Still Life with Nigel Shafran

Shafran 2

From, Washing Up 2000, 2000

I visited Nigel Shafran in his studio today to ask some questions about his (in my mind) unique approach to art based photography. Although his work is highly esteemed in the gallery / photo-book world he says he feels restricted by ideas and much prefers to think of himself as a photographer than an artist.  As he talked about this he snapped his fingers a few times, referring to the moment he sees a picture and knows he wants to take it. Instinct.

Family photographs are often the pictures that are most important to people. Indeed the family album informs Nigel’s work but he intensifies them in a way, like heightened snapshots. Whether the images are beautifully lit, composed 5×4 pictures of the washing up (Washing Up 2000) or taken on the small sensor of a handheld digital camera, (Supermarket Checkouts, 2005), threads of quietness and reflection seem to wind their way through his photography, often in the genre of still life.

Shafran 1

From Dad’s Office, 1997-99.

He is refreshingly understated about achievement. “To continue to be connected to yourself” was his answer to a definition of success. Far from the glitz and glam of the life of a photographer for Nigel the success is in the work itself. If he loses interest in it it marks the end of the work, if it continues to interest him it opens doors. But it seems that being able to be present with himself and aware of the moment is what makes him the photographer he is. Whether you think it’s mundane or poignant or moving or boring is, in a sense, besides the point. Speaking of ‘Dad’s Office‘ when I asked him if it was always intended to be a book he said ‘No! Of course not! It drove me.”

Coming from a commercial background in fashion photography perhaps this world has inversely influenced his personal practice; like being able to choose his own subjects, or allowing them to choose him* or seeing things in the commercial world that he wanted to subvert or how it may have positively influenced his sense of design when making books. (Shafran remains heavily involved in the production of his books, working with designers and publishers but always with his personal vision as the central aim.) Perhaps his personal practice is a place where those frustrations of a commercial world could be released and reclaimed as his own.

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From Ruthbook, 1992-2004

Pictures of his wife on the phone, or moments at the supermarket or ‘little sad London trees’, or compost, or recycling; these are the moments that make up the bulk of Shafran’s oeuvre – and only he can make them. But at the same time, these mundane ‘snapshots’ do resound universally. We do share our versions of these moments and we do feel essentially human when we take the time to notice them. That’s what Shafran’s work does for me, it connects me to a quieter pace of life.

When do you feel connected to yourself in your work?

Do you ever let the work find you?

*Incidentally, and quite beside the point, this is the advice I got given by cat lovers when I was looking for a new kitten, scrolling website after website for hours on end. I thought I should keep looking just in case, but couldn’t find the right one. Nauseatingly when I gave up an email came through with a cute little tabby who had been abandoned down the road. Yes, she is now our best friend forever.

6 Comments

  1. jsumb 7 May 2015 at 9:57 am

    It’s the same feeling when writing a sentence or a paragraph; I get the sense that it says what I wanted it to say. That the image conveys coherently, even if ambiguity was an intent, what it was I meant it to say. This feeling doesn’t happen nearly as frequently as I would like, and that is probably a sign of an underdeveloped visual vocabulary, but I know when it has happened; the image sits comfortably on the paper

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  2. Mirjam 7 May 2015 at 10:57 am

    Love these photographs. And,yes, I know the feeling of a picture finding me – mainly when I have no intention to work, no assignment, not setting out to take pictures…. just all of a sudden being struck by something that seems to wait to be photographed. The rare times this has happened to me did result in images that have the quiet quality you mention – my question is: would it be possible to LEARN to be found by the work? It sounds like a contradiction in terms.

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  3. Catherine 7 May 2015 at 1:01 pm

    I know when the work has found me because I get quite consumed by an idea and then have to follow it through, even when it doesn’t seem to fit the brief I’m supposed to be meeting. Amazingly the work and the brief seem to coalesce in unexpected ways.

    It can’t be forced for me and I have to put myself into a more meditative space. I know how to get into the space but don’t always slow myself down so it can happen Mirjam. Maybe we should have some workshops around inner space. I’m imagining a studio or house full of interesting objects, set in a wild landscape.

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  4. CliveW 7 May 2015 at 1:44 pm

    I advise my students to forget about Method Result Conclusion photography, still the internal conversation and react viscerally to their situation, then analyse what they’ve done after the fact to inform their future work.

    Any assignment can be answered working with this modus operandi, in fact it used to be a common way of working within photography and perhaps is one definition of practising photography as a photographer.

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  5. nadezda514323 8 May 2015 at 10:32 am

    I’m happy that Catherine mentioned a “meditative space” in the context of experiencing artwork. I guess I still have to learn how to slow down and react viscerally to the situation. It also means opening yourself up and allowing yourself to be vulnerable, which can be quite challenging sometimes.

    Also, artist’s definition of success “To continue to be connected to yourself” resonates with me on so many levels. I think I picked up photography in the first place to connect to my true self.

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  6. annag1611 8 May 2015 at 9:59 pm

    Subjects find me in photos I take without knowing why I had to take them. It seems that my brain is disconnected from the rest of me but I reunite with it when I am working on a photo – so I guess that is what I understand by work finding me and reconnecting different parts of me. I know when I’m reconnected because sparks start flying inside me. The opposite is also true = when I work on a photo & there is no reconnection, there is neither engagement nor spark.

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