The photographer Nigel Shafran lives in a small Victorian house that forms part of a short terrace tucked away from the main thoroughfare of London’s Harrow Road. Nearby is the majestic and melancholy Kensal Green Cemetery, a place where, if wandering through its seventy-two acres, one might come across the graves of the mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage and the great engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, whose funeral at the cemetery in 1859 was attended by several thousand railway workers who had come to pay their respects. Beneath Shafran’s house, so close that its structure can be felt to vibrate in tune to the sounds and movements below, are the deep wells and tunnels of London’s underground rail system, through which trains speed to and from Birmingham and those of the Bakerloo Line lumber and rattle, day and night. And a little further away, from across the cemetery’s gravestones and monuments, the echo of Brunel’s Great Western Railway moans in harmony.
Built in 1864, the house still seems very tangibly bound in this way to the vast machine of the city and its historic transformations: part of its industrial heritage, its architectural narrative, its commerce, its patterns of work and the constant, heaving motion of its population. It is the pressing weight of these conditions that frames the more delicate operations of the private world inside the house, which have, over the last fourteen years or so, been the principal subject of Shafran’s art, where the striving to create a singular life, a sense of uniqueness, some order from potential chaos, has been an underlying theme.
In a previous essay on Shafran’s work, I drew on American author Jonathan Franzen’s words to pinpoint this ‘problem of preserving individuality and complexity in a noisy and distracting mass culture’. But that analogy, with its emphasis on resistance to an encroaching media, now seems to me too narrow a way of providing a context for Shafran’s photographs and the questions of identity and domestic, everyday life they grapple with. The coexistence of the worlds of outside and inside, so palpable in the photographer’s house, implies something larger and more multi-dimensional; it is the symbol of a spatial, emotional and ideological tension that envelops the individual, and the family, in the breathing, physical city as well as in the corporate, late-capitalist system that largely defines the city’s contemporary character.
In his essay, Popular Science, another London artist, Patrick Keiller, dwells on similar ideas spanning the political landscape and built environment of the city in the 1980s and 90s. ‘Capitalism’, Keiller says, ‘destroys and creates places, but the places it creates seem always, at least to begin with, less substantial, less rich, than the places it destroys.’ We seem powerless as individuals to affect this gradual erosion of substance, which for Keiller includes the replacement of industrial landscapes with those of distribution and retailing, or teeming ports with their relatively deserted modern equivalents. It is a phenomenon of physical ‘reduction’ that embodies an even deeper cultural loss; linked to the diminishing over time of a quality of life within which it might be possible to gauge what Raymond Williams once called the ‘structure of feeling’ of places and communities. But speculating on how we might oppose the impoverishment of our given surroundings, Keiller quotes Michel de Certeau from The Practice of Everyday Life, in a long passage that is worth repeating here:
‘The purpose of this work is to…. bring to light the models of action characteristic of users whose status as the dominated element in society (a status that does not mean they are either passive or docile) is concealed by the euphemistic term ‘consumers’.
…Increasingly constrained, yet less and less concerned with these vast networks, the individual detaches himself from them without being able to escape them and can henceforth only try to outwit them, to pull tricks on them, to rediscover, within an electronicised and computerised megalopolis, the ‘art’ of the hunters and rural folk of earlier days.
…Witold Gombrowicz, an acute visionary, gave this politics its hero… whose refrain is ‘When one does not have what one wants, one must want what one has’: ‘I have had, you see, to resort more and more to very small, almost invisible pleasures, little extras… You’ve no idea how great one becomes with these little details, it’s incredible how one grows.’
Despite the resigned irony of Gombrowicz’s refrain, it might be a suitable epigraph for Shafran’s work. His photographs since 1992 have given some prominence to these ‘little extras’, the small domestic details that have become more visible to us as his work has developed and been more widely published and exhibited: although pleasure is not always the feeling that emerges from their depiction.
