Exercise – Project 3 Self-absented portraiture: Nigel Shafran “Washing Up”

Exercise: Review Shafran’s work and consider the following:
• Did it surprise you that Washing Up was taken by a man?
• In your opinion does gender contribute to the creation of an image?
• What does this series achieve by not including people?
• Do you regard them as interesting ‘still life’ compositions?

Nigel Shafran (1964-) lives and works in London and has been widely exhibited nationally and internationally. He trained in New York as a commercial photographer but his own projects are altogether more personal, particular and focused on the everyday. His subject matter draws on aspects of his life that are close to hand and familiar. Washing Up 2000 is an extensive series of 170 images taken in various domestic settings but mainly at his home. They were taken in available light using a medium format camera.

I imagine the thinking behind the question of the photographer’s gender is that the content of Washing Up 2000 is a very domestic subject and therefore more likely to be the product of a female photographer than a male. I can honestly say it was not something I thought about when I saw the images, I was intrigued by what was on the drainers and realised it has been a long time since I had done the washing up like that. In other words I went to what resonated rather than who the photographer was. I was also struck by the quality of the image and how beautiful the lighting was. I am inclined to agree with Phillips that there is little to be gained in trying to determine a particularly ‘female’ or ‘male’ photography.

“There certainly is a clichéd female style of photography. And there’s a clichéd tech dude who has 2,700 cameras and only talks about depth of field,” says Cara Phillips. “But within photography, there are so many people that fit and defy stereotypes, that going there doesn’t get you anywhere. Ultimately I really don’t think that it’s important.”  In Mitchell, 2009

That is not to say that there are not a combination of cultural, political and social influences on the nature of the images we take, but my sense is that gender is one part of a wider network of psychosocial elements. It is undoubtedly the case that gender may have an affect on access both to opportunities and subjects/contexts and the way others respond to us as ‘gendered’ photographers.

But pictures aren’t taken in a vacuum. The sex of the photographer matters because subjects react to men and women differently. This doesn’t have anything to do with how the photographer perceives the scene, but it can still have a huge effect on the resulting photograph.  Mitchell, 2009

The reaction of others can influence how and if a photographer can gain access and how they behave as subjects in front of the camera but I am not convinced that gender is the sole influence on what a photographer chooses to take, after all there are men and women working in all genres of photography.

In terms of Shafran’s Washing Up 2000 series I think the absence of people allows for a more open reading and potential connection. The inclusion of people in an image can lead to comparison, are these people like me and what do they have to tell me about my own life. This can mean a point of connection or disconnection dependent on your response. In using a still life approach I think the images become more phenomenological, that is they evoke something of the everyday experience that lends itself to interpretation. In conversation with Charlotte Cotton, I think Shafran is speaking of his work as dealing with the phenomena of lived experience and is mindful of not letting too much conscious thought get in the way.

It’s all around us. I think they can be expressions of everything that’s us: how we’ve been brought up, taught or learnt determines how we do things from cutting a load of bread to painting a wall. I think that might strength is in this and if I start questioning it or thinking too much about it, then it’s difficult for me to find my way back to what inspired me.
Nigel Shafran

I find myself remembering my grandparent’s sink and noticing how unlike my own washing up routine (thanks to a dishwasher) this is. I also find myself wondering about the people who have participated in the meals. This is left to my imagination and a phenomenological reading of everyday lived experience. This interpretation would have changed (I can’t say if this would have been and improvement or not because they would have been a different set of photographs) with the presence of people in the images.

An instant photograph can only acquire meaning insofar as the viewer can read into it a duration extending beyond itself. When we find a photograph meaningful, we are lending it a past and a future. Berger & Mohr, 1982: 89

As a result of the above ‘reading’ of the photographs I do find them interesting compositions. They give me a wide scope for interpretation and each time I look at them I see something different. There is something beautiful and almost sculptural in their ‘everydayness.’ This is not a subject matter I might have considered yet it is something recognisable and personal, exposing a small detail of everyday life that others seldom see. It sits clearly within a still life genre.

As in traditional still life painting, in which specific objects such as the hour-glass and human skulls were introduced to symbolise mortality and the brevity of life, here the recurrence and disappearance of certain motifs and changing atmospheric conditions within the series suggest the passage of time and the contingencies of daily life. Brett Rogers review of Washing Up 2000

References

Berger, J., & Mohr, J. (1982). Another way of telling. London: Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative Society.

http://ilab.usc.edu/publications/doc/Mitchell09pp.pdf

http://nigelshafran.com/brett-rogers-reality-check/

http://nigelshafran.com/interview-with-charlotte-cotton-edited-photographs/

The Dad Project & Country Doctor

Black & white image of a single figure in a doctor's coat

w. Eugene Smith, Country Doctor, Life Magazine, 1948

Wow, that was a hard read. I had to take Briony Campbell’s photo essay in several bite size chunks. The Dad Project is extraordinarily intimate, touching on something so personal yet at the same time universal in theme. It also tackles a subject, which I think is still to a certain degree, taboo. Part of is power for me is its ability to resonate, it speaks to me as a daughter, now a stepdaughter and a photographer. I utterly relate to her thoughts around narcissism, and not putting yourself in the frame.

