Nigel Shafran has a perceptive eye for places and moments that are so familiar or unremarkable that their beauty often gets overlooked. He is not drawn to anything conventionally spectacular. He will not reinforce a polished and presentable corporate vision. But you can trust him to show you something lyrical, significant and revealing about places and people you think you know. Though his pictures are of the moment, and in the moment, half of his awareness is already concerned with posterity. As a result, his photographs are filled with acceptance, tenderness, gentle humour, and a little dose of melancholy.
Shafran was commissioned in 2012 by the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) to make photographs for its annual review. He made images in the public galleries but was also given free access to backstage areas, places often in the process of transition or refurbishment. He spent months familiarizing himself with the location, and made many more images than were required for, or would even fit into, the annual review. In the short time since the photographs were made, some of the locations have remained comfortingly recognizable but others have now been transformed into new galleries, offices or stores. Many of the ‘outtakes’ were just too good not to be seen. And so, a selection of prints was acquired for the Museum’s permanent collection and others are reproduced here.
I like the fact that Shafran approached one of the world’s greatest museums with the same democracy of vision that he has applied in previous projects to stacks of washing up in his home, or to the contents of his father’s garage. His photographs are quietly attentive, seeking out the evocative spaces between the obvious and the illustrative. He is attuned to the subtleties of light, and attracted to the details of the everyday: assemblages of objects seen as ready-made still life compositions or unintentional sculptures, and reflective moments of human interaction. Here, we see staff paused at work, preparatory areas of exhibition installation, behind-the-scenes services and the varied demographic of visitors pausing in their journeys through the labyrinthine galleries. There are honest and recognizable moments: a tray of used crockery on an empty table in the café, or groups of teenagers on an educational visit. Shafran’s photographs offer a glimpse into the many roles adopted by the museum and provide a candid representation of museum life. He has distilled an intuitive narrative through careful sequencing, interpreting through his own distinctive vision the spaces and people that make up the V&A.
When it opened in the 1850s, the Museum’s first director, Henry Cole stated: ‘This museum will be like a book that is open and not shut’. Shafran’s photographs evoke this sentiment. They are an invitation to delve in and an example of how the museum has continued to act as a source of creative inspiration.
Senior Curator, Photographs
Victoria and Albert Museum, London