland. This pattern repeats again, then in the middle of the book a new feature is injected, three photographs of gold merchants and pawn shops in American cities. This pattern repeats once more, and then returns to the original pattern of sleeper and rainbows through to the end of the book. The final photograph shows a rainbow disappearing into the ground, the location of the proverbial pot of gold.
And that’s it, there’s no text apart from the title and a small amount of publishing information at the back. At first glance it’s disarmingly simple, even slightly disappointingly so. But then Graham’s best projects have always had this first glance simplicity about them, which on repeated inspection gives way to more and more discoveries. It’s true here as well, even if the discoveries definitely don’t feel as revelatory as in some of his previous works (and given the small size of the plates one has to hunt rather harder in the images to find them). Graham’s intended meaning is also rather harder to identify than in his previous works, perhaps partly because the total absence of text leaves our interpretations to hinge so heavily on the photographs. Thats fine with the rainbows and gold merchants which are fairly self-explanatory, but it took finding out that the sleeping woman is Graham’s partner for the book to suddenly make a whole lot more sense as a meditation on the things that keep us all running on the treadmill of life. The inexpressible loves, the awe inspiring beauties, and the fickle pots of gold.
I wouldn’t normally mention the production quality of a book except in passing, but here it deserves a little more attention. Does Yellow Run Forever? has been very consciously constructed, with its gold coloured felt like cover and debossed lettering, gold marbled end papers (reminiscent of the almost abstract photographs of clouds in Graham’s 1994 project Ceasefire) and gold edging on the pages themselves. The combination of these three elements leaves the book hovering (rather like real gold) between opulence and tackiness, with only its diminutive size and the restraint of the photography helping it to avoid plunging into the latter. That said given gold isn’t the only topic at work here it’s questionable whether the design gives the viewer certain pre-expectations about the book’s subject that perhaps colours the way they subsequently interpret the photographs. Certainly for me there was an element of that.
Does Yellow Run Forever? is undeniably slight compared to some of Graham’s previous epic works like Troubled Land or New Europe, or the ambitious multi-volume Shimmer of Possibility. It’s also I think in some ways one of Graham’s least accessible works, which is a pity because part of why I’ve always admired his photography is his knack for making difficult topics and ideas relatively accessible but without being simplistic. That said it’s also a nice little volume, which rewards repeated contact. I don’t think it’s up to his usual standard, but at the stage Graham is at in his career I can forgive him a little abtruse indulgence.
Does Yellow Run Forever? is published by MACK.