Sometimes, perhaps on a sunny morning, the light falls on an object, or a room, or a person in a way that momentarily reveals its unexpected beauty – unexpected in that it might be a simple thing like a cup, or a tree, or a pile of books. That moment of revelation lifts the spirits as we take pleasure from the arrangement of ordinary things. Photographs, however, despite their inherent ability to isolate and elevate, often fail to provide this spontaneous feeling of discovery and pleasure, overburdened by the photographer’s need to make an important picture-statement rather than let the picture speak for itself.
Since the 1980s, reality has been a subject of concern among photographers. Staged photography and the widespread use of digitisation have meant that what was once assumed to be real is now always in question. Even the snapshot, the last repository of spontaneous emotion in photography, has been co-opted by the art world and interrogated as to its theoretical significance.
Navigating these times, certain photographers have maintained a more direct approach. Nigel Shafran is a young British photographer who made his living during the 1990s by working for fashion and architecture magazines while quietly collecting, editing and sequencing photographs he made for himself, including portraits of his partner, Ruth, the places that they lived and the locations he walked or cycled through. Periodically he would put some of these pictures together in a homemade book.
An early one contained pictures of urban trees. They were the sort of desperate trees you see everywhere in London: struggling saplings in pavement beds, old planes pollarded within an inch of their lives, posh shrubs intended to soften the hard lines of a new building, once-majestic trees that had been built around, built over, dug up and dumped in skips. Shafran’s photographs said a lot about the impoverishment of urban spaces and the decline of our more natural, generous instincts, as we inhabit them.
In 1993 Shafran made a calendar for 1994. It had a photograph for each month: some of the urban trees were in there, as was a portrait of Ruth. She is sitting in a bedroom that is being redecorated. There is a stepladder, a mug of tea, a black bin-liner filled with rubbish, a stripped bed and stripped walls with patches of old wallpaper showing through. She is in dungarees and a sweatshirt, at right angles to the camera, looking calmly, if slightly sceptically, into the lens. It is a portrait of domestic chaos made meaningful by being part of the process of building a home with someone you love.
In 1994, at an exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in north London, Shafran exhibited a different portrait of Ruth. She is standing in the bedroom, bleary-eyed, wearing a blue towelling dressing gown and a man’s tweed slippers. There is a swirling patterned carpet on the floor and what looks like a packet of contraceptive pills in her hand. Her expression is solemn, but not in the frozen way that suggests a pose. She looks as if she’s on her way to the bathroom and has been asked to stand there for a moment for the picture. A year later Shafran compiled 14 of his photographs of Ruth in a small soft-cover book and published it himself. He called it Ruthbook. Three years later he published another book, Dad’s Office, a set of rather bleak photographs taken between 1996 and 1998, of the contents of the abandoned rooms from which his father had once worked.
After that there were other sets of pictures: one concentrated on the random arrangements of washing-up piled up on the draining board at home; another was a series of interiors of charity shops – “the only kind of shop where the goods choose the shop rather than the shop choosing the goods,” as he said in an interview with the curator Charlotte Cotton. He was drawn to collections of things: stacked, boxed, labelled, piled-up: “How [we] place things can be telling of how and what we are,” he said. In 2004 a monograph of his work was published as part of a joint initiative between the Brighton-based organisation Photoworks and the international publishers Steidl. It contained edited sequences of many of his past series and included a new set of pictures called Ruth on the phone (1995–26 January 2004); the final date marked the birth of their son, Lev.
This year Shafran has produced another small book, in its way a sequel to Ruthbook, though the two are not interdependent, called Flowers For______. It contains pictures made over the past four years, during which the family’s home life has been reordered by Lev’s arrival. These are not modest pictures, in the sense that they are neither naive nor accidental. What prevents them from being over-romantic, or just too personal, comes from the tension between the scenes of disarray within the pictures and the formal control involved in making and sequencing them. They include small domestic landscapes, still lifes and portraits. We are asked to study the detritus involved in bringing up a small child: piles of washing; stacks of disposable nappies; the familiar collection of cookbooks, mugs, plants, radio, bike helmet and ladder that constitutes a suburban kitchen; the mess left by a two-year-old’s dinner. We follow the concurrent development of Lev, the extension to their house and their maturing garden. The portraits of Ruth seem to have deepened emotionally.
In 33 pictures a complete world is described, and yet each picture makes a complete artistic statement in itself. This is emphasised by the different picture formats, by the small gatefold sequence of flower pictures that opens the book, in the small design details that point up its construction. These are not photographs that have been subject to some kind of “artistic” manipulation; they speak of the pleasure of looking at the rituals of daily life. “When I take a photograph I try to have faith in how things are,” Shafran explains. The subtext of his book is the exhaustion of being a parent, and the joy of it.
This article was first published on guardian.co.uk on Thursday 23 October 2008
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