Artist Interview: Nigel Shafran (Photographer)
─ Can we start by talking about your new publication, "The Well"? It's been about 30 years since you started working as a fashion photographer, and this would be your tenth, and first ever publication which covers the works you've done in that long period of time. Could you tell me how the idea of publishing this book came up, and why you decided to do it now?
I started commercial work about 30 years ago, maybe 35 years. The idea for this book really came from Linda VAN DEURSEN, who is the designer on this book. She is really more than a book designer. She really instigated it. At the beginning, I was like "Not over my dead body", because I've always seen my commercial work as separate in a way. And now I see it as all connected. I think it's not all fashion photography. The later work is more of my recent commercial fashion photography, but the earlier work is often a reaction against fashion photography I used toward as an assistant, and what I was doing when I was younger. So it might be pictures of people on the street, or work that might be connected to fashion photography and style, but not necessarily on fashion models, or people like that, so connected in some way.
─ This book is not just a collection of your commercial work as you mentioned, and it tries to connect them with your artistic practice. It can also be seen, for example, from the fact that this book was published by London based independent publisher "Loose Joints", who makes great art books, and the main image currently put on their web page for this book is the picture you took in the same SPACE as one of your most known picture of Ruth in the kitchen. It's interesting to hear that you actually realised those connection quite recently.
Well, one is a reaction against the other. Or maybe that works both ways. Unless you're born as a millionaire, we all have to make a living to pay for our lives. And it's always been problematic, some photographers teach some, some, if they're lucky enough, can survive by selling prints. Others have a different job altogether. And I feel now it's more acceptable to work in the commercial fields. I do have, I won't say the word problems, but issues being part of that, such as how women are portrayed, overconsumption etc. But that's how it is.
─ Is that why your commercial works are as simple as your personal work, though you did think they were separated? I mean, they can be much more "fashionable" or "staged", but you don't really do that very obviously, and they look just like your personal work.
Well, some of the new work I do, it's more planned, thought out, but hopefully it doesn't look too staged.The newer fashion work, I have ideas in my head, or I make drawings and then I recreate them. I guess one of the things that's happened recently is if I've decided that if I can, luckily enough, have a large audience, I can put some of my thoughts about different subjects into the work. I wouldn't exactly say politics, but maybe politics with a very, very, very small p.I try to portray fashion models, not as object so much and not overly sexualized.
Above: spread from "Ruthbook" (Self published, 1995) / Below: spread from "The Well" (Loose Joints, 2022)
─ I understand. As mentioned many times, "Ruthbook", which was published in 1995, became a milestone for you to start focusing more on your personal work. However, your personal gaze, or personal interest towards surroundings has already been seen in previous projects too, I think. There might be possibilities to publish other projects earlier, but why did you decide to publish those personal pictures as your first book?
I guess it's the most affecting of my work at the time. I also thought you only live once. Maybe it's kind of therapeutic in some way for me. Also, I think the most important photos in people's lives are their family snapshots. In some ways, I feel like I'm a very good professional family snapshot photographer. I'm very happy to be that, a snapshot photographer with a plate camera. That's quite a good line.I’ve said before, but what's important to me is often what's in front of me and to see that clearly, if possible, which is not always easy.
─ Do you think there were any critical meaning to publish those personal photographs as your work at that time? Do you think being personal meant something?
I can't answer that. It's just what I do.I often tell students, "just do it". Do your work at the time, and then you can either edit it, use it, publish it or not publish it. But if you don't do it, you don't do it. Sounds so simple. I mean, there's times to think, there's times to work, to do everyday chores and there’s times to look at art work, old master paintings, do your receipts etc. So I'm not sure how to answer that. Maybe it was valid for the time, maybe it wasn't, I don't know. I don't really want to answer and start talking so much about my own work.I prefer, you know, there's other people's whose job there is to do that. Curators the people who are the ones who can see what is of interest now and from the recent past etc, and they choose what is interesting. But I guess I like the idea for my work to be affecting in a way. So I do like that. Yeah, especially with so many photos in the world these days.
─ You've been working on books since then, and they have very important role in your artistic practice. There are many ways to present your work like exhibitions, but what attracts you the most to show your photographs in book form?
