Nigel Shafran: ‘Work Books 1984 – 2018’ / Reviewed by Matthew Turner / 04.06.18
Breaking the Fourth Wall
Photography is often concerned with capturing the now clichéd ‘definitive moment’, slicing out the perfect fragment of a second from the chaos of reality. For me, however, the power in Nigel Shafran’s photographs comes not from his successful capture of definitive moments, but from freezing the fractions of a second either side of that illusive instant. His photos often look as though he has caught a scene just before, or, just after, something has happened. This gives them an intensity of potential as I fill in the gaps and speculate on their suggested, yet unseen, narratives.
Due to this the resultant images, especially in his work with domestic interiors, are glutted with the movements and rituals of life that has happened outside of the frame; they show the quotidian habits and quirks of a person — an intimate biography of them — without actually showing the person themselves. The photos may not always include people, but nevertheless are about an individual person, even if delineated by their absence. The photos are really examining the movement of life, and thus subvert the rigidly static nature of the photographic medium itself; they are ‘stills’ taken from movement rather than photographs.
In Shafran’s ‘Paddington escalator’ series (2009 – 2010), we see people literally moving — journeying to somewhere else. They leave you speculating on what the subjects are thinking as they descend, in a reverie, down to the underground, or, where they are going, or have come from. ‘Supermarket checkouts’ from 2005, captures another kind of transit, and you are left to conjure a personality from mundane purchases as they trundle along a checkout conveyor belt. The 2004 series ‘Bookshelves’ is similar, and we get glimpse of a person through the way they organise their books, and we see how their minds work in a more intimate way.
The photographs hint at the stories and lives outside of the image, and these biographical and autobiographical traits of Shafran’s practice are explored in the exhibition of his scrapbook-like Work Books from 1984 – 2018, the inaugural show at Sion and Moore. Just as the photos break the fourth wall and get us to imagine life beyond the composition, the Work Books intimately present the photographer’s life around the image; they are a stream of consciousness in montaged and moving thoughts and scribblings, juxtaposed with images in progress and flotsam from Shafran’s life.
The scrapbooks encapsulate what a neatly curated Instagram account cannot; the random interjections life throws at us, both the good and the bad, presented in a tactile and highly personal way. Quickly scanning the books we see a rent arrears notice and on the next page a drawing of a pair of scissors lying on a pillow. On another spread there is a black photograph with a bleeding edge entitled the ‘last polaroid in town 2013’, and on the next page a collection of tax discs with a plastic covering; on another, a list of the dead cut from a newspaper. There is an authenticity in such randomness and by coveting the mundane and mass-produced, through careful arrangement and presentation, Nigel Shafran has made them unique again. Echoes of this can also be seen at work in his ‘Washing-up’ (2000) series.
On first appearances the work books are the opposite of Shafran’s photos, however on looking closer, similarities start to emerge. The photos celebrate the everyday and contain many commonplace materials from around people’s homes, the books too are a coral reef of materials from their particular time period of production — ‘Filofax, 1984’ in particular looks like an organic object, so numerous are the layers of reappropriated stickers and newspaper fragments. The photos can look like static and detached slices of time, but really they prompt you to imagine the lives absent from them, and thus their meaning and story develops beyond the instant of the image. The books, in a similar vein, are made, then cut up again in a constant process of reconstruction, and seemingly have fluidly coalesced into something static over time. The books don’t look carefully composed, yet really they are, in the same manner as the underlying obsessive-compulsive order amidst the chaos in Shafran’s photos.
Despite their initial aesthetic differences Nigel Shafran’s Work Books 1984 – 2018 act as primers to the reading of his work, while also being the catalysts for the photographs themselves. From them we see the personality of the photographer emerge, not through direct confrontation with it in the style of a social media profile or diary, but from the scraps and remnants of his life. We approach this persona obliquely, in the same way as personalities are only suggested in his uninhabited photographs; he presents himself as he has captured them — an apparition left in the selection, placement and composition of objects and fragments of life.
– reviewed for Photomonitor by Matthew Turner
Nigel Shafran Work Books 1984 – 2018 continues at Sion and Moore, London until 7 June 2018
4 Herald Street London E2 6JT