Paul Graham, Whitechapel Gallery, London

The first book by the English photographer Paul Graham, A1: The Great North Road (1983), dates from the early years of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. For its inspiration, Graham made a road trip and recorded what he saw. It became a photographic parallel to the great literary journeys to discover Britain, made by J.B. Priestley and George Orwell and ultimately Celia Fiennes.

A1 owed something to socially motivated photography like that of Mass Observation, the “anthropology of ourselves”, as its founders called it in 1937. But it was vitally different in that it was made in colour. In 1983, to be a “serious” photographer in the UK still really meant black and white. Graham had thought deeply about American models, notably Robert Frank (originally Swiss, but working in America), William Eggleston and Stephen Shore. From the outset, Graham’s peculiar mixture included considerable scholarship as well as radical choices of expression.

Over the years, Graham has moved from overtly political enquiries – dole queues, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Schengen Agreement – to more allusive series on such things as growing to adulthood or being Japanese. Recently, in the US where he now lives, he has gone back to a plain examination of social inequality.

His style has shifted from book to book. There was something of an outcry lately when he published in American Night pictures deliberately over-exposed to the limits of the legible. Some years before, he had made large colour-wash studies of teenagers that looked cross-processed (that is, the colour looked “wrong”). One more recent work – A Shimmer of Possibility – is in little legato groups, deliberately avoiding the traditional obligation to give precedence to one moment over all the others.

He can work in big broad panoramic studies or close-to, with people or without them, indoors or outside. Yet this retrospective gives a very clear sense that his concerns have not really wavered.

The Whitechapel show is welcome, although this London version (the show comes from the Folkwang Museum in Essen, Germany) will be slightly hard to follow for anyone who doesn’t already know the work. Sections are small, sometimes no more than six or seven photographs.

The exhibition is ordered around Graham’s book publications. He has never worked in a sustained way as a commercial photographer, having run a coherent artistic practice through his career. His path has been mapped out in a series of successively radical books, and his publishers have been both his outlet and his patrons.

He has been lucky in his publishers. A Shimmer of Possibility was published by Steidl in 12 beautiful fascicles in a slip-case, a huge outlay for a book that was printed in a run of only 1,000 copies. Photo books have increasingly become the medium in which all photographers define themselves, but Graham was ahead of the curve. Never interested in mass communication, he has always seemed happy with the restricted circulation of the book and limited-edition print.

This way of committing to book projects has held Graham away from the swirling eddies of the immediate, without preventing him from being topical. One of his great skills is in sequencing his books with real art. To move through his pages is to be carefully led from thought to thought.

He still wrestles with labels. Twice during his press tour of this exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, he disavowed “documentary”. “I go out and try to find answers to the question ‘How is the world?’,” he said. Graham is not interested in directing the action that he wishes to record. He is patently an artist, and nobody is flummoxed by the idea of a photographic artist any more.

Graham has made portraits since his early days, and A1 is full of excellent examples. As this show reminds us, he has made excellent landscapes, too. He’s happy looking at details when that fits. A disgusting but unmistakably telling image, for example, steers viewers towards the difficult transitions in history by showing in clarity the globs of contemptuous phlegm spat on to the grave of General Franco.

A much less well-known series is a group of cloud studies, very classical in manner, after Constable or Stieglitz. They look like the meditations on light Richard Misrach made from his terrace overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. Graham’s eight pictures were all made in three days over Easter 1994 during the first ceasefire in Northern Ireland, and to get them Graham went to notorious hotspots – places such as Cavan, Derry and Andersonstown – and pointed his camera at the skies above. The Irish skies, in contrast to Misrach’s Californian airs, all look ready to burst, as we might expect.

One of Graham’s early books, Troubled Land, was subtitled “The Social Landscape of Northern Ireland”, and the notion of a “social landscape” is one that he has never left. He has constantly worried away at how people fit together, and how they don’t. That same book contained broad physical landscapes in which only awkward small details spoke directly of the political situation in which they were made. Graham has never lost that, either. It is an unfailing delight in going from the particular to the general. Those Irish skies are a long way from traditional documentary, but still tell big truths.

Until June 19

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.