As previously discussed it is not unusual for a photographer to build up a portfolio of a single human subject based on someone with whom they have a close relationship such as Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe, Harry Callahan and his wife Eleanor, David and Catherine Bailey or Man Ray and Lee Miller; but it is arguable that these collections are orientated towards the artistic representation of the human figure.
At the other end of the spectrum there are a few notable series that focus on an individual subject investigating identity, lifestyle and social circumstances. Richard Billingham’s Ray’s a Laugh (here), Julian Germain’s For Every Minute (here) and Kaylynn Deveney’s The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings (here).
Nigel Shafran has produced three series based on his wife Ruth. Ruthbook 1992 – 2004, Ruth on the Phone 1995 – 2004 and Flowers for …… 2004 – 2008. A selection from Ruthbook and Ruth on the Phone are included in his 2004 book Edited Photographs (1). Flowers for ……. and can be seen on his website (2). I have previously discussed his 2000 series Washing Up (here).
Nigel Shafran described himself in 2010 as a “one-trick pony” (3) and it is fair to say that his observation-led, personal projects share a common theme of mundane, ordinary and everyday events in dispersed with domestic still lifes. However, the range of his subjects within these themes suggests that his “one-trick” has many facets. The key to his work is that it s highly personal, as he says “my photographs are the ones that only I can make” (1) but they are not self obsessed pictures, far from it, they describe his domestic landscape and how it has changed over time and as highlighted by David Chandler (1) his photographs represent an awareness of how the changing patterns and material ageing of his environment “embody the passing of time,” they take the form of chronologies.
There is a Zen-like atmosphere around his photographs and his methodologies, if zen in photography is achieving a oneness with both subject and camera then his instinctive and unplanned approach probably comes close. As previously discussed (here), in his introduction to Reading Photographs (4), Ainslie Ellis calls for the audience to bring their whole creative attention to a photograph as “then, and only then, something remarkable can happen”. He argues that in a world of mass beliefs, which are assumed and interpreted for us, the great danger is to approach photography with well formulated ideas of what we like, anticipating our emotional response or predicting the social messages the photograph will convey and thereby, rather than giving it our full creative attention, we are diverted by our preconceptions. Ellis’ idea and the rather loose interpretation of Zen as often applied to photography (here) applies equally to the photographer and this description appears to embody Shafran’s approach.
On first glance it is not easy to relate the various series contained in Edited Photographs with Shafran’s career as a fashion photographer especially as it is difficult to find examples of his early professional work on line. However, there is a well known Guardian Weekend cover that helps to square this particular circle. The photograph of legs and shoes, with just a fraction of Victoria Beckham’s face visible, the half eaten plate of food and the hand reaching for popcorn describes the pop group in an off-beat but comprehensive manner and suggests a photographer with little interest in the high fashion, false and glamorised persona that is more typically associated with these performers.
In his 2000 interview with Paul Ellman (5) they discuss a photograph (which I have been unable to find) of the actress Katrin Cartledge which he apparently took in his darkroom. His comments on this photograph and why he used this location as the setting are very telling and explain his attitude towards to fashion photography (i), in essence he wanted to escape the falsity of the photographer’s studio with its people, lights and backdrops and “bring it home to me” to make more natural and real photographs. Edited Photographs is a collation of these natural and real photographs with a theme of home and time passing running through them.
However, the context of this essay is to consider Shafran’s approach to his multiple series of Ruth his wife. Poor Ruth; these photographs are his antidote to the the world of fashion, this is not the representation of an exotic fantasy women enjoying an aspirational lifestyle whilst modelling impractical clothes. At one level Ruth is ordinary, she decorates, launders piles of nappies, has colds, wears practical slippers, talks on the phone often enough to base a compete series on that one activity, rides a bike, dresses for the weather and makes a home for herself, Shafran and ultimately their child but in all that ordinariness she is unique, an individual, a lovely but real woman. Perhaps as a reaction to the objectification of women in the world of fashion and the falsification of the woman’s role in a family through advertising and other media Shafran explores Ruth’s identity as a constant in an ever changing environment. Constancy is the strongest message conveyed by these series, successful marriages support successful lives and the collective chronologies of Ruth describe not just her stability as their domestic environment develops but also the consistent presence of Shafran on the other side of the camera, two people constant for each other, rocks in a stormy seas, making sense of the chaos of life by just being together.
There is a theme across the three single subject series that I have reviewed. Julian Germain described Charlie Snelling as his “antidote to modern living”, a man who reminded Germain that the “most important things in life cost nothing at all” (6). Kaylynn Deveney says that she was enriched by her relationship with Bert Hastings (7) and for Shafran his work is an ode to the relationship with his partner. In each case the bond between the photographer and the subject is the enabler for the sympathetic, real and gentle photographs they have made.
It will be interesting to continue this line of research with a single subject who was a stranger to the photographer both before and after the completion of the series.
Notes on Text
(i) “It just felt less of a set-up at the time, less of a commercial set-up, you know, a photography studio, with people around, equipment, a commercial situation. Less of all that. Funny it was for Vogue that picture. I was trying for something less than whatever all that world is. I didn’t think about it. I wanted to bring it home to me, or back to the photograph, the process. It’s got my dodgers in the background, for dodging when I’m printing. And all my toiletries. There’s a tile missing. The chemical’s are….and my calamine lotion. Everything together. Natural light.” (5)
(1) Shafran, Nigel (2004) Edited Photographs 1992 – 2004. Brighton: Photoworks and Steidl
(4) Ellis, Ainslie (1977) Introduction to Reading Photographs: Understanding the Aesthetics of Photography. The Photographers’ Gallery. New York: Pantheon
(6) Germain, Julian (2005) For Every Minute You Are Angry You lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness. (third edition 2014) MACK Books
(7) Deveney, Kaylynn (2007) The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings. New York: Princeton Architectural Press
(2) Shafran, Nigel (2004 – 2008) Flowers for …….. (accessed at the photographer’s website 14.03.16) – http://nigelshafran.com/category/flowers-for-________-2004-2008/
(3) Philips, Sarah (2010) Photographer Nigel Shafran’s Best Shot (accessed at The Guardian 14.03.16) – http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/apr/21/photography-nigel-shafran-best-shot
(5) Ellman, Paul (2000) Interview with Nigel Shafran for How we are Photographing Britain (accessed at the photographer’s website 14.03.16) – http://nigelshafran.com/interview-with-paul-elliman-fig-1/