Although his home resonates with its living, vibrating connections with the old, enduring fabric of London, Shafran has not sought to ‘poeticise’ his relationship with the city’s domestic ‘dilapidation’ that Keiller sees in such stark contrast to the public, corporate spaces of the ‘megalopolis’. Neither has Shafran systematically recorded a process of improvement, the ‘subjective transformation’ or even gentrification, of his own surroundings. Rather his pictures have quietly monitored a process of change slowly unfolding through the ‘world inside’; a psychological as well as physical change that is halting and at times awkward, yet bound by a certain conscious effort and purpose: to impose, to create some kind of independence, form and meaning in the everyday.
Richard Wentworth, an artist whose photographs of improvisational ‘found sculptures’ on the streets of London have some points of correspondence with Shafran’s, once said that his ideal photograph would be ‘an opinionated picture without human agency.’ What, among other things, distinguishes Wentworth’s ever-evolving series, Making Do and Getting By, is its very conscious lack of photographic sophistication; as Marina Warner neatly summarised: ‘Wentworth brings home the value of the disregarded – but without adding a layer of pomposity, without losing lightness, without spoiling the special quality of ordinariness.’ It is a position as a picture-maker that Shafran would recognise and generally endorse, and one that, as a much more committed ‘photographer’ than Wentworth has ever wanted to be, he is increasingly moving towards.
From his earliest photographs Shafran has been cautious about that ‘pomposity’, always attentive to the facts before him and keen to keep the channels of direct observation clear. But in his recent work these principles have become even more important. Now the forms of habitual domestic photography that Shafran has, like all of us, always engaged in, and the equally routine visual ‘note-taking’ that may have once harboured the germination of an idea, are more likely to be preserved intact, as the work itself. For Shafran this amounts to a growing recognition that the essence of his work resides in the particular details of the subject, in the idea that the subject embodies and in the motive for and the process of making the picture. It is not to be found in the unique, artful qualities of the resulting image.
Shafran’s is an art of remembering and pointing out; it is the work of an inveterate collector. But he is also a diarist; from personal thoughts duly noted and from everyday experiences and situations that demand to be recorded, series such as Ruth on the Phone open out to suggest more complex narratives. And importantly, through this process of noting and recording, he has also been able to release something of an equivocal attitude to the everyday and the slow process of domestic change he observes and is bound up in. The author of the photographs is simultaneously engaged and displaced we might think; through the camera he is able to withdraw, to be his own witness, and to discover that the most familiar, ordinary things and situations, if given due attention, if looked at again and again, are often revealed to be very strange and even unsettling. The balance is that this painstaking attention might also suggest a profound discovery amid the infinite capacity of ‘home’, an occasional sign and a confirmation that something extraordinary has fallen into place.
Dark Rooms is the second of Shafran’s publications to take stock of a period of working by gathering together a number of different projects, ideas, texts and images. Although the first, Edited Photographs 1992-2004, was largely a survey of previously published or exhibited work, in retrospect it is possible to understand that book as a unified narrative about the course of human relationships intertwined with the shaping of domestic space, one that sets that process of physical change and transformation – constructing, dismantling, painting, peeling, stacking, storing, recycling – against a more poignant reflection on how we leave our traces in the material things we accumulate, use and discard, and how in turn these time-weary things become reminders of our own mortality. It is a book that meanders over its singular bodies of work but it also has a sense of forward momentum, with a twelve-year timeline that runs from Shafran’s first pictures of his partner Ruth in 1992 to the birth of their son Lev in 2004. In contrast,Dark Rooms is not so consciously a survey or summary; most of the photographs and series included here have not been published before and in bringing them together for the first time Shafran has been able to think more about their collective identity and in the process to generate a very specific atmosphere.
We might begin to gauge the nature of that atmosphere by considering two oblique self-portraits that appear near the beginning and end of the book. In the first, Shafran’s shadowed, sombre expression is seen reflected in the dormant black screen of his desk computer. In the second we see only his hand, angled towards the camera so that the word ‘Dad’ can be clearly seen written on his skin; there to remind him to visit his father that day in hospital, where he died a few weeks later. This picture, reaches back through the other photographs in the book towards the first computer screen portrait, and in part gives a name to that earlier picture’s sense of desolate introspection. It also signals the fact that this book was made during a period in which Shafran’s father and mother both died, something that brings a particular resonance, in life and work, to that sense of taking stock.