For me, I think it's the most successful way to show photos. you can control the sequence, the edit and how the work is seen. You don't need electricity for a laptop, it's affordable and you can choose when to view it. Exhibition takes a lot of energy and then their gone. You know, it's a difference between looking at a book then looking at photos on a computer screen. I think computer screens, of course have their place, books are 3D objects that you physically hold. They seems slower as well. Maybe books hold your attention more then looking at photos on a computer screen, I don't know that I've ever looked at a photo on a screen for very long time. And I don't know why that is because we're all just used to using it very fast, something along those lines. With books production, I’m also a bit of a control freak, so I can control everything, from the materials, the printing, the sequence, all that stuff is important decisions for me to make.
─ Is that why you like to self publish book, which allows you to control almost everything?
Yeah, but I make mistakes all the time as well. But I've only self published...
─ (showing self published titles on the screen)
Where did you get that first one from?
─ Ruthbook? I think I got this on ebay.
It used to be seven pounds fifty. I used to go around on my bike to London bookshops to sell it. I spent all the money on expensive paper. And every cover Oh, look. Oh, hold on.
─ You even wrote the cover title, right?
I did it always with one pencil. I think I still got the one, a 4B pencil. I have that very pencil here. it's one word Ruthbook. I don't know why. I can write it off by heart now. Every letter I remember doing in a certain way, one big ‘O’ and then a smaller one. I don't know why.Maybe the book was a reaction against other work I was seeing as well, It's just what I did. I don't know what I do half the time. I don't know what I do 90% of the time.
─ And realise something later.
Maybe? There's no master plan. There's definitely no master plan.
Spread from "Ruthbook" (Self published, 1995)
─ Let me ask you bit more about the sequence. You once described the sequence of photographs as "an emotional wave". How did you become conscious of that effect of sequence first time? Did you learn it from your experience of editing photographs for magazines, or even before from something else?
I try not to think about it. But it's much better for me to decide by looking at the sequence, not thinking, it's just saying yes or no. I remember somebody I know they like to edit in front of the TV. I also would make book dummies, then I’d show it to a friend or somebody whose I opinion I respected, I would watch them how they would react and if the sequence works in a way I’d envisaged. then maybe it works successfully. I guess I want people to respond, or I don't know the word react, or an emotional response in a similar way to how it worked with me. So I want, how it communicates to me, hopefully it communicates to other people in a way when they look at the work. There might be a break, or a big change or something. I'm not quite sure. Again, it's just what I do. whenever you edited new work, it just feels right or it feels not right. I don't want to be robotic about it. I don't think there's a rule. People are very savvy. They knowledgeable about pictures and I don't want it to be too clever I'm not really into being clever. And sometimes when something's too successful, I'll do it the other way.
─ So for you, photography is more than making pictures, but also a communication between you and subjects, and between you/pictures and viewers.
─ So for you, photography is more than making pictures, but also a communication between you and subjects, and between you/pictures and viewers.
Yes, It's how I communicate, absolutely.
─ From the point of view of sequence, I do think that the sequence in the book (Dark Rooms) is stunning and successful.
I like it too, did you know that the cover was gonna be this? It's a stairway to heaven. [Which is on the inner cover] I did that drawing here in my Darkroom. It’s from a poster from the film ‘A matter of life and death’ directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, I'm very proud of this book.
─ It's not a happy book, but feels something positive at the end. All these feelings come from the sequence you made on this book, double layers of sequence. One is the sequence of photographs in each projects, and the other is more dynamic sequence of five projects themselves like a symphony.
In a way it's all moving forward. The food and escalators, which is what we are, the food we put in us makes US who we are, moving forward and the escalators, and even the mobility shop, which is the last shop anyone wants to go to, things people need towards the end of their lives. And the last pictures the packages are almost like the death of the check out, They’re almost like the end of the checkouts from the beginning of the book. I always think it works like this, all connected from beginning to end. I think with this one [ Dark rooms ] you’re right, but then I also put a few pictures of our lives to break up the sets of pictures, otherwise it becomes a bit too photo story. I wanted to include us in a way.
Spreads from "Dark Rooms" (MACK, 2016)
─ So, how much time do you spend on a series? Some works, such as the escalator series in "Dark Rooms" looks like it has been done in short period of time.
Oh, that was kind of different because I really had an energy on those pictures. I borrowed Tyrone Lebon’s digital camera. I didn't know digital camera then, my film camera was too slow. I just realised, Wow, this place was so great.There weren't many escalators like that with no adverts on the back. There was also not many which were lit by daylight.I liked the graph paper background. I always say that it reminds me of Eadweard Muybridge. Also there was a place you can stand in between to take pictures. To me, it's like a perfect studio. Modern day, modern life people clothes, fashion outfits going past the perfect studio. So I just had this energy going, Wow, I should really do this now. So I spent a week or two doing a lot. And then I didn't do it. But some work takes. I mean, the washing up 2000. That was one year. And then there's some time I've got more energy to do it. And then sometimes I lose interest.
