© Paul Graham, Empty Heaven cover


“The West is overly concerned with ‘unwrapping,’ with revealing the essence of things. We should rather look at the method of concealment …”

Joy Hendry, Wrapping Culture


© Paul Graham, Atomic Cloud Photograph Hiroshima


Paul Graham’s work can hardly be connected by a single theme, moving from the political unrest in Northern Ireland with Troubled Land, to the transition from youth to adulthood in End of An Age. Graham’s work is somewhat elusive, often using the conventions of documentary to explore the hidden reality beyond the visible surface. Throughout his projects he attempts to establish an alternative iconography, to explore what is normally ignored or merely treated as fact by others who attempt to portray the same subjects. This approach is never more apparent than in Empty Heaven. Empty Heaven, a sparse monograph published in 1995 by Scalo, investigates the construction of a post-war Japanese sugar-pop capitalist identity as a way of covering up the atrocities perpetuated and suffered by the Japanese people during World War II.


© Paul Graham, Cat Calender, Tokyo


In Empty Heaven, Graham employs a series of close cropped deadpan photos of objects, re-photographed images, portraits and scanned surfaces, to establish a series of clearly defined motifs. Graham uses the polemic of cultural wrapping, to investigate the masking of history and power in contemporary Japanese society. The motifs are established quickly in the first five photographs of the book. The opening image is an innocuous looking mid-range portrait, of a young Japanese woman touching the tip of her nose. This is followed by several double page spreads, the first of a car engine, the second a pink polka-dotted surface, however it’s only with the next image that the book begins to take shape and give meaning to the pictures which proceed it. This photograph is of four re-photographed images of an atomic blast, which hang on a blank white wall, below it a placard reads “Atomic Cloud seen from Kasumicho” – with this Graham raises the specter of the atomic blast for the first time. Before the image of the atomic blast, Graham has inserted a scanned image of a bright pink polka dotted candy wrapper. With this simple juxtaposition Graham asserts his main contention, that Japan has guised its abhorrent past with a present that embraces the immediacy and easiness of consumerist culture. This theme is continued throughout the piece. Graham discusses the pairing of these two images as a way to examine “the wrapping of older memories and the masking and unmasking of power.” Although when broken down, the images’ relationships to one another seem somewhat simple and predictable, the book holds a more mysteries intrigue.


© Paul Graham, Toyota Engine, Tokyo


The history of post-war Japan is a complicated one, but a simple retelling of the complications involved are paramount to understanding the thrust of Graham’s contentions. Hirohito, Japan’s emperor during World War II, was the only axis power who was allowed to remain in control following the end of armed conflict. This is a curious point considering the atrocities Japan, under the leadership of Hirohito, carried out during the course of the war. Although it was clear at the time that Hirohito had a direct involvement in the propagation of the war and even oversight of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he was allowed to remain in power. It is speculated that General MacArthur the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Japan and the Allied Governments orchestrated this. At that historical moment it was seen as a political imperative to stabilize Japan as a bulwark against the communist surge, which was sweeping across China and biting at the heels of the Korean Peninsula. General MacArthur and his top deputies fabricated a narrative, with the help of the Japanese High Court, that Hirohito was not culpable for prosecuting the war. According to John Dower, "This successful campaign to absolve the Emperor of war responsibility knew no bounds. Hirohito was not merely presented as being innocent of any formal acts that might make him culpable to indictment as a war criminal, he was turned into an almost saintly figure who did not even bear moral responsibility for the war." The political imperatives of the Allied forces to stop the spread of Communism lead to propping up Hirohito in order to stabilize the Japanese political system. However, this move required General MacArthur to protect Hirohito from war crime prosecutions, often placing and prosecuting men who had little to no involvement in the crimes. This orchestrated campaign to protect the emperor, required a complete alternative war history to be written. Again John Dower contends "months before the Tokyo tribunal commenced, MacArthur's highest subordinates were working to attribute ultimate responsibility for Pearl Harbor to Hideki Tojo" by allowing "the major criminal suspects to coordinate their stories so that the Emperor would be spared from indictment” . This coordinated campaign set the stage for a national forgetting. Although it is reductive, this complex political history and its cultural aftermath is what Graham is mining in Empty Heaven.


© Paul Graham, Printed Pink #1


In the accompanying interview Graham recollects his first trip to Japan, where he saw a photograph of Hirohito, Japan’s emperor during and after the war. He was waving to the crowd and on his wrist he wore a Mickey Mouse watch, it seemed to Graham that “this man who was a central figure, axiomatic to Japan’s incredible, at times unbearable past, seemed to have retreated from the world into a second childhood, with his happy watch”. With this image Graham wanted to explore Japan’s ‘willful dream’, its embrace of a candy coated national identity as a way to forget its past.


© Paul Graham, Candy Wrapper, Tokyo + Kimono Pattern Flash Burn Photograph, Hiroshima

Graham establishes diptychs throughout the book, often displaying a bright colored image of a candy wrapper, or product packaging against a close cropped obscure image - whose purpose is not fully revealed at first glance. The diptychs are only put in full reveal by the titles, which Graham has buried in the back of the book. The first image he uses the technique with is of an anime looking drawing. The image is one of a girl, holding a sparkling wand against a pink background, which is speckled with multi-colored hearts. This image is played against a drab looking monochromatic re-photograph of what looks vaguely like a shoulder. The titles for these images are Candy Wrapper, Tokyo and Kimono Pattern Flash Burn Photograph, Hiroshima. This diptych more than any of the others play out Graham’s notion of historical wrapping. With this juxtaposition, Graham has determinedly wrapped the visible horrors and scars, of WWII and obscured them with the garish detritus of consumer production. Just as Graham describes Hirohito as retreating into a willful dream, a fantasy of childlike innocence - Graham contends with these images - that Japan has done the same. Japanese culture has vanished into a brightly colored fantasy to forget the scars of the past and ecstatically move into the future.

© Paul Graham, Naoko, Tokyo


On one hand, I’m not entirely sure what looking at the minutiae of a book like this accomplishes, yet in Empty Heaven Graham has seemed to obscure his topic so completely and made such complicated jumps that he has rendered his point almost invisible. Empty Heaven’s message is far too important, its approach far to harrowed, and its images quite too beautiful, to be looked at as simply another of Graham’s books. With Empty Heaven Graham is able to distill down over 50 years of complicated social and political history into a sparse 55 image book. This accomplishment makes me endlessly envious. I can’t contend that I’ve fully parsed the intricacy of this book. But, hopefully upon reading this you’ll make a closer reading and find what’s so visible yet so hidden from view.


T.J. Proechel