And the sense of momentum, the progression through a period of time unconsciously chronicled in Edited Photographs, is not so apparent in Dark Rooms. Now the incremental process of change is largely hidden. This is partly because in this book the domestic scene becomes more of a backdrop, a space that weaves in and out of view between larger groups of pictures where Shafran has turned his attention inside out, away from the home and into the city. Here the familiar impression from his work of a largely incidental, spontaneous response to things and situations is replaced by a more sustained, repeated attention, from which we might imagine the photographer has been mesmerised by situations that bind human activity to forms of mechanical movement: the conveyor belts of supermarket checkouts, the down escalators of a tube station and the interiors of shops selling mobility and other equipment for the disabled. So, ambiguously, and strangely, in these series, movement is bound up with varying states of inertia and discomfort, a treadmill for the passive, stilled and encumbered body. The women pictured on the escalator are pivotal to this condition in the book: they often seem physically ill at ease, twisting awkwardly to adjust their clothing or appearing burdened by the things they carry, as if they are struggling to keep not just their balance and but their selves together. As if determined to ignore all this feverish disentangling, other women are transfixed, physically present but lost in thought, or preoccupied by their mobile phones as they make their descent. The sense of the city in these photographs and in the other two series, again winding back into the past, is of a machine that induces and processes a distracted and ageing population of workers and consumers. And in this, perhaps, there is something fatalistic, a downward pull of inevitability.
The first escalator was installed in a London Underground Station at Earls Court in 1911. Developed in the US from a model built as a novelty ride at Coney Island in 1895, escalators became integral to the design of modern railway stations and also to the concept of department stores, where, drawing customers upward, they encouraged the free flow of movement between floors and ensured that entire buildings could function like mechanical instruments for selling. As part of their multi-faceted modernity moving stairways also created cinematic experiences; the views they opened up across floors helped to dramatize the retail environment and invited the customers – entranced and gliding through space – to enter the compelling narrative of shopping. But escalators not only transformed the functioning and perception of space, they also helped to reshape cities. Just as skyscrapers were not feasible before the invention of a safe elevator by Elisha Otis in 1852 paved the way for vertical rather than horizontal expansion, so it is difficult to imagine the development of tube stations over the last hundred years without the escalator to complete the moving cycle of arriving and departing that animates the architecture of stations.
The symbolic connection between escalators and the continuous cycles of life and death – ceaselessly unfolding but apt to stall in the imagination, along the fault-lines of the unconscious – is given a fantastic and surreal staging in the form of a monumental moving stairway to ‘the other world’ in Powell and Pressburger’s 1946 film, A Matter of Life and Death. David Niven’s character Peter Carter is a World War II bomber pilot who, having been shot down, seems to exist in a state of limbo between living and dying. He is visited several times by an emissary from the other world whose appearances make time stand still, and for those moments Carter is able to anxiously inhabit his surroundings as if inside a three dimensional photograph: moving through space not time. Shafran sees a connection between the film and this book (his cover sketch is drawn from a poster for the film featuring the escalator rising from the earth), and the link provides an interesting context from which we might begin to understand the feeling of
suspended detachment in his supermarket, escalator and disability shop photographs. But, in between these series, the domestic scene also appears to have lapsed into that same state of limbo, or stasis. The threads of connection and construction that drew Edited Photographs towards its conclusion now hang languid and tangled, or lay disassembled, blending back into the everyday clutter. Fatigue hovers in the air. In two pictures Shafran finds Ruth having succumbed, lying asleep on the sofa; in another she is pictured ironing while Lev sits and reads behind her. A cloud of steam rising from the iron has partially obscured her face, which invests this unremarkable slice of life with an uncanny dreaminess as if the photographer, like Carter, were looking at an already arrested tableau, a suspended moment, outside time and beyond his reach.
We might pause here to think back to the self-portrait in the switched-off computer screen, that pensive stare into the black mirror. Computers, laptops, tablets and phones might be seen as the contemporary equivalents of the Claude Glass, the dark mirrors used by artists, tourists and poets in the 18th and early 19th centuries to enhance and pictorialize a view or landscape.