Spread from "Dark Rooms" (MACK, 2016)
─ I see. In 2018, you had an exhibition which included your workbooks as part of the show. It's interesting to see how you consistently tries to output fragments of ideas in that book, and resulted in different books at the end. Do you still work on those books?
I do, often. When I use digital photos, with a digital camera, so easy and great. I don't know what I do with most of the work, I don't know what I do with it, I'll just print out an A4. And then I'll print out a small picture like this. I'll put one in, like the workbook and then the other just in my box file. my digital work is much more varied, so I might be on the street and see something, or take a picture of my son eating a sandwich.You know, he might be doing his homework, and I'll just take a picture. And I'll stick in the book as a memory, I don't know what I do with them, though. And maybe one day I'll do something or find a reason to put them somewhere I don't know at the moment.
─ These workbooks also clearly show your perceptive gaze towards surroundings in everyday life, and the connection between the projects that emerged from these bits and pieces.
In my life, I’ve worked as a commercial photographer. I have seen excess, and luxury, expensive stuff. And I'm not sure how impressed I am by it all really, you know. I like buying a pair of boots, when I really need a pair of boots, when my old ones run out, but I don't want to buy more then I need.And it makes me less happy if I have three pairs of walking BOOTS, loses worth in a way.. I mean, for me, being aware of what's in front of us. And as opposed to what we don't have is, to me important. Seems like the modern world and advertising wants you to have what you don't have. I see a bit of a tension between the commercial work and the other work, I guess. Maybe one fuels the other, it's not all bad. Maybe I wouldn't do one without the other.
─ So, what do you think is interesting and exciting about commercial work, which has the connection with your personal work?
I feel very lucky that I was asked to work for American Vogue, and that people see the work, that I've been given that stage to share my work. Hopefully it stays close to what I want to portray. You know, we talked about positive images, or maybe not positive, but definitely not negative images.I try not to show stereotypes, and over sexualized images. And hopefully the women look of interest and have a character not seen as just an object, but the bottom line is it's for selling shit. Culturally, fashion photography can be interesting. You know, I mean, looking at, oh, Irwin Blumenfeld or Irving Penn, great photographers, and both produced interesting images of their times, amongst other people, of course, those are just two that come to mind but I don't know if I'd call them just fashion photographers. They did other work. Of interest, but no doubt they also needed to make a living as well. Or they...hold on what's the original question?
─ The original question was if you find any excitement in fashion photography.
I think there are connections between the commercial and uncommercial work that I do, composition and lighting, lighting, especially is something I feel is a big part of the work and often leads how they're, if they're successful, or not. I don't do that type of work if it's not for a commercial magazine, I don’t dress Ruth up as a snail, or as a petrol pump ! So it can be good fun as well. Yeah. As long as it's not rude or disrespectful to the subject.
Above: spread from "Dark Rooms" (MACK, 2016) / Below: spread from "The Well" (Loose Joints, 2022)
Often with the fashion shoots I don't know what I'm saying. I quite like that though. I'll come up with a drawing. I'll suddenly stop somewhere on my bike and draw a picture of a woman holding 20 packets of crisps. And it's got to be the right crisps. If I think too hard about my ideas, it kind of kills them. I prefer to just draw it and go. Oh, I'd like to see an image of this because I haven't seen it before.
I like it that it just flows. And I don't want to stop it. What comes out of my head, why think and analyse it? You know, I might try it. Do something that comes out of my head and try it in the commercial fashion work. It just comes out. And then I'll go, oh, that's working or that's not working. But the other work I do? I don't set up these pictures.
This is me doing my accounting [Showing cover of ‘Dark Rooms'] And then I went, Hey, there's something here, the history of my life written here, a little history that you can just throw away, a record, my receipts and where you go, what you eat, who you're with, what you buy, how you define yourself. And I like something about that. I’m getting all pretentious again…
(Interviewed on 20 April, 2022 by Yukihito Kono)
Nigel Shafran: Books 1995 - 2022
28 May 2022 - 12 June 2022
Closed on Wednesday and Thursday of first week, and Monday and Tuesday of second week.
Opening hours：Mon -Tue_12:00-17:30／Sat - Sun_12:00-19:00
Images ©︎IACK 2022, reproduction without permission is prohibited