Graham MacIndoe: Coming Clean is an exhibition capturing in 25 personal photographs at The National Portrait Gallery in Queen Street, the six year period of addiction spent by this highly successful Scottish photographer at the peak of his commercial career. During this period, this New York based photographer found himself spiralling downwards in a growing addiction to heroin and crack cocaine resulting in his arrest by the police for drugs possession, that resulted in a four month prison stretch in New York’s notorious Riker’s Island prison, and his eventual road out of his addiction due to being placed on an innovative drug rehabilitation programme by a “compassionate judge”.
These photographs are not displayed by Graham as either a celebration of his addiction or a warning to others about the perils of drugs and addiction. Instead they are simply the result of someone choosing to record for posterity their life and later having the courage not only to re-visit the dark days of his addiction through these photographs, but to share that period in his life with the public. The photographs on display are only part of those chosen for this exhibition; some are still too personal for sharing with the public.
Normally, any review of an exhibition is a commentary on the works displayed, but here things are different, and the real story of this exhibition is a human one, and Graham MacIndoe (born 1963) is the story and without trying to understand the man in the photographs a little more, this exhibition could easily just become “more photographs” on another gallery wall. There is a short audio and visual presentation by Graham in the corner of this exhibition...try not to overlook it, put the headphones on and listen and watch. Against the opening chords of The Velvet Underground’s classic “Heroin” track, we get a short, but very illuminating commentary of this period in Graham’s life and the photographs on display.
I was lucky enough to catch up with Graham at the press view for this exhibition and ask a few more questions about some things, and the answers were illuminating. Like so many people who have travelled down this road, his initial drug of choice was alcohol before moving onto other addictive substances, and at the start, everything was to a background of socialising in an easy going atmosphere. At some indefinable point however, things changed, the social aspects stopped, friends and family who were concerned and often damaged as a result of Graham’s growing addiction drifted away into the background leaving only two things...a man and his addiction.
Somehow though throughout this spiralling downwards period the instincts of a photographer and how to compose an interesting photograph never left Graham and he decided to record his life at that moment. Part of this decision was based on his choice to record the life of an addict from a personal view with the permission of the subject (himself). To Graham, too many records by photographers had been done over the years by photographers simply parachuting into a lifestyle for a little while – a very voyeuristic view of things. Also added into this the potential abuse of the sitters who even if they gave approval, were giving approval under the influence of their addiction, and that may be an entirely different thing from actually saying “yes” to any photographer.
These photographs started by being taken with a simple small digital camera set to take photographs at timed intervals. As the recording of his journey went on, the cameras and the photographs both increased in sophistication. The results are this exhibition and a book written with his partner Susan Stellin called “Chancers: Addiction, Prison, Recovery, Love: One Couple’s Memoir”. The book was published by Random House in June 2016. Susan Stellin has been a large part of Graham’s recovery from his addiction with her support, and Graham has been clean for over seven years now, and his professional career is also prospering again.
This exhibition makes no judgements on others, offers no explanations or even excuses, no answers to anyone visiting the exhibition. This is simply a record of his own personal journey into darkness and back out again into the light, and any people who required any personal word will have been given them far away from the at times intrusive lens of a camera.
Further information on NGS website at https://www.nationalgalleries.org/
Review by Tom King