Like our computers and phones, the mirrors were often carried in leather cases, assuming the form of a ‘pocket-book’, and they varied in shape and size: some, measuring more than a foot in diameter, were designed to be set on easel-like stands. The reflection from one of our switched-off electronic devices produces a comparable effect to the image of the Claude Glass, characterised by a softening of line and harmonising of colour. And, as well as being coveted, fashionable accessories electronic devices have a similarly talismanic appeal, functioning as portals with the ability to convey us into a magical virtual space just as black mirrors, among their many occult associations, were seen as potential windows into other worlds, from the past and the future, with secret powers for communicating with the dead.
Shafran’s computer screen portrait suggests something of this arcane, mysterious association; but also, appearing as a break in the sequence of brightly lit, primary coloured, supermarket checkout photographs, the photograph is a brief withdrawal into a more restive space. Arnaud Maillet has indicated how, in fact and fiction, the black mirror has been linked to this protective and restorative function. For example, the mirrors allowed the clear and safe observation of solar eclipses, their reflected image in fact resembling the softened, shadowy light of an eclipse. And according the female protagonist in Truman Capote’s short story Music For Chameleons, Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh and Auguste Renoir, whose eyes were ‘stricken by sun’, used the dark glass to ‘refresh their vision’ and ‘renew their reaction to colour and tonal variations’. Bright light can threaten us with blindness; and for Maillet, paraphrasing Derrida, ‘The black mirror’ like the blinking of an eye, ‘thus ensures a breath for sight.’
While not exactly stinging the eyes, Shafran’s supermarket images are a harsh and discomforting beginning to this book. They completely ignore the cause for what might still be called ‘good’ photography, compositionally, aesthetically, and instead assert and reassert the plain, discordant facts of a common dependency: the relentless and banal conveyor belt of contemporary consumption. In his earlier series Washing Up 2000, Shafran documented a more benign version of this narrative, in photographs of neatly stacked cooking utensils and crockery used to prepare and eat the highly personalised meals described below the pictures in detailed captions – ‘6 February 2000: Bagels and marmite, falafel with Glancy, potato and leek soup, banana cream and maple syrup’.
If this diaristic series was partly a kind of playful domestic anthropology, it also represented a form of empowerment, celebrating the flow of random, idiosyncratic choices that enrich private rituals. In the supermarket, at the point of sale, the piles and ragged assortments of food and products suggest the opposite, a form of compliance; instead of generating energy, and that sense of purpose, of momentum, these pictures seem draining, introducing the feeling of fatigue that colours the entire book and reminding us of those lost hours wandering the overstocked aisles in a daze.
Back inside Shafran’s house images of receipts and bills also hint at these lost hours. They form mini paper mountains and landscapes whose contours and illegible markings constitute other personal histories of the recent past. They are minutely detailed records, raw data now ripe for interpretation by an accountant perhaps or by those social scientists of the everyday who might be drawn to such intricate maps of consumption. But in Shafran’s work the accumulated receipts, with all their possible meanings, also contribute to that general atmosphere of stasis. They are remnants imbued with time, evidence of the photographer’s attachment to a world of constant process, one that through the interminable clicking of the cashier’s till, from one purchase to another, moves mechanically, inexorably forward. Yet now, piled up and strewn on the floor, the receipts are regarded quizzically, as if they form a reflected image of the photographer (another self-portrait), whose distinguishing features he can’t quite reconcile.
