Photographer Paul Graham and the Great North Road

Originally published in 1983, Graham’s first photography book A1: The Great North Road is being republished by Mack. Here he reflects on the project nearly 40 years later

In 1981, aged 25, photographer Paul Graham started his first serious project. The concept was to travel up and down the A1, the 410-mile road that stretches the length of the UK from London to Edinburgh, and capture the people and places he came across. “I was a young ambitious young photographer, who had a great passion for the medium,” Graham tells CR. “I was looking for a way to reflect my love of the medium, to give me an open canvas to do portraits, landscapes, still lifes, buildings, sunsets, and rainy days. It was an excuse to travel across Britain.”

The resulting series, A1: The Great North Road became a photobook Graham self-published in 1983. Though photography as a scene was thriving at the time in Britain, the monographic photobook was rare, and there were no dedicated publishers or distributors. Also significant was the fact that Graham printed his book in colour, with the A1 project kicking off the ‘New Colour’ photography movement in the UK.

Capturing roadside British life in rich, vivid colour, Graham’s photobook influenced British social documentary photography by paving the way for a new generation of photographers to experiment with colour film. Now, 40 years later, Mack is republishing Graham’s book – here the photographer talks about the process of self-publishing, the reaction to the series, and his thoughts about it all now.

Cafe Assistants, Compass Cafe Colsterworth, Lincolnshire, November 1982. All images from A1: The Great North Road, Paul Graham. Courtesy the artist and Mack

For two years, Graham borrowed his then-girlfriend’s grandmother’s Morris Mini Traveller, and every few months or so he drove up and down the road taking pictures as he went. “There was very little research, you couldn’t really do research, so I would just leave it to chance,” says Graham. “Often I’d be in a café and I’d ask someone in there if I could take a photograph of them and usually people were very helpful. They would say yes, and then I’d say ‘I’ll be back in a minute’. I’d go out to my car and come back with this massive case with a giant, old, wooden, large format camera that I was using, you know, the 4×5, 5×4 and 8×10 cameras. People were not expecting that. But then, equally, that’s a fairly endearing, old-fashioned thing, and once they got over that shock, I think people liked you using cameras like that.”