I think there are similarities with W. Eugene Smith’s “Country Doctor,” in terms of what I would define (as an ethnographic researcher) as ‘participant-observation’. They were both engaged in studying cultures, that of the work of the Doctor and of a family undergoing one of the most profound changes we have all have to face. They both appear to draw on humanist traditions and looking to speak of human experience and relationships. Both sets of images also pose questions about the human condition.

They also have their differences. While Eugene Smith’s works remain fresh and vital, for me they have an almost painterly quality. The fact that they are black and white highlights the tonal differences and the chiaroscuro effect. I am also conscious of the fact that while Eugene Smith built a rapport with Dr. Ceriani he only spent 23 days with him and his community. Briany Campbell’s work is about a lifelong relationship coming to an end in its physical form. She also puts herself in the frame as a means of acknowledging this relationship. Not all of her images are in sharp focus and I think their softness speaks of emotions, and the ambiguities and challenges she writes about struggling with. They have gentleness and like others my response to her words and images has been tears. Tears for the beauty and pain she has captured, and tears for my own family losses and grief.

When she speaks of it being an ‘ending without an ending’ I think she is referring to the story living on in her images and photo essay. I also think she is talking about her on-going relationship with her father even though his physical presence is no longer with her.

The real and the digital

The debate about whether a photograph shows ‘truth’ seems to me to have more to do with ontology than the nature of photography and whether it is digital or film based, as I have mentioned earlier in my learning log. I am inclined to agree with Campany that photography…

“…derives less from what it is technologically than what it is culturally.” (Wells, 2009: 75)

This allows for the blurring of photographic practices as art, documentary, still life, etc., wherein they can borrow from each other and develop in dialogue. As this evolves it brings into question our ability to make meaning from and of such images.

I do not hold the view that there is a single, objective reality to be found and represented – a realist ontology. I am more inclined to a relativist position where there are multiple truths created and constructed intersubjectively through discourse and social experience. This perspective allows for multiple realities. My concern is therefore less about whether an image represents a reality so much as from whose perspective it has been created (either in the camera or in postproduction) and what discourse are they inviting me into.

References and citations
Wells, L. (2009). Photography: A critical introduction (4th ed.). Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

The High Street

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Title: The High Street

Exercise: Find a street that particularly interests you. Shoot 30 colour and 30 black and white images in a street photography style. Reflect on your experience and work.

Approach: I thought about where I wanted to go for some time. I thought about somewhere very ordinary, a town high street that could be anywhere or an area that looks tired and neglected. So, did I go somewhere with obvious character or see how I might work with a place with a less obvious identity. Added to which street photography is not a field I have worked in other than covering some big public events. I was not particularly comfortable about taking my camera out in public and despite reading around the subject still felt unsure about what the ‘rules of the game’ both socially and legally were about photographing people as they go about their daily lives.

Reflections on ‘The High Street’

This was an exercise I enjoyed more than I imagined I would. It was not an area I visit regularly and when I do I tend to be driving through so it is not somewhere I have spent much time observing. I was not at all comfortable about stepping into the High Street with my camera, it felt obtrusive, particularly as most of the time I work with still life and food.

I had decided before I went I would try and avoid shooting people and focus on capturing the essence of the High Street. Inevitably, I did capture people but those shots were generally from behind. Once I got started I began to notice things I had never seen before. I was absorbed by my surroundings and while there were some longer shots that were interesting it was the points of details that increasingly caught my attention.

I did not have a specific plan in relation to shooting in both black and white and colour; in fact part of me thought I might shoot everything in colour and then change some in PS. However, once I got started I saw more and more in terms of colour or black and white, different aspects seemed to lend themselves to different treatment. I also became interested in the ‘traces’ that people leave; in ways to capture everyday life without necessarily having people in the frame. This has perhaps been influenced by looking at the work of the other photographers included in the course.

Colour leant itself to the more everyday, to aspects of action and daily life. The black and white seemed to add drama and emotion. It is not a case for me of whether I preferred one set or the other, they achieved different things. I am pleased with some of the results I got from both. It seems to be a matter of appropriateness – of context and narrative!