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


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




Exercise: Project 2 Masquerades – Trish Morrissey

Exercise: would you agree to Morrissey’s request if you were enjoying a day on the beach with your family? If not, why not? Morrissey uses self-portraiture in more of her work, namely Seven Years and The Failed Realist. Make notes on these projects in your learning log.

Trish Morrissey’s (1967-) photographs, like Nikki S. Lee, also include elements of performativity and blur boundaries of identity, reality and fiction. “Front” is a series of twelve images of friends and family groups at the English seaside (one was also shot in Melbourne). They seem to have a domestic vernacular, a family album appearance. Yet, when you look closely you notice that there is a face that is common to each of the images, someone who reappears in each of the different groupings but in different guises.

In constructing “Front” Morrissey was interested in identity but also boundaries, the beach being a metaphor for a liminal space between the chaos of nature as represented by the sea and the relative stability of the land behind. She also chose the beach because it is a space where it is common for groups to arrive and delineate their space, marking out a territory with towels, windbreaks, chairs and other objects denoting temporary ownership. The beach is a space where there can be new norms of behaviour and given that most people are partially clothed the beach goers are both voyeurs and exhibitionists at the same time.

These are collaborative photographs where Morrissey approached groups at the seafront and asked if she could stand in for one of the women in the group. She exchanged clothes with them and they took the photograph (Morrissey having set up the shot). In replacing a member of the group Morrissey breaches both a psychological and a physical boundary, stepping into someone else’s shoes physically and metaphorically.

She created the shots in dialogue with the groups and they were told about how the images would be used. Participants were informed the photographs would be part of an exhibition and a book. Like Lee she decided not to use model release forms. There was also a reciprocity built into the process because in exchange for their participation they were given a family or group photograph taken by Morrissey. In order to gain access she wandered the beach researching who she might approach, she also carried clothes with her to change into so she could appear part of the tribe before making her request.

As complicit participants the authorship of the work becomes shared.

It might have been interesting for Morrissey to contrast the photos of the original group with those showing her as the cuckoo in the nest to be able to really explore the changing identities and dynamics in the groups.

Would I have agreed to participating? Initially, I thought probably not. If I had been out for the day I might not have wanted to have been disturbed by this stranger with her camera. But on consideration I would have hoped I would have agreed not least to have been able to explore the differences I mention above – what would my family group have looked like with me replaced by someone else? How is my identity influenced by my social groups and what would have happened in replacing me by someone else in my clothing? Someone who would at the same time look familiar yet be unfamiliar. Would I have a sense of my own demise and departure from the group?

In terms of her other self-portraiture projects “Seven Years” also addresses the notion of the family album and to me continues the phototherapy/re-enactment photography (Spence & Martin, 1985) influences found in Morrissey’s earlier work in her parental home. In her review Flannery referred to it as autofiction:

Morrissey’s work is…extremely self-reflective. Not only is she examining the everyday fruits of her own chosen art medium in the hands of the layperson and the covert significance of these images, but Seven Years and the accompanying two video pieces imitate and deconstruct the parameters of her own family life as she saw it growing up. For this reason ‘autofiction’, a term normally associated with literature, seems appropriate.
Flannery, Circa Art Magazine, 2005

The Failed Realist feels very different in tone and shows Morrissey directly addressing the camera in her own right. The series was created some years after both Seven Years and Front. It is named after a psychological concept in child development coined by Georges-Henri Luquet (1927/2001) and refers to the stage where a child’s desire to represent their world visually is limited by their physical and cognitive capabilities. The series was made with Morrissey’s daughter, who between the ages of four and five enjoyed face painting but preferred painting her Mum over having her own face painted.

Instead of the usual motifs of butterfly, or flower, she would decide to paint something from her immediate experience – a movie she had just watched, a social event, a right of passage, or a vivid dream. Beyond the innocence of the child’s intention, more sinister themes such as clowns, carnival and the grotesque are evoked by these mask like paintings.

The face painting does evoke the sense of a mask with echoes perhaps of Morrissey’s earlier influence of Ralph Eugene Meatyard. As Morrissey states they are unusual motifs for the more familiar playfulness of face painting. Once again boundaries are being tested and shifted between mother and daughter (the latter painting the former rather than vice versa), between subject and camera, between reality and fantasy.


Spence, J., & Martin, R. (1985). New portraits for old: the use of the camera in therapy. Feminist Review, 19, 66-92.


Trish Morrissey, Seven Years, Gallery of Photography, Dublin, 4 March to 3 April 2005