If those all too familiar supermarket images invoke similar feelings for us, rekindling the moments when the act of shopping feels like an abdication of responsibility and intelligence, then recycling might be seen not just as a public duty but a form of personal redemption, with its own obsessive rituals and unforeseen pleasures. Recycling has also begun to impact on the character of domestic space. Our houses have become repositories for hoards of paper, bottles and packaging, all of which have a tendency to drift from place to place, appearing in minor collections here and there. Empty and discarded, we notice the objects in different ways: they present possibilities for re-use; an overlooked design quality might be revealed; they may even become subjects for contemplation. Such is the case with Shafran’s series of packaging still lives, in which various containers and bottles have migrated from their storage places to a table top in dim light just strong enough that its reflection glints from the translucent plastic like candlelight from pewter. Here, in impromptu arrangements, the objects join the daydream of Shafran’s indeterminate world, in a pause before the plastic is returned to the cycle of production and consumption. And, pictured in this way, they belong to the long history of still life as a meditation on transience; a cautionary note to the viewer against material indulgence as well as a reminder that all things must pass. But there is a note of irony here too. We know that most plastic packaging takes at least 450 years to decompose, and it can take up to a thousand years. So the banal objects in Shafran’s photographs, so dignified by his attention, are far more durable than we are. Left in the photographer’s house or put to some other use, these things would outlast him; their time is potentially longer and slower than ours. It can be no coincidence that the triangular Parmesan container propped-up against the wall near the end of the series, is shaped like an open coffin.
Books are also durable, and enduring, objects. At a time when their felt quality in our lives is being gradually replaced by another form of touch, of fingertip to screen, our houses are still heavy with old books that, like photographs, carry our histories within them. These are not simply histories of thought, of the imagination, but those of being: of journeys taken, of work completed, of presents received and given, of love’s lost and found and of children arriving in our lives, and leaving us. A book’s contents are renewable, many will go through numerous editions that change slightly each time as they are revised or expanded. But the precious books we own, many of which were made long before we were born, are wedded, unchanging in themselves, to our own constantly revised narratives; and in that form they will exist long after we have gone and will be either treasured by our families or taken up by others, to begin their life stories again.
Books have been the principal means through which Nigel Shafran’s photographic work has become known. He understands the gift of their materiality and he has invested heavily in how his books look and in how they are made. But Shafran’s investment in book making is also integral to the way he builds his ideas and projects. It is ingrained in a process that sees his photographs, soon after they are made, printed, edited and stuck into the pages of bound volumes that are part workbook, part diary, part aide-memoire. These working documents are informal books, but, partly in preparation for decisions that will later define the actual publications, they are carefully assembled and richly embellished. Each is filled with drawings, notes and bits of everyday ephemera as well as photographs, and each has a particular aesthetic, with an easy feeling for material craft as well as visual simplicity and clarity that is characteristic of Shafran’s intuitive organising principles and his entire working process.
Some of this handmade, utilitarian quality has survived into his smaller printed books. Each copy of Shafran’s first publication, Ruthbook, for example, which helped to define a new attitude and approach to photographic publishing when it appeared in 1995, was hand-titled by the photographer who scored the word in child-like script onto the book’s shiny, plain white cover with a 4B pencil. Self-published in an edition
of just 600 copies, the book is modest in scale and has the provisional character of something made thoughtfully but quickly and inexpensively; a private offering with no particular ambition it seems than to register the undulations of Ruth’s mood, Shafran’s love for her, and the discreet acts of noticing that mark the process of lives falling in step together over time.
This domestic intimacy, the exchanged looks that the photographs preserve, the circumscribed, personal spaces, the sense of time passing, and the attention to how various themes arising from all this might be translated into the material quality of books, is carried forward into Shafran’s subsequent publications: the melancholy emptiness and feeling of palpable loss in Dad’s Office (1999), is set between glossy cover boards, like those of a child’s comic annual; in Flowers For ___ (2008), the book’s overall sense of graceful utility matches the daily routine, the high and low, rough and smooth nature of bringing up a child, so gently monitored in the photographs; and in Ruth On The Phone, the book’s airport novel appearance lightly underscores the idea that the interminable phone conversations being casually catalogued form a continuous narrative from which we, as well as the photographer, are excluded.
In this way these smaller books seem to embody something of the domestic scene that they document; they do not simply picture the private ‘world inside’ but lay it in our hands. Just as the selections of photographs, from page to page, begin to echo the arrangements of the material things they describe, aligned on a desk or shelf perhaps, or in a stack of storage boxes, so the books as objects represent the transference of some physical dimension from one place to another, from one life to another, from Shafran’s to ours.
