Nigel Shafran and Charlotte Cotton interview  [2004 ]

Charlotte Cotton The photographs in this book cover the last twelve years of your work. What was that process of reviewing your photographs like for you?

Nigel Shafran Instinctively I thought that was the work I should put in. Some of the earliest work is from the series RuthBook,which I self-published in 1995. It wasn’t a particularly thought-out process, but before this series 1 think my work was more mixed-up, more often in the commercial context, and RuthBook was definitely how I wanted the work to be seen. I have to say, though, that I don’t really plan things. I’m not forward thinking and you can probably connect that to the work I do, it’s not idea-driven in that way. I might have an idea and begin to think about whether and how it would work in a photograph, but invariably if it’s too much of an idea I won’t pursue it. It is more likely that I’ll find subjects that give me a feeling of inspiration, and that’s how a project will begin.

CC I was wondering about this with the Washing-up 2000 series because it is such a simple subject, almost too simple. I wondered if the series is an example of where it wasn’t a concept when you started but a close-by subject that developed into something

NS It’s a very close-by subject and a lot of my work and the subjects I choose are because of this. It’s what I know.

CC These are photographs of things that only you saw and inpart that means that these inanimate objects read like a diary of the events of your life – of what you eat, who you meet, what these places look like.

NS Sometimes I see old photographs and what’s interesting to me are the things on the edges that are not meant to be there -the soap packet, the bit of litter, the things that we can relate to and hold that everydayness. I like it when something has been photographed in a simple way.

CC I’m very suspicious of the idea of ‘non-subjects’ in photography, I don’t think there are such things. As in the case ofWashing-up 2000, there are subjects that are not very obviously subjects until they are photographed, regardless of whether that was the intention of the photographer or not. There is a feeling that the significance of our lives is implanted in these subtle and everyday occurrences. RulhBook has that same feeling, that you build ideas about this life and the story that is being told.

NS When I put RuthBook together, I looked at how people reacted to the sequence. I wanted the book sequence to work like an emotional wave. That’s also the case with my later book Dad’s Office, which is more melancholic. I wanted it left quite open in that the subject is my father’s furniture and bits and pieces in his office and I didn’t want to entirely spell out what it meant to me, but to leave it ambiguous. That’s what I do. It really is, that’s probably the most important thing to say about my work – it’s just what I do.

CC This description of how you work raises a question for me about how you know when a series or body of work is completed. There’s a sense of you not wanting to overly prescribe or pre-conceive what your photographs will be. Does this make the completing of a project a fraught or difficult process?

NS I understand what you are saying, but when I take a photograph I try to have faith in how things are. I remember with Dad’s Officebeing a bit upset at first when my dad finally got the ceiling fixed in his office and had to move all his stuff into the kitchen to make way for the building work, but I moved the series with him. It’s when I stop feeling inspired by a subject that I lose my energy to carry on. If I have a mental picture of what I want it is never really open-ended enough for me. If you just let go a bit and accept how things are, the possibilities become completely infinite. There’s a quote that I have probably got wrong that says, ‘to concern yourself with art, the subject is lost. To concern yourself with the subject, the art is found’.

CC I think that’s very evident in your charity shop and car boot sale pictures, is that what you mean?

NS Yes. I remember how that work started, there was a charity shop near my darkroom and it was one of those times when I felt very inspired by my surroundings. There was so much potential history in all that stuff. It’s the only kind of shop where the goods chose the shop rather than the shop choosing the goods. There’s a visual connection with the car boot sale pictures as well – all the packaging that makes it a photograph that you can date, has a place in history. I find it really interesting with the security that we invest in the things we buy, me included, and the love that the stall-owners take in displaying their goods. I find it admirable as well as visually intriguing. What attracts me is difficult to put into words, but I know when I find it effective. When the photograph works, it’s where I’ve communicated the subject and it’s like I am a conduit for it.

CC On a basic level, there’s a lot of finding objects stacked and displayed in your photographs; other people’s ordering of things. There’s a lot of sculptural forms made up of domestic things

NS I’m very conscious of it. Ruth does it in the places we’ve lived. How people place things can be telling of how and what we are. I enjoy this because there’s not necessarily a great deal of conscious thought in the way of these actions. It’s all around us. I think they can be expressions of everything that’s us; how we’ve been brought up, taught or learnt determines how we do things from cutting a loaf of bread to painting a wall. I think that my strength is in this and if I start questioning it or thinking too much about it, then it’s difficult for me to find my way back to what inspired me.

CC A good photographer has to be a rigorous editor and that’s something that I associate with you; indeed the title of this book is ‘edited photographs’. What’s the editing process like for you?

NS Again, it’s quite instinctive. There’s also the retrospective editing with the benefit of time where photographs re-surface that I’ve initially overlooked. The process of selecting photographs for this book felt natural and hopefully the work is quite giving, not really about individual photographs. It’s more about the feeling that runs throughout the book. If I had to think too much about a photograph being in the book, then it didn’t go in. It’s not an intellectual process for me when it comes to the work that I do. It hopefully maintains the acceptance of how things are that I think is in the work itself.

CC Because your subjects are so familiar to us, they give over an invitation for a sensitised and poetic experience of the everyday and what is around us. That’s what I take from your photographs.

NS I think that the photographs I make are connected to the magic of photography to transcend time. It’s like a time-tunnel -some nineteenth-century photographs take you back to a something that you know is past but has been kept alive, and has an energy. It’s a connection between then and now. When I’m inspired to photograph something, that’s what I try to respond to. I try to be open to seeing in this way. It’s about keeping something alive, in a sense. Maybe it’s not a very modern way of thinking, but I think that’s a very lovely thing.