Putting Yourself in the Picture: Project # 3 – Self-Absented Portraiture

after shafran – chirgwin, 2017

“Go to the artist’s website and look at the other images in Shafran’s series. You may have noticed that Washing-up is the only piece of work in Part Three created by a man. It is also the only one with no human figures in it, although family members are referred to in the captions.

Coursebook (p.87)

1: Did it surprise you that this was taken by a man? Why?

While I cannot think of any male photographer’s whose work includes large chunks of the sort of scrutiny of their (naked) self that you find in Woodman’s work, or who would document the way going through IVF-treatment with their partner (or even just ” trying for a baby”) effects them in the way Brotherus does, there are plenty of women who take pictures of mundane details from their lives. Indeed, there is a strand of this running through Brotherus’ Annonciation.

So, I wasn’t at all surprised that Shafran’s washing up pictures were taken by a man, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had been taken by a woman either. You could ascribe gender stereotypes to it either way: “the kitchen is a feminine space and not a masculine one”;  “all men are to a degree autistic and inclined to repetitive (obsessive) behaviour”; “in a relationship women do the cooking, and men wash up after meals”; “the male ego needs recognition for performing even mundane tasks”; “women use diaries to record the everyday minutiae that otherwise would go unnoticed.” But none of these really seem to address what is going on here.

There are many more, equally mundane recordings of subjects repeated over time – his journey to work; his partner on the phone etc etc –  on Shafran’s website; they combine to give a composite portrait of him  as someone who wards off the boredom of “dead-time” by taking photographs or someone who sees aesthetic possibility in a record of the bits that other people tend to miss out in the documentation of their life and times. Some of these series – and washing up, with its record of meals eaten together – also serve to document his relationship with his wife, Ruth.

I don’t think any of this work is particularly gendered, but then, as a white, heterosexual, middle class London-dwelling man myself, maybe I’m simply missing the things that would scream “masculine!” lost in the noise generated by my own “normality”…


2: In your opinion does gender contribute to the creation of an image?

While there’s lots of overlap, women and men have access to different spaces, and therefore to different subjects. More specifically with regard to self-portraits, there is also the difference in the way men and women have been portrayed in art, characterised neatly by John Berger in Ways of Seeing (1971) as men doing things and women being watched. Men are allowed to just be, but women are constantly put in the position of constructing themselves to be looked at. The women looked at (pun intended, I think) in this part of the course are actively working with and against this need for self-conscious display; it is harder to come up with mirror examples of men seeking to turn themselves into the passive object of someone else’s gaze.

And then there is also the effect that the gender of a spectator has on the way they perceive pictures  and the people portrayed in them.

Hans Eijkelboom’s 1973 series With My Family  has many similarities to Trish Morrissey’s Front (discussed here) but the effect of the pictures is very different indeed. In the same way that I stumbled across Front as part of a themed exhibition on self-portraiture at Margate, I saw the Eijkelboom pictures in the self portrait section of Performing for the Camera at Tate Modern and straight away realised that their effect was totally different from that of the ostensibly similar Front.

Both sets of pictures show a family group with the photographer replacing one of the parents. There are differences which vary in their significance: Eijkelboom’s pictures resemble black and white family snaps, while Morrisey’s are considered, colour and taken with a large format camera; Morrissey’s pictures are taken outside, in a public space (the beach) while Eijkelboom’s invades the family’s private space, inside in their flats; Morrissey has involved the person she replaces while Eijkelboom has waited for the father to go to work and then made his picture, like a comedy randy milkman; Morrissey is a woman and Eijkelboom is a man. Of course I (the spectator, looking at the picture) am a man too…

In the previous post I have made clear that I would be delighted to be approached on a beach by Morrissey and have also wondered whether my partner (who would be replaced in the resulting picture)  would be less keen on the whole project. I don’t think my immediate reaction to stumbling across a picture of my partner and our daughter, sat on the couch in the livingroom beside a smiling long-haired dutchman would necessarily be anywhere near as positive. It all seems a bit “twilight zone:” someone going out for a bit and then coming back to find everything the same, except someone is in his place.

That said, i think (hope) I’d be intrigued rather than angry if I came home one day and Fiona over tea (usually cooked by me, incidentally) or whatever went, “You’ll never believe what happened after you went out this morning…” Of course, Fiona goes to work too and Alice goes to nursery, but still…

There are many things that influence the creation of an image. Along side gender, you could consider race, class, religion, nationality or any of the other discourses that are used by us – and by society – to define who we are and the position we take in relation to others.


3: What does this series achieve by not including people?

The spectator is able to infer things about the lives of the people who live in this house, the people who eat these meals and wash up in this kitchen. You are not distracted by what they actually look like and the preconceptions that that would throw up. Even if  you are not as “like” the photographer as I am to Shafran you are able to identify with things that resemble your own life as you live it.

From the photographer’s point of view, you are able to build up a series of repeated things from your autobiography, in the sambuild up e way that – when keeping a diary – you can note the same things day after day – the weather, what you ate, who you spoke to, where you went – creating a picture of yourself looking out.

4: Do you regard them as interesting ‘still life’ compositions?

I’m not quite sure whether they actually are “still lifes” in that the objects in them have never been alive in the first place, but I certainly find them (and the idea behind this series and the other others on Shafran’s site) hugely interesting.

Like any good series, there is similarity and also difference. There are at least four different kitchens among the thirteen pictures shown on the website. One (where the sink is to the left of the window) is presumably the “home” kitchen. It is also the one I can identify with most easily (see the picture at the top of this post). The other three  – you discover if you read the interview with Paul Ellman that is also on the site – may include Shafran’s in-laws’ house and a holiday cottage in Wales.

In the main kitchen you can see how the dishes and utensils move and change; time passes; entropy – the gradual, inevitable collapse of everything towards death and chaos – is fought; you wonder what the significance of the letters N and R behind the taps – in which language do they translate into H(ot) and C(old)? or is it something else entirely? – and whether the sculptural form taken by the items on the drying rack and the final location of the green basin depends on who washed up that evening. There’s that nice mauve plastic basin and the blue figure with outstretched arms who stands on the 3-way plug adaptor.  Outside the window the seasons change.

And then there is the increasing interest to be found in how things looked in the past; these meals were eaten and the dishes washed nearly twenty years ago now. The limited number of things that we recycled at the turn of century – wine bottles; a Hellman’s jar; two tins of red stripe – are carefully washed and left to dry before disposal. We age (I’m only two months younger than Shafran) as the pictures age; Shafran’s son (seen in Flowers For               (2004-8) must be a teenager by now (like my own son), and is presumably hideously embarrassed by pictures taken of him a decade ago or more. Does his wife Ruth still have the cobalt blue dressing gown she appears in in some of the other series? Those slippers must be gone by now. And absolutely no one has separate hot and cold taps anymore!

So maybe the pictures are still lives after all, performing the role of momenti mori for us. Things pass, the quotidian tasks are performed and everything and everyone grows older, one day and one meal at a time…

All references dealing with Shafran’s work can be found at  the artist’s website: http://nigelshafran.com/ (last accessed 21/4/17)

Biographical detail was taken from wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nigel_Shafran (last accessed 21/4/17)

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