To take this idea further, it might be argued that forms of human exchange and interaction are an abiding theme in the wider Nigel Shafran project. Books, objects, equipment, furniture, the things we own and use that accumulate around us, are in Shafran’s work always markers of lived experience. His rooms and corners, cupboards and shelves are like meeting places, where the material evidence of what has happened either collides like domestic driftwood or is more thoughtfully brought to order, cleared away, piled up, stored and labelled. These varying patterns of how things collect together also suggest different times frames: from the immediate past – the washing up still dripping on the draining board – and back though time: days, weeks, months, years, and through the generations. So, as we are invited through his photographs to share in Shafran’s way of looking, we are seeing human spaces already framed as informal archives, fragments of life histories in the process of being written. The unpredictable forms that these fragments assume, both suggest particular narratives – a specific emotional thread to the experience of parenthood, for example – and have a particular material, sculptural quality as assemblages: if we think of Shafran’s representation of the disparate and forlorn domestic objects in Dad’s Office as related to the complex imaginative history generated, in part, by Rauschenberg’s Combines, for example, this association becomes clearer.
Like Rauschenberg’s work, Shafran’s photographs are intimate inventories, compiled from what was, for the American artist, the passing debris of our lives. But if Rauschenberg intervenes at a point of material disintegration, Shafran, as I have already suggested, plots objects and materials as part of a process, one that speaks of the future as well as the past.
Perhaps this is why his pictures of charity shops, first seen in Edited Photographs, seem so representative of his art. In fact in making these photographs, Shafran appeared to be drawing attention to his own preoccupations, picturing scenes that were, in their formalised display of personal belongings, already representations. For in the charity shops, where daylight coming in from the street adds lustre to mournful atmospheres, Shafran finds spaces where the idea of intimate life histories narrated by material possessions becomes memorialised at a point of erasure, where the histories slowly fade as they wait to be replaced by others. Here that sense of Shafran’s domestic scenes as ‘meeting places’ is relocated into the public, communal realm, but in the charity shops there are now multiple life stories to collide and intertwine. It is a kind of ritualised offering that is laden with pathos, as those fading experiences, the waning memories of past time, give way to the present and the future. And in this process, crystallised at the moment the photographs were taken, the now detached, remnant signs of private worlds become the ramshackle mosaic of an entire culture.
The mobility and disability equipment shop photographs in this book powerfully echo these earlier charity shop pictures. The similarity in conception and atmosphere is such that we might feel a direct comparison is being made, and in this perhaps there is also a measuring of the distance between the two series, a distance of time, experience and intention. In the mobility photographs there is no soft daylight to lift the murky veil, and no sense of a beckoning high street just beyond the frame. These are spaces where things are stored as much as displayed. And now, instead of embodying a point of transition, one that simultaneously looks back and forward in time, the spaces are filled with new equipment that signifies only the future, needs as yet unspecified and ominous narrative turns yet to unravel. In one sense the tone is deliberately dispassionate, the pathos less immediately felt; the equipment is functional, the photographs more bluntly descriptive – they could be illustrations to an obscure trade brochure. But the future tense of the pictures is one bound up with the frailty of human body, and although the exact nature of the utility represented is, at least for most of us, opaque, the details are insistently suggestive and unsettling.
Half way through the series, a photograph of Ruth asleep on the sofa appears at first as another respite amid the mounting gloom. But placed here in the book, hemmed in by the trappings of ageing and infirmity, Shafran’s gentle and we imagine spontaneous record of her sleeping state invites a less romantic reading than we might otherwise expect. The curtains are closed, it is evening, and Ruth’s body, having surrendered to tiredness, is limp and vulnerable in its mimicry of lifelessness. It is an intimate picture, but one that, with the camera drawn back from the subject, with its harsh light and shadows, and its pressing angles, paradoxically generates little sense of intimacy. Instead, seen in this particular sequence of photographs, and reinforced by the sense of rapt attention the layering of still image over stillness brings, the picture becomes a kind of foreshadowing, a rehearsal. Here, within the framework of an affectionate portrait, in the prosaic surroundings of a domestic sitting room, there is a profound metaphysical shift. In this pictorial and psychological space, time and the imagination, as well as the dark, enveloping atmospheres of this book, drift once again towards an uncertain and unpalatable future.